Green and orange backing the Green and Gold
It’s no surprise when people in Wisconsin become fans of the Green Bay Packers, they’re literally inundated with positive reinforcement and information overload from the time they are little children.
It’s a little more surprising when they grow up in another state, but another country across the pond? That pushes the limits of the imagination.
Yet, it’s exactly what happened with super-fan Kerry Richards, recently of Portadown, a small town of about 30,000 roughly forty miles from his long-time residence in Belfast, in Northern Ireland.
“I have been a Packer fan for over 30 years, “ the 44-year-old Richards said. “I started watching the NFL in the early eighties with my dad and my older brother. I am the youngest in my family and was happy to find a sport where my brother didn’t have a three-year head start on me.
So what made him choose the Packers, especially in that time period?
“Super Bowl XX is the first I remember and a lot of my school friends were Bear fans,” he noted. “Liking an underdog, I chose the Packers. I liked the yellow pants.”
Well, of course, the yellow pants on underdogs. Why not?
Just because his original reasons were a bit capricious, it doesn’t mean Kerry hasn’t turned into one the most devoted fans.
“I am a very dedicated fan,” he noted. “I have lots of Packer-themed merchandise, from game shirts to socks, to key rings and bottle openers. I have a Packer tattoo which I got after Super Bowl 31 and had renovated after Super Bowl 45 to incorporate the state of Wisconsin.
“I watch every game. Because of the time difference, I cannot always watch the games live but will watch night games the following day as live when I get home from work. On game days, I pick out a pair of Packer socks, boxers, and a game shirt, depending on whether we play home or away that day.
“I visit packers.com every day and spend the week thinking about the upcoming game. I will usually wear Packer underwear mid-week to help the team prepare for the next game. I believe that every fan makes a difference.”
Down to their very shorts, no doubt. We certainly understand.
Just like all Packer fans, Kerry has a plan for how to properly attire himself for Game Day
“(I’ll) wrap up warm at Lambeau,” said the purchase ledger clerk in the finance office of local government. “At the Dolphin loss, I got a tan sitting in the north end-zone but that was an exception. I enjoy September games because I can wear a Packer T-shirt.
“Back home, it is my green #12 shirt for home games and my white #12 shirt for away games. I wore my old Favre shirt for the Thanksgiving game this year. In the playoffs, I wear my Super Bowl XLV Nick Collins’ shirt for home games and my white (Aaron) Rodgers’ shirt for away games. I also own a Packer X-mas tree skirt which gets worn as a cape for big games. I will throw on any of my dozen or so hats during the game if its cold.
“I am not a superstitious person in normal life, but am very much so on Game Day. I must have the correct dress for home and away games. Every bottle of beer must be opened with a Packer bottle opener. Sometimes a hat goes on only to be replaced by a different hat later in the game. Alison will ‘Packer Up,’ too, usually in a (Charles) Woodson shirt, but she has a Packer T-shirt she likes to wear, too, and she will don a hat or headband if the occasion demands it.”
How about the rest of the week?
“I will wear Packer underwear one day per week and have collar inserts engraved with the words, “Go Packers!” that I wear at work every day. A Packer T-shirt, game shirt, or sweater will get worn at least once per week. I have two Packer towels that I keep in rotation so that I can dry myself with a Packer towel every day. I have a 1923 throwback sweater that I love to wear. My Packer hoodie gets a lot of wear.”
Are you a fan, I mean a real fan?
Richards has come a long way since the beginning of his fandom.
“When I first picked the Packers in the early ‘80s, I knew little about them and initially thought Green Bay to be in Michigan,” Richards explained. “There was no internet access in the average home, but as access to information became more available, I began to read about my team. There isn’t a day that goes by without me thinking, reading, and talking about the Packers.
“I read about the early days in the NFL and how the Packers were rescued from financial demise by prominent people in the town. This appealed to me. I loved that the Packers were from a small town like me and that those same townspeople owned their team. Other franchises were moving from one city to another, and knowing that the Packers were not subject to the economic whim of a billionaire owner meant that their history would always be secure.
“I read about Lambeau and Lombardi. Lombardi was an inspirational figure whose legend spread far beyond the game. In recent years, I have been able to watch footage and listen to Lombardi speak and it always gives me goosebumps to hear his voice.”
