Super Bowl Yahrzeit
By Neal Milner
My father’s life mirrored the life of the National Football League. Pro football changed as he changed. When my father was growing up in Milwaukee, Curly Lambeau, who coached a team named the Green Bay Packers which was named after a meat packing company, took a group of roustabouts and adventurous college boys and built them into one of the early legends of pro football. When Dad was raising children, Packer fans still sat on hard, chipped benches in drafty, rickety stadiums like State Fair Park, a racecar track with high school bleachers. By the time my father retired, there had been more than twenty Super Bowls.
My father did not wear a cheese head or drink coffee out of a helmet-shaped, green and gold Packer mug. But the Packers were woven into the fabric of his life. During his lifetime, he saw all of the Packer greats—Don Hutson, Cecil Isbell, Tony Canadeo, Bart Starr, Brett Favre.
He had a personal tie to one of these stars, Buckets Goldenberg, who along with Sid Luckman was one of the first two Jewish National Football League stars. A future Packer Hall of Famer, Buckets played for Green Bay in the 30s and early 40s. He went to the same high school as my father did and was there at the same time. Goldenberg, an immigrant from Odessa, was a smart, tough ball player who played both running back and guard, offense and defense. Well after Buckets Goldenberg retired, he remained part of my father’s ties to the Packers. After his football years, Goldenberg owned and actively managed Pappy’s, a very successful restaurant in a Milwaukee suburb located in the heart of the Jewish community. My parents ate there, as did a lot of Packer fans, Jewish or otherwise. Buckets worked the front, so there were always hellos and remembering, and how’s this guy or that woman doing. Goldenberg was not a close friend of my father or his brother Eddie, but close enough for a little schmoozing and a quick remembrance. It cemented my father’s connection to the Packers.
My mother was not really a Packer fan. When my dad cheered for the Packers on a Sunday afternoon, she puttered, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, argued with my grandmother, and maybe made my father a salami sandwich and a cup of coffee. She was proud that Buckets Goldenberg was a star but only in the deep but unanchored way that Jewish immigrants who knew nothing about baseball were proud of Hank Greenberg or the way that Jewish parents, who thought boxing was a brutal, dangerous sport that they would never let their sons do, nevertheless routed for Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Barney Ross. For my mother it was pride. For my dad it was passion.
When I was younger, I was a Packer fan, too. For a time I even worked for the team, at County Stadium in Milwaukee where Green Bay played a few games each season. I sold hot chocolate to freezing drunks who would pour the steaming, brown liquid onto the cold concrete and refill the cups with brandy or peppermint schnapps. I knew nothing about Goldenberg’s football career. I knew him only as a nice guy with a broken nose who would give us a friendly hello when we could afford to take our dates to his restaurant.
I was in college in Madison during the great Vince Lombardi years. On desolate, gray late fall Sunday afternoons, I watched those games on a flickering 12-inch, black and white screen with my roommate, an ex- high school football player who would get so excited before game time that he went around punching people on the shoulder as if both he and his victims were players getting psyched up to take the field. We sang the Packer fight song during every opening kick off.
After college, as I moved farther and farther away from home, I didn’t so much change team loyalties as forget about loyalties completely. I had no favorite team any more. I watched whatever games were on with friends who, like me, now lived far from where they had grown up and learned to be a fan. I experienced the Packers from a long, unemotional distance. Football watching became something clinical, more interesting than inspiring.
My dad died suddenly late in the 1995 NFL season. A few days before his death he had suffered a minor heart attack. He was out of intensive care and was to be sent home in a few days. Instead, the nurses found him lifeless on the floor of his hospital room. When I called my mother to tell her how fast I could get to Milwaukee for the funeral, she was just beginning to try to make sense of the sudden loss of someone she had loved for sixty years. “I can’t understand it,” she cried. “ He was doing so well. Just a little earlier in the day he was joking about the Packers.”
Almost a year to the day after he died, the Packers won their conference playoff, getting into Super Bowl XXXI, the team’s first Super Bowl since Vince Lombardi. “Hey, how about those Packers!” my mother said to me over the phone on the Sunday this happened.
“How about those Packers”? I understood what this was about when she then said quietly, “Too bad Dad isn’t here to appreciate it.”
A week later she said to me, “I think Reggie White is terrific.”
“Reggie White?” I said. “What do you know about Reggie White?”
“What do you mean, what do I know about Reggie White? He’s my favorite player.”
“How can you have a favorite player? In all the years I have known you, you’ve never paid attention to football.”
"You don’t know what you are talking about,” she said.
So my mother, this eighty-year-old Jewish woman whose sport was mah jong, all of a sudden had a football hero, and he’s a six foot, nine inch, 325 pound African American male who looked like the person the Milwaukee City Council imagined when they put streetlights in my parents’ alley. In fact he looked like the kind of person my parents imagined when they decided to move far away from that neighborhood, new alley lights or not. And Reggie was a Pentecostal minister.
