Monday, March 24, 2008

Rodgers, Gray, and Why I Don't Get Autographs

The following is an unpublished article originally written on November 4, 2006. Given that this is to be Aaron Rodgers' long-awaited debut year, I thought I would finally get it in print.


I received a call on my phone today. It was my daughter, who was at Austin Straubel airport in Green Bay, waiting with her grandmother to pick up her arriving grandfather.

Why did she call me? Because she happened to be at the airport at the same time the Green Bay Packers were loading the airplane to fly out to Buffalo. With a giddiness I could hear in her voice, she told me how she saw Brett Favre and A.J. Hawk up close. She even said, “Good luck!” to the coach, though she didn’t exactly know what his name was. She seemed almost as excited to be sharing this information with the biggest Packer fan in her life as she was to have seen the Packers herself.

I then asked the question, “Did you get any autographs?”

While she responded no, she didn’t, my own question sent me on a journey in the Wayback Machine, remembering when I was around that age, when the idea of seeing a player inspired awe. It also taught me a lesson I’ve followed to this day.


As a 12 year old, I had recently moved from the Wisconsin Northwoods to the middle of Green Bay, and fully immersed myself in becoming a fervent Packer fan. Yes, I was that kid who had the entire roster memorized, read the Yearbook front to back, and would even sit back with the Press Guide for fun. My classmates and I spent our outdoor time at St. James Park, each pretending to be a different NFL player as we played pitch-and-catch.

I also was starting for my school’s 7th grade basketball team. My father, probably greatly relieved that I was finally showing interest in sports, took the “for sale” sign off of my jacket and decided to take me to a UW-Green Bay men’s basketball game. It was pretty cool, my first time in the Brown County Arena (soon to be followed by my first Quiet Riot concert). I settled back in my seat and watched the Phoenix tee it up in the ol’ barn.

It wasn’t too long before I noticed a murmuring going through the crowd around us. People were looking around and pointing behind me. I looked behind me and saw an African-American man sitting up about seven rows, across the aisle. The name “Johnnie Gray” kept floating in and out of my ears.

Needless to say, the game we had paid money to watch was no longer of much interest to me. This was Green Bay, a football town, and I wasn’t the only one. I started pestering my father about whether or not I should ask for an autograph. He discouraged me, and since he seemed to be sitting unbothered, I returned my eyes to the game.

It wasn’t long before someone broke the ice, and asked him for an autograph. Like a hawk, I noticed this, and procured my own pen and UWGB program. I was the sixth person in line, and, like my daughter, was just in awe of this man who played the game that I watched religiously every Sunday.

I returned to my seat, happy, content. What happened after that, however, burned in my memory for the rest of my life. As I snuck looks back at Johnnie, I saw the line for autographs was now ten people. Then, it was twenty. Then, thirty. The understaffed Arena employees were busy trying to rearrange the line, as it was blocking not only Johnnie’s view, but the view of dozens of other Phoenix fans. However, it did very little, other than to advertise to more people that there was something worth waiting in line for.

As you can guess, Johnnie Gray, who came to the Arena to unwind with a basketball game, got up and left a little before halftime. I’m not sure what disappointed me more: his leaving, or the childish protests of the forty-or-so people in line who did not get an autograph. I felt guilty for being a part of ruining a man’s evening. No, more than that…I felt guilty for being a part of ruining the evening of a man who I idolized. I looked at the signed program in my hand and felt my cheeks flush. I shot angry glares at the people who were laughing around me.

That was the last autograph I’ve ever asked of anyone. If anything, I will ask for a picture, if it is the right setting, but since that day, asking someone to sign a piece of paper seemed like I was crossing a line. The advent of eBay selling autographed memorabilia for hundreds of dollars, seeing athletes charge kids $20 for a signature, and seeing grown men standing in a line with fifteen footballs has done very little to change any opinion I have about autograph-hunting.

I listen to Johnnie Gray weekly on his local radio show, and have been tempted on many occasions to call in and tell him the story, and how that piece of paper he signed affected my values.

In the summer of 2005, I brought my young son to his first training camp. We sat and watched them go through drills, peering through the chain-link fence on bleachers. We took a break, got an ice cream treat, wandered through the Atrium, and then returned to watch the end of practice.

We also went and stood outside the fencing where the players would return to the locker rooms. We watched unknown player after unknown player ride in on their bikes and wave off the mob of autograph hunters who called out their names, begging for a signature. My son and I took a spot away from the mob, as I put together names to go with the numbers we saw.

Finally, a player with number 12 on his jersey walked up, and instead of ignoring the wolves, he slowly walked towards them. He signed a couple, only to be badgered by waving arms holding hats, footballs, notepads, and T-shirts. For each one he signed, it seemed ten new people appeared out of nowhere, all yelling, “Aaron! Over here!” If he moved one direction, a disturbing version of “The Wave” occurred, as people pushed and shoved to get closer, still waving their item in his face.

It seemed eerily familiar, and just as sad, as that day many years ago. Unfortunately, the pretense of a line had been lost, replaced with the jostling of arms and insistent begging.

I pointed the man out and told my son, “See that man? His name is Aaron, and he’s going to be the next quarterback for the Packers. Someday, you’ll see his #12 jersey throwing the ball instead of #4.”

Other rational people in the crowd started telling the player, “Just go, Aaron.” The mob was still growing, and becoming ruder by the second. He stayed out for nearly ten minutes, looking very patient, but also a little overwhelmed. He looked over at the fence where only one man and his son stood, watching patiently and smiling.

Aaron Rodgers, perhaps trying to show the rabble that he would reward people who were polite, walked towards me. We just smiled, and my son waved and said, “Hi, Aaron!” A-Rod looked at us, almost quizzically, and seemed almost ready to say something to us. If he did, I missed it, because the mob had rushed over by my side of the fence and knocked my son down.

Shortly after that, the future quarterback of the Green Bay Packers went inside. I don’t know if that was his first time trying to tackle the mob, or if he was a little more cautious in subsequent trips back to Lambeau Field. The trouble is, I think he was the only one who learned a lesson that day.


I certainly have no harsh feelings towards those fans that are fervent in their passion, and I remember that childlike era in my life, when meeting a player in “real-life” was the only true definition we had of “awe”. Certainly, autographs are a great way to prove your fandom, and the fact they sell for a bunch of money doesn’t hurt either.

But today, when I asked my daughter if she got any autographs at Austin Straubel Field, she was probably confused at my reaction when she answered, “No.”

I said, “Good.”

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