Well, that proves Richards is a true fan; it may be the defining test.
Another demarcation for true fandom, at least for the out-of-town variety, is whether a pilgrimage has been attempted. In Kerry’s case, we could forgive him if he just loved from afar, because Ireland really is afar.
But Richards is hearing none of that.
“I have been to seven games, each memorable in their own way,” he noted. “My first game was X-mas day, 2005. The Packers were suffering their worst season in almost 15 years, but having first started supporting the Packers in the early eighties and dreaming that I would one day attend a game, the result was of secondary importance to me.
“I wanted to see Brett Favre before he retired and I had always dreamed of seeing a Packer/Bear game. It was bitterly cold, but the welcome I got from Wisconsinites was warm and friendly. It was at this game that I met and became friends with Chad Kodanko, Phil Janes, Rick Schwartz and Andy Taggart.
“I was at Lambeau again for the opening game of the 2009 season when Jay Cutler threw four interceptions and Aaron Rogers recorded his first come-from-behind victory. My friend Phil and I were sitting near the corner of the end zone where Greg Jennings caught the winning score.
“I saw the Packers fall to the Dolphins in overtime in 2010, got a suntan in the north end-zone and then saw them beat a Brett Favre-led Viking team the following week. The following year, I watched the Packers thrash the Broncos. The atmosphere that day was giddy. The sun was shining and the security of the Packer margin of victory led to Mexican waves and high-fives all round. This was the first game that my soon-to-be wife attended and I was delighted that she enjoyed the game so much.
“In 2013, we both returned to Lambeau and watched with dismay as Aaron Rogers left the game injured against the Bears. When Aaron walked out of the tunnel in the second half to a standing ovation, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and that would have to rank among my most memorable moments at Lambeau. We returned the following week to see another quarterback go down injured and suffer another loss, this time to the Eagles. A loss is never fun, but the atmosphere and the hometown welcome are always amazing. I have never attended practice, but my fiance, Alison, and I plan to visit Green Bay after our wedding in August and hope to get to practice and a preseason game.”
Everything didn’t flow so smoothly on Kerry’s first trip to Green Bay, but they quickly improved due to good Packers’ people.
“I was staying in the new Holiday Inn in Kimberly for my first trip,” Richards said. “I had gotten a bus from Toronto where I was visiting friends and arrived in Kimberly on Christmas Eve, cold, hungry and utterly exhausted. Everywhere was closed, including the hotel kitchen, and the hotel couldn’t cash travelers cheques because they had deposited their cash. I was taken in and fed that night by Terri Gravitt and her son Bryce (a Viking fan who loved Adrian Peterson).
“The next morning, the bus picked me up at the hotel and drove to Lambeau. Everyone on the bus was from out-of-town and I was the only one travelling alone. We were dropped off outside Brett Favre’s Steakhouse. I paid $5 to get into the car park for a tailgate party, my first. I walked over to the first group of people I saw in Packer shirts. Rick was wearing a LeRoy Butler shirt and I struck up a conversation with him. The guys, Rick, Chad, Phil and Andy walked to the stadium with me and showed me which gate to go through to get to my seat, which I think was in the South end-zone. It was very cold. A girl behind me gave me pocket warmers which I slipped into my shoes.
“After the game, I was walking back to meet the bus when a hand from the crowd grabbed me and pulled me into a bar. It was Chad. Chad told me that if I stayed with them that they would make sure that I got back to my hotel and I gladly obliged. They did bring me to Kimberly, but only to pick up my things and check out of the hotel. I went with them to Oshkosh that night and went to a party with them on Christmas night. The next day Phil gave me a lift over to a bar named Oblio’s where I had lost my coat and letters from Infante. The bar was closed, but Phil dropped me off at the bus and called back to the bar to see if he could get my things. He then followed the bus to Milwaukee and caught me before I got a connection to Chicago returning my belongings.
“I consider myself very lucky to have met the people I did. My fiance and I were guests at Phil’s wedding in 2011. Chad told me that if I ever returned, I was to visit them and that he would sort out accommodation and tickets. He was true to his word. Chad runs a property management company in Door County and is part-owner in a bar in Sister Bay called Husby’s. Sister Bay is where we always stay and we are well-known in Husby’s where we have become good friends with the staff, especially Michael, James and Kayla.”