My mother was part of a bond that had formed between Reverend Reggie White and Jewish Packer fans well before Super Bowl XXXI. This bond had Talmudic foundations. Rabbis seek out complex, important issues with the same enthusiasm as White sought out opposing quarterbacks, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Talmud has something to say about football. In his lesson on excuses, responsibility, and achievement, the Talmudic scholar Rav Yitzchak Blau, whom no one would accuse of spending time in a Tel Aviv sports bar routing for the Packers to kick the crap out of the Bears, offered some powerfully relevant things to say about athletics and theological flexibility. “The athletic team is interested not in acquitting themselves before the heavenly court of sports but rather in winning the game,” Rav Blau asserts approvingly. “Therefore, they will focus not on justifiable grounds for absolution but how to win games even under the difficult conditions that have presented themselves.” Pretty heady language, but all Blau is saying is what the great Packer coach Vince Lombardi had said years before, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
That kind of thinking was apparent when Wisconsin rabbis were confronted with Reggie White’s hamstring. In 1995, the day before my father’s death, Reggie White had badly injured his hamstring. White sadly announced that he needed surgery and would miss the rest of the season. But instead, to everyone’s amazement, the injury disappeared the next day. Reverend White said this was a miraculous healing that came about because of his strong faith in God. A Jewish newspaper asked a number of Wisconsin rabbis to comment on this claim.
In the eyes of the rabbis, because he was a born-again Christian, theologically White faced a third and long. But at the same time he was a star on a team that these same rabbis, not to mention their congregants, cheered for as fiercely as anyone. So the Wisconsin rabbis offered a very measured, Talmudic response to the question about Reggie White’s miraculous healing.
Not surprisingly, Green Bay’s rabbi, Sidney Vineburg, who might very well be found in a sports bar routing for the Packers, gave the most considered answer. Like Rabbi Blau, Rabbi Vineburg skirted the whole “heavenly court of sports” idea entirely. It’s not about absolution. It’s about winning. Citing an authority that was even higher than God, Vineburg said, “Sources in the Packers tell me the injury was not as bad as everyone was led to believe.” Vineberg did not rule out the possibilities of miraculous healing, but he definitely did not want to get into that too deeply one way or the other. He said that there were other explanations for White’s healing—maybe the injury was not as serious, maybe it had been misdiagnosed. It was not necessarily a miracle. "You want miracles?" Vineburg said. "If the Packers beat Pittsburgh this week, then we can start talking about miracles.” In fact the Packers did beat the Steelers on a dropped Pittsburgh pass in the end zone as the game ended.
My mother’s bond with White was not really Talmudic. Hers were deeply tragic and personal because Super Bowl XXXI would take place so close to the first anniversary of my father’s death. Game day she would be alone, surrounded by all the excitement and happiness—a Yahrzeit candle on Super Bowl Sunday. I thought this would be a very sad time for her.
“How about those Packers!” My mother said happily to me over the phone after the Packers won that Super Bowl. She had watched the whole game at a Super Bowl pizza party given by another widow in her building. My mother cheered on the Packers as she pulled the pork products off her slices.
“You watched, didn’t you?” She said to me.
Actually I hadn’t. The closer to Super Bowl game day, the more nervous I got. I found myself getting feelings about a team that I had not had for years. I was uncomfortable with this passion. So I bailed. On Super Bowl Sunday I went to see a film instead, something about ballroom dancing in Japan. It was like being at a League of Women Voters meeting with popcorn.
When my mother asked me if I watched the game, I suddenly felt disloyal to my dad’s memory. If my mother could convince herself that she was a fan now that my father was gone, why didn’t I just become a real fan again in Dad’s honor and watch the damn game?
I lied to my mother. I told her I had watched. I used “Sportscenter” highlights to fake my game analysis with her.
Less than a year later, right before the football season that took the Packers to Super Bowl XXXII, my father’s brother Eddie died. Our families were close, more like friends than relatives. For the last ten years of his life Uncle Eddie was in a wheelchair from a stroke that also destroyed his speech and made him weep at unexpected moments. On Saturday afternoons my parents and the rest of the old gang would gather at Eddie and Esther’s home to tell the same old stories that they had told for years while Eddie smoked one cigarette after another and cried during the funny parts.
The day the Packers clinched a place in Super Bowl XXXII my mother said to me, “I just finished talking to Aunt Esther.” My mother began to cry. Through her tears she said, “We were talking about how much Eddie and your father would have enjoyed this.”
Once again, I did not watch the Super Bowl, but my mother did. I lied to her about it just as I had the year before.
“Did you go to a Super Bowl party this time?” I asked over the phone to change the subject when she asked if I had watched.
“No,” she answered. “I just sat in the den and watched it alone.” Sad words, but surprisingly, she sounded upbeat.
“How come you watched it at all?” I asked.
“Because it’s Super Bowl Sunday. What else is there to do?” “Besides,” she said, and she started to laugh, “ I may be over eighty, but I still have to be ‘with it’.”
Neal Milner is a teacher, storyteller, and actor who lives in Honolulu. He can be reached at email@example.com
from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine