A football facilitator
Steiniger meets greats catering to their needs
By Kelly O’Day
The old adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” has proven true many times and it’s certainly in play for Irma’s Buck Steiniger.
Steiniger has met and developed friendships with several Packers while helping a long-time friend provide services for traveling former players.
“Mike McNeese, who owns a business called Famous Faces, and I have been friends forever,” Steiniger stated. “It started out with him having a card shop and he brought in players for card signings at different venues. I’m fortunate to be a good friend and he asked me for help. He would have me pick up players from the airport and I would stay at the show for pretty much security work. I stay and make sure people don’t push and shove or say obnoxious things.
“I’m lucky to have a friend like Mike McNeese, because without him, none of this would have happened.”
As for McNeese, the feeling is mutual.
“We’re good friends,” he said. “Buck is real athletically-oriented and he knows what’s going on. Half the battle is liking what you’re doing, and I’m sure he would rather be doing appearances with players than anything else.
“All the players know him by name. When they need something, he gets it done.”
This isn’t a new relationship for the men.
“I’ve known Buck so far back, I can’t remember,” McNeese said. “It’s been, oh my God, 40-some years.
“I wouldn’t even be able to guess how many games we played when we played (soft)ball together. We won so many tournaments, a lot of old-timer tournaments together, back when they used to broadcast the championship game on TV down there.
“I’ll tell you how long I’ve known him – he had hair, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.”
Steiniger has met up with numerous former Packers in his duties, and is inspired with the type of character these men show.
“It’s amazing how genuinely nice these players are, especially a lot of the older, retired players,” he said.
“I’ve done a lot with Jerry Kramer (OG, 1958-68) and (the late) Fuzzy Thurston (OG 1959-67) and got to know them. I can’t say a bad word about them. They’re fun guys. Fuzzy was a character. Probably the neatest experience I had with Fuzzy is the last time he went to the Lombardi Golf Classic in Milwaukee. His health was failing and he just drove a cart and putted. I had a special pass because Fuzzy needed someone with him at all times, and we were in the back, and sitting at a table were Bart (Starr, QB 1956-71, Coach 1972, 1975-83) and Zeke (Bratkowski, QB, 1963-68, 1971) and others, all the guys you grew up admiring. I was in amazement. Just listening to their stories, it was so funny all their reminiscing. Some stories I’m sworn to secrecy on.
“Fuzzy truly loved everyone. He loved to sing that Frank Sinatra song, My Way, even when he had that throat problem [Thurston had his voice-box removed due to throat cancer and replaced with an electrolarynx].
“He always kissed the girls. One of my fondest memories I had of Fuzzy was just at the start of him having Alzheimer’s. He’d ask me questions, then 10 minutes later he’d ask me the same question. He could tell it bothered me, and asked me, ‘What’s the matter?’
“I said, ‘I feel bad about what you’re going through.’
“He said, ‘I never want anyone to feel bad for me. If something bad happens to me, 10 minutes later, I’ve forgotten it happened, so it’s no problem.
‘He and his wife, Sue, made me feel like family. ‘Come on in and have something to eat.’ They were always so nice and so genuine.
“I remember the first time I met him, he had his bar, Fuzzy’s – right after he sold Shenanigans – and I dressed real nice with a collared shirt that was blue. We were playing the (Detroit) Lions that week and he looks at me and says, ‘What are you, a Lions’ fan?!’ He made me take that shirt off and gave me a Lombardi Legends shirt.
“He shook everybody’s hand. He never once denied anybody an autograph. It was a Catch-22 situation. The venue was paying him a fee trying to make money, but if somebody didn’t have a ticket, he would tell them to come back later or to meet him outside later. Fuzzy could never turn anybody down.”
Thurston’s counterpart at the other guard position is likely the most famous guard not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“To sit down and talk with Jerry (Kramer), man, he’s so intelligent,” Steiniger said. “The way he speaks to you makes you feel like you’re his best friend. I got to know more than the player side of these guys.”
McNeese backed up Steiniger on this one.
“(Kramer’s) the best. He’s the no. 1. When anybody needs a speaker, you’ve got to get Kramer.”
Buck had more than a passing acquaintance with a mainstay of the Packers defensive line in their resurgence in the ‘90s.
“I got to coach with Gilbert Brown (NT 1993-99, 2001-03) in the women’s football league [Green Bay Chill, Lingerie Football League, a.k.a. Legends Football League],” he said. “It’s amazing how smart he is, football-wise.
“Gilbert, it’s so funny when we coached together and we had tryouts, if any girls were wearing purple, he’d give them a hard time. He’s so loyal to the Packers and Wisconsin. Man, he hates purple, because that’s (the Vikings) who drafted him. He’s adamant about it and will give you a hard time if he sees you wearing purple.
“You really see his compassion for youth in football. He runs Gilbert Brown camps for kids and they are free for the kids. If you want to hold a camp, you have to get sponsors, so there’s no cost to the kids.
“His dad was a stock car driver, and one time at the Milwaukee Mile [Gilbert was an investor and staff member], it was funny to see him climb in and out of the car, because you have to go through the window.
“He loves his football and kids and doing things the right way. He’s a big-time jokester, but when it comes to football, it’s all seriousness.”
It was more of the same with several other Green Bay players.
“William Henderson (RB 1995-2006) is just a class individual,” Buck asserted. “He’s very approachable. He’s not fake. He truly, truly is a Packer. He comes up quite a bit from Carolina because he’s got a couple of business ventures in state. He talks with admiration about all the players he played with and it’s sincere. Whenever I run into him, he asks how I’m doing and it’s not just to make conversation. I knew he was in great shape, but when I saw him, ‘Wow!’ He’s still in great shape.”
“I got to meet Ray Nitschke (LB, 1958-72) once. I was so impressed. For every person that he gave an autograph, he stood up and shook their hand, thanking them for wanting his autograph.
“I worked with Craig Newsome (Green Bay DB 1995-98) three, four times. I met a lot of different players, Antonio Freeman (WR 1995-2001, 2003), even Don Beebe (WR, 1996-97), Frank Winters (C, 1992-2002), Mark Chmura (TE, 1992-99). My buddy’s business has been going on a long time.
“Others I met, but not on an extremely personal level. A lot of them I’ve met once or twice.
“I got to spend a whole day with Robert Brooks (WR, 1992-98). I picked him up in Milwaukee at the airport, took him to a signing in Racine, a signing in Madison, back to signing in Racine and back to the airport. He’s a minister in Arizona.
“Sometimes you don’t know how to react to different players, how they are going to be. It was very enlightening listening to Robert Brooks, how he feels blessed. He’s very talkative and was pretty open to answering questions, like how it was to play for Brett Favre.
“He said, ‘Anyone who played with (Favre) loved him, and, man, could he throw a ball. He’d break your fingers if you weren’t ready for it.
“Bart (Starr), I did see twice. I told him I worked for Mike and he asked me what else I did, so I told him I taught school. He liked that, and actually signed something for me. Gilbert was awesome for this, too. He would sign 8-by-10s that I could give out to my classes. It would have nothing to do with grades, but for participation or having their homework done on time. I told that to Bart and he gave me a picture and said, ‘Here, use this one.’ He wrote on it, ‘To Mr. Steiniger’s class, Best of Luck, Bart Starr.’ I just thought that was very nice of him to do that.
“All the players say Bart is truly a gentlemen. Jerry (Kramer) said he only heard Bart swear once.”
Sometimes, Buck has had a run-in with a player from another squad, and that’s not all bad, either.
“As much of a Packers fan as I am, one time I met Paul Hornung (RB, 1957-62, 1964-66) and Gayle Sayers (Chicago Bears RB, 1965-71),” Steiniger said. “Gayle and his wife made an impression on me what great people they are. I got to ask him the question, ‘How true was the movie, Brian’s Song?’
“He said, ‘They got it to a T.’ He even started to well up just me bringing it up. I admitted to him that I liked him as a person, but hated him as a player. He said, ‘I understand, but that’s one of the biggest forms of flattery, saying you didn’t like me when I played. If I was a bad player, you wouldn’t care. I understand the loyalty you have to your team and that’s great.’
“His wife was just so friendly. She said, ‘Sign that man a jersey and give it to him.’ (Sayers) was truly a gentleman.
“Hornung, I met him quite a few times with Mike. He’s very business-like, but for being a (Pro Football) Hall of Famer and all of his accomplishments in life, he never talks down to anyone. Unless it’s maybe against some former players on the opposition.”
A common thread runs through the long-retired players such as Kramer and Hornung, and did with Thurston, too.
“Every one of them respects Lombardi and says what a great man he was,” Buck stated. “Not a single person talks him down. Not everyone agreed with everything he said, but they all respected him and all speak highly of him.
“They still all talk about Lombardi time. When I got here (for the interview), I look at the time and I’m two minutes early, but according to Lombardi time, I’m late.”
McNeese says the admiration is mutual with those players and Steiniger.
“Jerry, Paul and Fuzzy, they all know Buck by name,” he noted. “There’s got to be a little comfort zone with these guys. That’s a big part of it. They’re not going to have (facilitators) asking for free stuff. Buck is smart enough to know to not do that.”
A dream-come-true situation happened to Buck on his 60th birthday in May of last year, starting with attending a San Francisco Giants baseball game. McNeese surprised him with a little side trip after the game.
“(Mike) said he would buy my airline ticket and game ticket – I’m a Giants baseball fan – if I helped him drive a van of things back from California,” Buck explained. “Right after the game we drove to Boise, Idaho, to stay at Jerry Kramer’s house. We went golfing, went out to eat, stayed at his house a couple of days.
“That guy is a great inspirational speaker and a great person. He had to leave on Wednesday and he told us, ‘Stay as long as you like. Just lock up when you want to leave.’ We said, ‘No, we’ll leave when you do,’ but that’s the kind of guy he is.
“What I don’t understand is why he is not in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. Some people say it’s because there are too many Packers already in the hall of fame, but that’s a stupid argument.”
The one that got away was when McNeese needed help trucking some furniture to Brett Favre in partial payment for a commercial he did for the Steinhafels Furniture chain.
“One of the most disappointing things was when I first moved up (north in 2007),” Steiniger noted. “Brett’s pilot asked if Mike could get a U-Haul and drive the stuff to Hattiesburg. He needed some help and asked me, but I had just taken a (long-term substitute) job in Tomahawk, so I had to say, ‘No’ and missed my chance to meet Brett. When I got to Tomahawk, the principal said, ‘Are you nuts?!? Why didn’t you say something? We’d have let you start a week later.’
“It’s really my only regret. When Mike had to unload the things at Brett’s, (Brett) was actually in his garage, changing the oil on a lawn mower.
“I feel if that’s the worst thing to happen, I’ve had a pretty good time.”
If there’s a bucket-list player that Buck hopes he crosses paths with one day, it’s Chuck Wood himself.
“What a class individual, all the work he’s done for the children’s hospital,” Steiniger said. “But I’d have to take my son if I ever got to meet him. He’s been a Charles Woodson fan forever.”
Buck came upon his football fascination naturally. As a kid, he played football nearly every day at Racine’s Mitchell School, and he kept going with the sport through high school at Racine Case and 10 years as quarterback/tight end with the Racine Raiders semi-pro team. He has coached at Kenosha St. Joseph’s high school, Carthage College and Merrill middle school.
When asked how long he’s been a Packers fan, Buck gave the answer you’ll hear from many a fan:
“I’m 61, so 61 years.”
It’s a dream situation and Buck isn’t looking that gift horse in the mouth. He says he was needed maybe 2-3 times a month during the football season when he lived in Racine and could make it once a month after he moved to the northern part of the state to live in a cabin on 120 acres of land his dad owns.
“That’s why I’m looking forward to retiring next year,” he noted. “I can help out more often.”
Steiniger had been a machinist in Racine for 27 years, before back problems brought it to an end. He returned to school to be a teacher in environmental science, his favorite of the free government schooling options. After teaching in Kenosha for a year and long-term sub jobs in Merrill and Tomahawk, school budget cuts led to a change as grocery manager at Dave’s County Market in Merrill.
“They allow me to write my own schedule,” he stated. “Mike lets me know far enough in advance so I can get off, and they’ve been extremely helpful or I wouldn’t able to do half the events I’ve done.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate my whole life.”
When asked how long he’ll continue to be available, he answered quickly:
“However long Mike wants me to keep going with it.