OCONTO, Wis.—Despite the depressing mid-April snow covering the baseball and softball diamonds just outside its walls, Oconto High School was fired up inside its auditorium on Tuesday.
The Packers' ninth annual "Tailgate Tour" made the first of many surprise stops over the next five days at the home of the Blue Devils, roughly 35 miles north of Green Bay. Three current and three former Packers, along with President/CEO Mark Murphy, spoke to a tidy, packed house of around 300 students.
"It's one of the warmest things I've ever felt, to see kids light up and go ecstatic," said cornerback Jarrett Bush, who is joined on this year's tour by two teammates, kicker Mason Crosby and linebacker Brad Jones. "They have big smiles on their faces and it makes you feel good to change their day."
Mark Murphy, Jarrett Bush, Mason Crosby, Brad Jones, Paul Coffman, Lynn Dickey and James Lofton hit the road for the annual 'Tailgate Tour', stopping at Oconto High School. Photos by Aaron Popkey/Packers.com.
Concerns about the weather and postponed school sporting events took a back seat to the players' messages about leadership and dedication, and handling success and failure.
None of the students listening were born when quarterback Lynn Dickey, receiver James Lofton and tight end Paul Coffman were lighting up NFL scoreboards in the 1980s, but the mixture of lighthearted moments with serious ones kept the students engaged no matter who was speaking on the stage.
"Leadership isn't something you do only on certain days," said Lofton, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. "Leadership is something you do on a continual basis."
Added Bush: "It's not always the easy thing. You want to eat your pizza, but you still have to eat your spinach."
One student asked the current players how the team reacted when quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last season, and Crosby explained that while the players were forced to adjust quickly, Rodgers' leadership took on a different form.
"He worked so hard for his team and for the guys in the locker room to come back," Crosby said. "You talk about leadership, that's it right there. You don't always have to say a ton. You let the people around you see you're doing the right thing on and off the field."
Crosby had a poignant message of his own to relay when asked by a faculty member how he worked through his 2012 slump to put together such a dynamite 2013 season.
He described how dealing with his struggles taught him so much, how he never let failure "defeat" him, and how he grew closer to all the teammates who were counting on him.
"I look back on those moments and I'll remember them for the rest of my life," Crosby said. "I gained relationships, I learned a lot, and that will allow me to have more success than I ever could have before. I learned how to grow."
Watching the students' facial expressions, principal Bill Slough could tell the words carried weight.
"That has a huge impact," Slough said. "Every kid in high school, every teenager, has problems and struggles. To hear a famous athlete talk about overcoming trials and persevering through trials, that is relevant.
"You could see their eyes glued on him."
Crosby's ensuing attempt at a left-footed placekick didn't quite hit the mark, however, as the small, nerf-like ball curved low and collided with an unsuspecting student's face. It was all in good fun, as that set off a barrage of footballs being tossed from the stage into the crowd, just before the entourage exited to continue Day 1 of the tour, which was to end with a tailgate party in Escanaba, Mich.
"Pretty special. All of those guys exude character and integrity," said Slough, appreciative beyond words that the tour chose to visit Oconto High on its way northward. "What a message. What a day."