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Packers Tailgate Tour blog: Planes, grains and athlete ideals  

A stop at the Special Olympic Games capped off a successful Tailgate Tour 

Tailgate Tour
Tailgate Tour

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The fifth day of the Tailgate Tour dawned with excitement for the day's activities, with a variety of interesting stops on the schedule.

The first location was down the road from Sun Prairie in Madison, where the bus pulled up outside the 115th Air Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. Mike Daniels wasted no time, immediately hopping into the Air Force fire truck parked outside the airplane hangar.

"Amazing," he remarked, climbing back out. "Felt like something out of a movie."

The players were welcomed by the active duty service members serving at the base, along with their families, who had the opportunity to join their loved ones at Truax Field to visit with the Packers.

"It's a unique opportunity for our service members to get to talk to the players and understand what they do and their journey in the NFL," said Colonel Bart Van Roo, who serves as Base Commander at Truax Field. "We are similar organizations in that we're really family focused, a great culture, a great tradition. And then we get to share a little bit in NFL gamedays doing flybys, so it's awesome for our service members to see what that means for the players as well."

The players got to see the brand new F-35A Lightning II aircraft parked in the hangar and received a tour of some of the other equipment available on the base. They also handed out some Packers items to the kids and families gathered, took pictures and thanked the military members for their service.

The morning's next stop was right off of Hwy 151 on the way back north, at Village Hearth bread bakery. Donning hairnets and (in Rasheed Walker's case) beardnets, the group received a tour of the factory floor, watching countless loaves of bread work their way through the machinery.

From seeing dough kneaded, formed into balls and shaped into loaves, the players watched in awe as they got baked, sorted, sliced and packaged into a variety of different brand names.

The Tour group met with dozens of employees who were working in the facility on Saturday morning, preparing bread and buns that will be distributed throughout the Midwest, with some products making it across the country.

The Packers Tailgate Tour kicked off the final day of the trip with a visit to the 115th Fighter Wing to meet with military personnel. The tour visited with employees at the Village Hearth and surprised athletes at the Special Olympics Games with a $250,000 impact grant before heading back to Green Bay.

A quick stop for lunch at Cousin's Subs refueled the group before they boarded the bus to make their way to the final stop of the Tour. After running into Ann from Friday night's fundraiser for Sunshine Place, in the parking lot, the group was also greeted by a Packers Season Ticket Holder who was picking up his lunch. He expressed to the guys how excited he was for the coming season, saying he had goosebumps upon meeting them.

As the bus made its way north, the group commented on how it felt bittersweet to be nearing the end. But the Tour had one more extra special stop to make in Oshkosh at the Special Olympics Wisconsin State Spring Games.

The players and Murphy received perhaps the warmest welcome of the entire trip, with Special Olympics athletes of all ages greeting them when they entered the Kolf Center on the UW-Oshkosh campus. Several basketball games and swimming competitions were underway, with 850 athletes competing over the course of the entire weekend.

The Tour crew started by cheering on the athletes on the court and passing out Packers items to the spectators. When there was a break in the action, Walker and Elgton Jenkins enjoyed the opportunity to shoot hoops with the Barron County Special Olympics team, while Alex Green and Kenny Clark shook hands and took pictures with nearly everyone in attendance.

Eventually, the players made their way across a portion of the UW-Oshkosh campus to Albee Pool to take in the individual medley competition, high-fiving the crowd and hyping up the supporters.

Chad Hershner, the President and CEO of Special Olympics Wisconsin, was proud to share the well-attended event with the Packers.

"We have athletes from Barron to Milwaukee to Door County, from all over the state. We do more than 220 sporting events a year and we do fall, winter, spring and summer games," said Hershner. "You could just feel the energy in the room go through the roof (when the Packers arrived). Our athletes are so proud of our team partnership we have with the Packers, the Bucks, the Brewers and the Admirals, so they are all in."

To put one final flourish on the Tailgate Tour, the visit to Special Olympics ended with a surprise check presentation — a $250,000 impact grant awarded to Hershner and his staff on behalf of Special Olympics Wisconsin. Though they had applied for the grant, they weren't expecting to hear back from the team for another month, so upon receiving the check, the group was moved to tears. It was the perfect way to wrap up an incredible trip, full of giving back and connecting with countless fans.

Over the course of five days, the Packers Tailgate Tour traversed more than 600 miles, reaching the southeast and southwest corners of the state before heading back home. Aside from helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for nonprofit organizations at the fundraisers, the Packers were also proud to present checks throughout the trip, with $96,000 going toward the nonprofit groups' causes. Adding in $15,000 donated to schools along the way and the impact grant awarded to Special Olympics Wisconsin, the Tailgate Tour gave a total of $361,000 to the communities it visited.

On the drive back to Green Bay, Murphy and the players shared final reflections on the unforgettable experience of the 18th Packers Tailgate Tour:

Mark Murphy (on what was unique about this year's Tour): "They're all special in their own way. I think for this one, the alumni were young enough where there were natural connections between the current and former players. It's fun to see them interact. A lot have played together. That's always the most fun for me, to be able to spend time with both the alumni and the current players. And the high school stops are always fun. Usually it's a surprise so when you run into the schools it's a lot of fun.

"I think I'll always remember when we gave the impact grant to Special Olympics. Seeing the tears in the eyes of Chad and everybody from the Special Olympics office there was really touching…I think it highlights the uniqueness of the Packers organization, as a community owned team."

Elgton Jenkins: (on what will stick with him the most from the Tour): "The smiles on the kids' faces. Going into OTAs right now, going to have hard times, going to have good times, but remembering that we put the smiles on the kids' faces is going to give me a boost to keep going.

"Seeing the older guys, some of the former Packers and being with the current Packers has been great to build camaraderie, just talking and playing on the bus was cool."

Rasheed Walker: "My favorite stop on the Tailgate Tour was pickleball, maybe. I've always heard of pickleball but I've never seen it or played it. I just heard it was kind of getting popular. But that was fun, we got to commentate and interact with the fans at that event. The whole trip, we've been helping raise a bunch of money for a bunch of great causes. We met with special forces, we met with special Olympics, there weren't any dull moments on the whole trip…(I enjoyed) just interacting with the kids and speaking at the assemblies. It was just kind of crazy to me because I remember when I was in high school, I remember sitting in the bleachers, so being the one speaking to the kids and trying to make an impact means a lot to me."

Bryan Bulaga (on his favorite parts of the Tour): "The last stop in Oshkosh at the Special Olympics, I think. Being able to see them compete and perform in their element and us just being able to be there and support them, speak and sign photos and just embrace them in their environment — competing in sports — was awesome. And I'd never been to a Special Olympics event, so it was my first time going and being able to see all the athletes compete and have fun and enjoy themselves was awesome.

"This is a younger group of guys that are on the Tailgate Tour and obviously I've had the pleasure of playing with all of them and I think just catching up with everybody and seeing what guys are up to lately and seeing how everyone's doing. Obviously all the guys that are still playing are getting ready for a new season and seeing the excitement they have going into a fresh start. I think that's been most enjoyable."

Kenny Clark (on if he's going to bring the experience from the Tour with him into preparing for next season): "Yeah, especially because you just feel the energy all around Wisconsin. Just driving around the whole state, you can tell just the whole fan base is so excited about what's going to happen. We love to feel that as players because we're excited about the season, but to see the fans are just as excited is cool to see and hear."

Alex Green (on the best parts of the Tour): "The best part for me was going to Kwik Trip and giving out $25 gift cards. A lady's car broke down and she was experiencing a rough time at that very moment we were trying to give her a gift and so to make her day in real time was pretty dope.

(on how the Packers fans make the Tour possible): For me, it's the one on one conversations we have afterwards or on the side, when the fans let us know how much we impact them, how much they care, how much they support us, how much it means to them that we show up, that we come to their space. For me, not being out here at all during my years and having a shorter career with Green Bay, to have the fans come out and they still show support and love and we share deep conversations and they open up, it's super impactful for me and them."

Mike Daniels (on what will stick with him the most): "Going to the high schools, speaking to the kids because you have such an impact on them because they're so young. They really look up to and admire you. I had a really good time speaking to them and sharing my knowledge and wisdom in the areas of life they wanted us to speak on.

"I've been blessed to have experienced a lot of awesome things, learned a lot of awesome things and grow a lot as a man. I just want to share that with the next generation because it's all about helping uplift the communities, and ultimately this entire country and eventually the world."

(on what he enjoyed from spending time with everyone on the bus): "Sitting back and talking, catching up…it speaks to the ability of the Packers organization to bring the right type of guys in. Although I didn't play with all these guys, they're still great guys and it's like we're all like teammates on the bus. They wanted to know about some of the history, like some of the things that were going on before they got here and I'm definitely intrigued about what's happening now, so we're part of that brotherhood and we're enjoying it."

Friday, April 12, 2024

Day 4 of the Tailgate Tour kicked off under a beautiful sunny sky, with a brisk wind. A short drive from downtown Platteville, the group enjoyed the first outdoor stop of the tour, visiting Platteville High School and the Hillmen's impressive new athletic facility. The students in the bleachers were listening to what they thought was a generic assembly before it turned into a fun surprise when the players walked through the tunnel and the video board adjacent to the field displayed the Tailgate Tour logo.

The students greeted the group with cheers and shortly after introducing the players, Mark Murphy gestured toward a particularly excited student in the bleachers, calling him the "most enthusiastic fan" the tour has encountered so far. The student, who everyone called Mo, ambled down to the sideline and rather than ask a question, he got on the mic and shared how pleased he was to see the Packers at his school.

"I'm glad to have this opportunity — it's not every day an NFL team shows up to give us motivation." He added that he hopes to see lots of scoring in the third quarter at Lambeau Field next season so he can take advantage of the popular Culver's "Curds in the Third" promotion, where fans receive free cheese curds whenever the team scores in the third quarter.

After some motivational comments from the players and reminders about pursuing excellence in everything they do, Murphy presented a check for $1,500 to the school's athletic department.

The next stop was another school, this one in Dodgeville. The high school's gymnasium hosted more than 1,000 students from kindergarten through senior year, who were all eager to ask their questions to the players. The players touched on mental and physical wellness. Mike Daniels, full of wisdom for the students thus far on the tour, offered another inspirational message. "There's always going to be something that's going to upset you. You cannot change that. What you can change is how you react. How you perceive it," he said. "If you can focus on the positives, the things that make you smile, then you'll feel better physically, you'll have more energy and you'll be able to look forward to things more."

This particular group of students wanted to see if they could beat any of the players in one-on-one competition. One student named Brody challenged Kenny Clark in a head-to-head matchup, but Brody may have underestimated the difficulty of going up against a three-time Pro Bowler. Rasheed Walker was later challenged by another young student to a race across the gym, his long legs proving to be the difference maker against the sixth grader. When a group of high school boys asked who among the tour participants could bench press the most, the players all pointed at Daniels, who proudly stated he could bench over 500 pounds. There were no more challenges to athletic feats after that.

The Packers Tailgate Tour presented a $1,500 check to Platteville High School and a $1,000 check to Dodgeville High School on Thursday, April 12, 2024. The tour also made a special visit to meet with Land's End employees.

After a brief stop for lunch at Tailgate Tour favorite, Bob's Barbecue in Dodgeville, where Clark reunited with the same manager he met during his first Tailgate Tour appearance in 2018, the group landed at Lands' End. This popular brand was founded in 1963, originally for yachting and sailing equipment and is now known for their nautical inspired apparel and décor. The Tour group was gifted with rugby shirts to wear during the visit and met with Lands' End employees before joining a couple hundred more employees in the company gymnasium for the culmination of a pickleball league. The players sat at a table on the near end of the gym to provide color commentary for the championship match.

Before heading back out on the bus, the players helped employees celebrate a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a clubhouse they had built with the help of Habitat for Humanity. The clubhouse was built for 12-year-old Nathan Holladay, who unfortunately lost his mother last year. With hopes that the clubhouse will provide a place where Nathan can be a kid, employees also presented the family with a $4,500 check, representing donations from the company's silent auction, raffles and pickleball league. The players then provided a gift of their own, two autographed Kenny Clark jerseys for Nathan and his father, Kevin.

