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It's Eddie Haskell's Best Team

January 20, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

SAN DIEGO — Here we go again. The Green Bay Packers are in another Super Bowl, and all the talk is beer, bratwurst, and Beaver Cleaver.

How sweet, the tiny team from the tiny town taking on the world.

How quaint, football's Little House on the Tundra flying west to fight the bad guys in mink coats.

How funny.

When the Packers got off their plane at Lindbergh Field on Sunday to begin Super Bowl week, fans screamed and waved at them from behind a chain-link fence about 100 yards away.

Yet only one player acknowledged them by waving back.

This behavior is no different from what we have come to expect of other self-serving professional sports teams.

But it is also certainly no better, and only one small example of how everybody's favorite team is not exactly what it seems.

As with every other game Green Bay has played since America discovered Ray Nitschke still has his phone number listed there, the Packers line up for this Super Bowl with a defined role.

They are good. Their opponent--this time the Denver Broncos--is evil.

They are Main Street. Their opponent is Madison Avenue.

They are throwbacks. Their opponents are wimps.

This would all be true, if life were an NFL film or existed entirely in Fuzzy Thurston's bar.

But the reality, as the Packers have shown while gorging themselves on each new bit of success, is this:

There are no differences between them and every other NFL team.

Well, OK, maybe a couple.

The Packers are smarter. They are a little more cutthroat.

And the Packers play in a city so small, with fans so loyal and forgiving, few ever notice.

"They are different from other teams in that they don't have an egotistical owner," said Brian Noble, former Packer who works in Green Bay as a sportscaster. "But this is still football of the '90s . . . with the old saying, 'What have you done for me lately.' "

Just ask Ken Ruettgers and Chris Jacke, two longtime Packers who were no longer with the team last spring.

Ruettgers, who mentored other offensive linemen before retiring with injuries at midseason, was told he would not be receiving a Super Bowl ring.

Jacke, who kicked two field goals in the Super Bowl before being cut loose for a younger kicker, was told he would get a ring, but could not accompany the team to Washington to meet President Clinton or take part in a later ring ceremony at Lambeau Field.

Only after the fans howled did the Packers relent. They gave Ruettgers his ring and invited Jacke to the Lambeau ceremony with two other players who had been snubbed because they were no longer with the team.

One of those was Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard.

"There was definitely a cloud there for a while," Noble said. "It was a PR nightmare for them. But give them credit for finally realizing what they were doing."

The Packers are run by a wonderfully unassuming man named Bob Harlan, and are owned by roofers and insurance salesmen and, yes, Marie Lombardi believes her late husband's ghost still haunts the team's Hall of Fame.

But football's Mom and Pop team?

Not while Mom is Ron Wolf, and Pop is Mike Holmgren.

The team's general manager and coach possess two traits shared by everyone else in this game.

They want to win, and they want to know if you are with them or against them.

The most important thing to understand about Wolf is, he spent more than 20 years working with Al Davis.

Holmgren is the teddy-bear looking fellow who was seen angrily tossing special teams grunt Bill Schroeder around the sideline during a Monday night game.

What if that coach had been Ray Rhodes or Dennis Green? Just wondering.

One of Wolf and Holmgren's first acts together was to force the end of the club's relationship with Milwaukee, where the Packers used to play three games every season, in keeping with the club's being a state team.

The Packers have a better home record since playing their home games strictly at home, and the players and Green Bay fans are happier. Even the Milwaukee fans aren't all that upset, since their season tickets were transferred to Green Bay for those "Milwaukee" games. The only loser was, well, tradition.

Not that there is anything wrong with anything in this. Everybody does it. It is professional football. It works. The Packers are champions.

Just don't confuse it with a fairy tale.

"They are Mom and Pop only because people really want to believe they are Mom and Pop," said Carol Pollis, dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at University of Wisconsin Green Bay. "They are so important to this city, we feel like they are part of the family.

"But like anything else, they are pro sports. They are big business."

When Pollis' daughter recently asked her if she was going to buy her a share of the newly offered Packer stock for Christmas, Pollis replied, "Are you kidding me?"

How about that stock. Hoping to raise revenue recently, the Packers publicly offered 400,000 shares of team stock at $200 a share.

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