Is this a one-way street, or does traffic flow both ways?
“This August, Chad and his daughter Grace will be coming over to attend my wedding and we plan to travel back with them,” Kerry said. “That will be a first. Hopefully, the first of many.”
Can I get a witness?
One more defining characteristic for a true fan is in the proselytizing.
Kerry’s down with it.
“I have converted lots of fans,” he stated. “Eighty percent of my friends are now Packer fans and during games I get texts from many of my friends. The bar where I used to work started to show the NFL on Sunday nights because of me and the majority of the staff began to support the Packers. The bar successfully advertised and marketed NFL Sundays and got a good crowd for games.
“The coach of the local ice hockey team, the Belfast Giants, was a Green Bay native and he came to the bar many times to watch games. All done, I would say that I have helped about 50 people find joy with the Packers. I have two friends currently in Southeast Asia who follow the Packers and will send me pictures on social media every time they encounter another Packer fan.”
Richards is bucking the recent trend by making fans for the league and the Packers.
“The NFL is not as popular as it was in its peak in the late eighties,” he noted. “Soccer, rugby and gaelic games are the big sports. I have a friend, a young Washington fan, who plays defensive back for the Belfast Trojans, who won the league this year. I have been to see them play and although the standard isn’t high throughout the league, the Trojans are a good team and James (Gallagher) is a talented young player.
“Popularity is the same at both sides of the (Irish) border. The Super Bowl always generates interest and most people will express an allegiance to a team, but it is still a minority sport and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who can name all 32 teams except for proper fans.
“The popularity of the different sports is very much regional. English soccer is popular throughout the island, but some areas have a big rugby following because of the proximity of a local team. Gaelic games are big because they generate geographic loyalty with every county represented by a team.”
Object of my desire
Every fan focuses on certain players that mean the most to them, and Richards is no different on this front.
“My favourite Packers are Leroy Butler, Nick Collins, Sterling Sharpe, Brent Fullwood, Brett Favre, Reggie White, Aaron Rogers, Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and Eddie Lacy. I like hard defense and pounding runners, hence Clay and Eddie as two of my favourite current players,” he explained.
“Everybody loves their team’s quarterback, especially when they are widely recognised as being among the best in the history of the game as are Favre and Rogers. It’s hard not to like Jordy, he’s another small town guy and I met him once outside Lambeau in 2011 with Al Harris as they walked over from the practice field. I just love it when the opposing quarterback throws it to one of our guys and LeRoy, Charles, and Nick were among the best in the business at creating turnovers.
“I love the story about LeRoy Butler being born with deformed ankles and only discovering that he could walk when his sister accidentally tipped him from his wheelchair. The interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV is my favourite play in Packer history and one I will never forget. The sense of relief it brought was tremendous.
“Charles Woodson is not just one of the greatest DBs in the game, but one of the greatest players of all time at any position. Sterling Sharpe, as I have already mentioned, was supremely talented and just a joy to watch. Although Brent Fullwood didn’t have the career that we all hoped, he did write and cemented my love for the team. Reggie helped make the Packers great again and most fans would credit him and Favre with saving the franchise. Honourable mention to Johnny Holland and Chuck Cecil, two hard hitters.”
Wait, Bent Fullwood wrote to you?
How did that come about?
“At first we watched games on a roundup show from the previous week’s action,” Richards said. “The more I learned about the Packers, the stronger the bond became. I liked that they were community owned, I liked the history of past glory, I liked the small town. All my friends followed the Bears or the Dolphins or the 49ers and I got teased a lot, but it only made me more resolute.
“When Lindy infante took over as coach, I wrote to him at Lambeau and got a reply. I was thrilled! Lindy wrote many times and likely was a factor in Brent Fullwood responding to my letters. Fullwood sent me an autographed picture and a letter and later sent an announcement card on the birth of his first son, Brent Lannard Fullwood, Jr. I still have my letters from Lindy and they are among my most-prized possessions.
“I was so saddened by Lindy’s passing last year and know that I am not the only fan who reached out to him and got a reply, as I read comments in (response to) his obituary from other fans who told a similar story.”