After taking photos and exchanging hugs, the group boarded the bus once more to head to Sun Prairie for the evening's festivities. The first destination in Sun Prairie was Buck & Honey's for the VIP reception, with sponsors and supporters of the night's fundraiser mingling and enjoying appetizers. The group was also reunited with Mark Tauscher, Packers Hall of Fame offensive tackle, who was set to be a master of ceremonies at the fundraiser for Sunshine Place.

The bus received an escort to Angell Park from first responders including local paramedics, police and fire departments and entered the event space to a warm welcome from fans of all ages. The fundraiser, featuring a silent and live auction, live music from the band Copper Box, photo opportunities and food and beverages, was held to benefit Sunshine Place, the primary resource hub in eastern Dane County for families and individuals in need. Sunshine Place helps people access resources that help with food insecurity, housing instability, and other barriers to household and family stability. The nonprofit provides visits to the food pantry, free legal assistance, free beds for kids, free hot meals, use of housing navigation services, free clothing and gifts for kids, and so much more.

The players entertained those gathered with a Q&A, and the kids stole the spotlight with the help of Tauscher, who selected question askers from the crowd. One boy, Zachary, was celebrating his ninth birthday and received a birthday song serenade led by Elgton Jenkins.

Another boy said he wanted to become a left tackle and asked Rasheed Walker if he had any tips for him. Tauscher chimed in to ask the boy how old he was, and event attendees were impressed to learn that he was only 12 and already close to Tauscher's height.

"Keep grinding, keep working out every day and be intentional with your work," said Walker. "Do some wall sits since you'll be in your stance a lot. Keep on putting in the work and by the time you're 15 years old, you're going to be a brick wall."

The Q&A portion wrapped up with a surprise appearance from Bryan Bulaga's parents, who came from an hour and a half away in Crystal Lake, Ill, to say hello and give him a hug. The Tailgate Tour is a family event, after all!

After Murphy presented Sunshine Place with a check for $24,000, Executive Director Ann Maastricht expressed her gratitude, saying the donation helped to officially set a record for their fundraising efforts. In total, the event raised more than $106,000.

"The need has never been greater," she said. "This will go a long way toward making a difference in people's lives and will have a huge impact on the families we serve."

The Packers Tailgate Tour made special visits to Buck & Honey's and Angell Park to meet with community members of Sun Prairie on Friday.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

High school visits were the bulk of the early stops on Day 3 for the Tailgate Tour, and 1,500 Purple Knights at Beloit Memorial were the first audience for Mark Murphy and the players.

Alex Green implored the students to dream big and set goals. He spoke of some of the challenges he faced, including living situations, the death of his best friend in college and injuries in the pros, and his approach to overcome them.

"Have big dreams and set obtainable, reachable goals," he said. "Let's not focus on instant gratification, either. Delayed gratification is better. Put the work in first and then get success later. Slowing down the gratification process and emphasizing the work and living in the moment helps us get there."

Murphy also presented a $5,000 check to the school.

Across town, at Beloit Turner High School, players shared similar sentiments and answered questions for nearly 500 students assembled in the gymnasium. And, with an added twist, the group showed off some of their basketball skills (or lack thereof) by inviting a group of students to play of game of H-O-R-S-E.

Rasheed Walker, perhaps in an effort to get his teammates fired up, attempted a dunk which caromed off the rim.

"Intrusive thoughts got the best of me," he said. "I hadn't dunked in a couple years. I was pretty close to making it, but put too much power in it. Really been in the weight room lately. I didn't warm up enough so I can't beat myself up too much."

An opportunistic student, perhaps inspired by Walker's attempt, successfully threw down a solid two-handed dunk. What made it even more impressive was his footwear: Uggs.

Once in Platteville, the Tailgate Tour motorcoach made a stop at Kwik Trip to hand out gift cards and Packers paraphernalia.

Dave Nuland, a La Crosse resident who was in town to visit family, thoroughly enjoyed the surprise and appreciated the size of the players. This year's Tour membership does skew large, given that the majority are offensive or defensive linemen.

"Well, I thought I was a pretty good size at 6-2, 240, and I felt like a little pipsqueak compared with these guys," Nuland said.

The Packers Tailgate Tour presented a $5,000 check for Play 60 at Beloit Memorial High School and a $1,500 check to Turner High School on Thursday, April 11, 2024. The Tour also made a special stop at Kwik Trip to distribute gift cards.