The Packers Tailgate Tour departed Tuesday morning from Lambeau Field under clear blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures, a reflection of the collective mood of the participants in the organization's 17th such outing to connect with Packers fans and thank them for their support of the franchise through the years.
"I'm looking forward to visiting with the kids and putting smiles on their faces," said offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins about the venture, which also includes teammate Aaron Jones, Packers alumni Evan Smith, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Eddie Lacy and Davon House, and team President/CEO Mark Murphy. "I'm also looking forward to seeing more parts of the state. I've never been to northern Wisconsin."
In addition to spreading Packers cheer, the Tour helps raise awareness and funds for nonprofits, a figure that has exceeded $3.5 million, collectively, in the 16 previous editions.
The Tour made its first stop at Bridge the Gap in Shawano. The organization's mission is to provide a safe, non-judgmental environment for those with autism and all special abilities to reach their full potential as they journey from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. It provides individualized client programs and therapeutic interventions, strengthens family ties through education and raises public awareness of autism and other special abilities.
The center's director, Lesley LaLuzerne, was emotional as she watched the Packers mingle and interact with the clients, which included adults and children with disabilities. The Tour members also passed out Packers-themed giveaways. The center also received a special piece of art created by the Ladies of Lambeau, an inclusive group of women involved with the Packers organization that work to support a different group of charities each year. The mural, composed of painted canvas tiles, featured an image of cheering fans with the phrase "together we are Lambeautiful."
House, a father of 7-year-old twins who have autism, appreciated the opportunity to meet the clients and the staff.
"It was amazing to see the hope and the vision of what they do there, that type of service," said House. "To know what my kids can be. I can see them socializing with everyone else and participating like them. It was a big thing for me. I spoke to my wife about it and she was so excited. Usually it only runs through, like 18, and then what do the kids do after they're 18, but that facility they go all the way into adulthood."
Former and current Green Bay Packers players Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Eddie Lacy, Davon House, Evan Smith, Aaron Jones, Elgton Jenkins and President/CEO Mark Murphy departed Tuesday on a five-day "Packers Tailgate Tour." The tour bus began the morning with visits at Bridge the Gap in Shawano and Wittenberg High School.
As the Tour made its way to the first night's stay in Eau Claire, the motor coach made a stop at Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, where the Packers surprised nearly 350 students and staff who thought they were taking part in a fire drill.
Inside the school's gym, which felt familiar to the Packers with the green and gold colors, the players and Murphy spoke of the importance of positivity and treating others with respect.
"Be positive as much as you can be," said Jones. "Even when you have negative situation you can take a positive away from it."
Smith reminded attendees about the basics of respect, saying, "Treat people with respect so you can earn respect."
On a lighter note, Jones was asked if he should be a top-five pick in fantasy football this year. As if it needed to be asked.
"If you draft me, you'll win it all," he assured.
The afternoon featured two more stops at high schools, first in front of 1,400 students at Wausau West where the focus was resiliency. The second was in front of a smaller group of about 150 student-athletes and parents at Eau Claire Memorial High School, where the group spoke of having a positive culture and being aware that there are consequences for their actions.
Jones additionally spent some time explaining how the phrase "being a dog" is a positive notion, as some may think that's a negative term.
"I'm going to be a dog and I'll outwork everybody," he said. "It's a mentality you wake up with in the morning every day. The beast: you've got to bring it out of you. When you step on the field you have to not worry about anybody and be the best you."
The day wrapped up with a fundraising reception for Bolton Refuge, an agency that provides services for those affected by domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. They are the only emergency shelter agency in Eau Claire that has support staff available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The team there works to create a safe space through programs and services for all persons impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault, and advocates for social change.
They are facing some current challenges as state funding has been cut, so the timing of the Tour coming through Eau Claire worked out nicely to participate in the event. The Packers made a $20,000 donation, with a supplementing donation of $4,000 made by Associated Bank. A live auction brought the total amount of support to approximately $50,000.
"This was just an incredible blessing for our agency as we are struggling to continue to operate," executive director Pat Stein said. "It was a gift beyond gifts and such so we always like to bring people to the table just to learn about our program, but the Packers brought people to the table. We've never had such a turnout. This is a gift that is just going to continue to grow for us."
Supporters coming to the event were treated to a question-and-answer session that featured a wide variety of topics, including a member of the audience asking the members what advice they'd give their younger self.
Each person provided some thoughtful answers:
Clinton-Dix: Find passion and stay true to yourself.
Smith: Learn always; knowledge is power.
House: It's never good enough, so don't be satisfied; have fun, because if you're not having fun, it's not worth doing it.
Lacy: Don't put all your eggs in one basket; cherish every moment.
Jones: Believe in yourself; don't let somebody put limitations on you.
Jenkins: Have confidence in yourself and put work behind that confidence.
Murphy: Build bridges, don't burn them.
Overall, the Tour members enjoyed the first day and are excited to see what lies ahead.
"We're just getting started," said Clinton-Dix to some young fans.
The Green Bay Packers teamed up with Associated Bank to present a $24,000 donation to the Bolton Refuge House in Eau Claire to conclude the first day of the Tailgate Tour.