Kerry took that humble start and built upon it.
“I am yet to visit the new Hall of Fame, but am a member of the Builder’s Club with my own brick and a lifetime pass and have paid it a visit on all my previous trips,” Richards said. “I could lose hours in the Hall of Fame soaking in the history and glory of the great coaches and players who defined the team in previous decades.”
The worm has turned since the early days when Richards’ team of choice was a laughingstock, not a perennial power.
“I got a lot of teasing when the Packers were not a competitive team, and I have enjoyed the sustained success that we have all enjoyed in the last 20 years,” he said. “But I won’t tease fans of other teams (except division rivals), because things can turn so quickly and you can feel like a king one day and a fool the next.
“I do enjoy teasing Viking fans especially. I once offered a Viking fan the use of my Hall of Fame lifetime pass so that he could get a look at a (championship) trophy. That was fun. He took it well.”
It’s a bit of an ordeal when Richards visits Green Bay.
“Belfast to Chicago is an eight-hour flight,” he explained. “Transfers to Green Bay usually eat up another couple of hours and my friend Chad Kodanko picks me up from the airport in GB and we drive up to Sister Bay in Door County, which takes another couple of hours. So the trip essentially eats up a whole day. Chad gives us the use of a car so that we can get about freely during our visits.”
Kerry heads to Door County on each trip, with a little help from his friends.
“I always stay in Sister Bay during my visits,” Richards noted. “Door County is so beautiful and we visit all of the towns on the peninsula, as they all have something unique to offer. Chad arranges accommodation and sorts out tickets for the games. I was very lucky to make such great friends on that first trip and look forward to seeing Phil, Andy, Rick and Chad every time I plan another visit.
“The peninsula is especially beautiful at fall when the leaves change colour and the air turns colder, but I like the warmer weather and am looking forward to this year when we visit in August.
“I am so keen to go to a preseason game and to practice so that I can really walk about Lambeau on game day and talk to other fans. I find the tension of a must-win game isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. I want to be able to talk to more people and hear about how they became fans. I would like to see the players ride kids’ bikes to training and some day maybe bring my own children to family night.”
“I sometimes stay awake for the first round pick but will catch up with draft news the next day,” Richards said. “I read mock drafts and after the draft will read all I can about the new Packers. I don’t follow free agency because (General manager) Ted (Thompson) doesn’t work that way and I agree with him. After the Packers drafted Andrew Quarless, I befriended him on Facebook, and am a friend of Brent Fullwood on the social media site. Alison jokes that she loses me for a few days around the draft as I spend all my time reading up on the new players.”
The world stands still
Technology has played a profound role in Richards’ ability to properly follow the games.
“I always listened to radio broadcasts alone as the reception was intermittent and I would wear (head)phones to try to hear better. It was shortwave radio, the Armed Forces Network. The ‘After Further Review’ game was special, because the reception kept falling in and out which added to the tension, and the Packers had not been a competitive team since I had become a fan. Majkowski and Sterling Sharpe would have been two of my favourite players at the time. Sharpe was a special player whose career was so disappointingly cut short. He would, I am sure, have had a Hall of Fame career and maybe a ring or two to show for it. The Bears were still a good team at the time and it was a big game for us.
“After the game I ran a little victory lap of the room and then quietly packed up and went to bed as I had school early the next day. That’s how it was for me then. I couldn’t stay up late to watch a game and the Packers were rarely the featured game on UK television anyway.
“Now I watch games live through NFL Game Pass, which I Chrome-cast on to the TV. The world stops for Packer games and all other commitments fall behind the game. All plans revolve around my watching the game on Sunday and I will refuse to go anywhere that I don’t have access to wifi. Sometimes friends call over for games or we will go to a bar that shows NFL to watch the game, but I prefer the comfort of my own house for matches.
“I am able to watch every game now, even preseason, but I usually don’t stay up for night games unless I have booked a day off from work. A night game ends at 4:30 a.m., which makes for a short sleep if I am to work the next day, so usually I will watch those games as live when I get home from work the next day. I always watch playoff games live, because I would be afraid that if I’m not watching that my support has no impact on the outcome. As ridiculous as it sounds, every fan believes that their support can make a difference, don’t they?”