Phil Hanrahan: "A Cheesehead’s Journey."

Phil Hanrahan: "A Cheesehead’s Journey."


Life After Favre book coverHoping for a dream season with the new quarterback, Phil Hanrahan moved from Los Angeles to Green Bay to chronicle the 2008 Packers. But as Life After Favre reveals, things didn’t go according to plan…

Zola: You’re not a professional sportswriter. Did you have any trouble getting the access you needed to cover an NFL team for a season?

Phil Hanrahan: It took a couple letters and a couple sitdown meetings with their PR staff, along with some vouching, before I got a green light. I showed up at pretty much the worst time in the history of the Packers to propose a book on the team: August of 2008, when the Favre Drama was at its height and Packers fans were heatedly divided. One of the guys who vouched for me, a director on the team’s board, simply said, “It’s tense up there. It’s not a happy place right now.”

04In the end, I got the access I needed. I was in the locker-room every week, I got to see some in-season practices, and my player interview requests were granted. I had a media pass for the post-game press conferences and so on. Because of the disappointing season—the team went 6–10, losing a record 7 games by four points or fewer—the atmosphere remained tense pretty much the whole time, though, so I tried to be careful in what I requested and how many requests I made.

It obviously helped from the get-go that I am a die-hard Packers fan and grew up in Wisconsin. I emphasized this with the team, and also emphasized the fact that I was not there to write a muckraking book about the Brett Favre stuff. My focus—the book’s premise—was covering the first season with the new quarterback. How do you replace a legend, a guy who never missed a game in sixteen years? How would the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers do?

Zola: Brett Favre’s tearful “retirement” press conference was in March of 2008. How soon after that did you start planning a book about his replacement Rodgers?

PH: 01I got the idea for the book watching the press conference in my L.A. apartment. I was probably thinking about a move to Green Bay before the conference was over. I actually believed Favre was retired for good and was really excited about covering a season in the first year of the new-era Packers. I moved to Wisconsin in early July and only a few days later we learned Favre wanted to rejoin the team. Then of course he got traded to the Jets, on August 7. The trick for the book’s narrative was to take advantage of this loaded material without getting annoying and adding to Favre fatigue, which I knew people would be feeling a year later when the book came out.

Zola: Did you worry your passion for the team might be a problem in terms of journalistic distance?

PH: I decided early on to make my fandom part of the book’s approach. The challenge was to have enough distance to write a book that all football fans could enjoy (well, maybe not Bears fans, but most) while not hiding the fact that I was a Packers fan. I wanted to tap into the juice of that. On some level the book is a kind of cheesehead’s journey: relocating from sunny L.A. back to my home state and living out a Packer fan’s dream—seeing every home game at Lambeau, meeting players, hanging out in Packers bars. It didn’t hurt that storyline that December was the second snowiest month in Green Bay history—46 inches; smashing by nine inches a record that had stood since 1898—and by Christmas it was below-zero in Green Bay and minus-20 in western parts of the state I had visited on my tour of top Packers taverns.

The book is in part a portrait of Packers fans. I talked to almost 300 of them, from forty states and several foreign countries. Packer fans are everywhere. To illustrate this I watched some away games in Packers bars far from Wisconsin. I went to Scottsdale, for example.

One of my models for a book a little different from your standard season-with-a-team chronicle was Roy Blount Jr.’s amazing About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, on the 1973 Steelers. It combines wonderful portraits of players with game coverage and a look at the town of Pittsburgh and its fans. It’s got this high-energy loopiness. It helped that back then you could go drinking with players and hang out all night. That team had a lot of wild characters, not least Terry Bradshaw. The opening sentence gives you the flavor:Pro football players are adults who fly through the air in plastic hats and smash into each other for a living.”

Zola: Speaking of weather, one day you shoveled snow in Lambeau Field. What was that like?

PH: I loved it. Except it’s the coldest I’ve ever been. It was just a few degrees above zero and I stood in line for two hours in the stadium shade, barely moving. By the end I could hardly move my face to talk to the people I was interviewing. But once inside Lambeau, shoveling the benches on this blue-sky day, the field covered with snow, it was great. A lot of camaraderie. The team put out the word in the media that they needed 300 shovelers for $8 an hour—I think it’s $10 now—and that morning people started showing up at 6 am for a 10 am start. A couple years ago I was interviewed by John Madden about shoveling Lambeau for his San Francisco radio show and he let me ramble a bit and then said, in a very Madden way: “Okay, but you weren’t a real Lambeau shoveler. You were just doing it for the book.” All I could do was laugh. That was my rebuttal.

Zola: Any favorite moments from your “cheesehead journey”?

PH: Celebrating the 75th birthday of former Lombardi-era Packers great Fuzzy Thurston in his Green Bay bar was something I’ll always remember. He’s hilarious, as is his wife Sue. Great company. Someone put a pair of pink-polka-dot boxer shorts on his head and he sat there, totally deadpan, eating his cake with a can of beer and looking like the happiest guy in the world. Having dinner with Rastafarian Packer safety Atari Bigby at Tony Roma’s one night was another good time. Atari doesn’t eat meat, but his drink of choice that night was Sex on the Beach. He had two.

12But I think my favorite time was visiting then-rookie receiver Jordy Nelson’s tiny town of Leonardville, Kansas. It was a beautiful early-November weekend. Instead of going to Nashville to watch the Packers play the Titans, I got the idea to watch the game on TV with a player’s family members. The original plan was to go to Kalamazoo to watch the game with the parents of our then-star receiver Greg Jennings. But that fell through, so I drove 850 miles to Leonardville, population 450, and watched the game in Nelson’s Landing, a sports-bar restaurant Jordy’s parents had just opened. They have a nearby wheat and cattle farm—that’s where the beef for their burgers comes from. Everyone who’d ever known Jordy was in Nelson’s Landing: his mom, grandparents, teachers, coaches, friends. I just went around from table to table getting recollections. Jordy had a great game—though not as great as in Super Bowl 45 in 2011, when he caught a record-breaking nine balls for 140 yards. Watching that Super Bowl, I kept thinking of what it must be like in Nelson’s Landing.

Zola: Were there things that didn’t work out?

PH: For a while I thought the whole book might not work out. Losing all those close games. How do you write about a bummer season? Who’d want to read it? There was one moment where I kind of hit bottom, book-wise, after the excruciating ending to the home game against Carolina. Game 12. I went back to my room and stood in the dark and stared out the window. It was snowing. Heavily. I had to let go of the idea of a happy season led by the new guy—the California kid—and find a way to power my story with the unhappy but dramatic stuff. The agonizing last-minute losses. The snakebit feel. The fan dissension. The under-the-gun coach and quarterback. One of my epigraphs is “Some dreams don’t come true”—a line from a song by the band Ivy. (The other one is a press-conference line from Coach McCarthy uttered when the Favre circus was peaking: “There is no script for this.”) It finally occurred to me that what was happening that season might be a better story than the Hollywood-movie version where the New Guy Takes His Team to the Top.

He took his team to the top two seasons later anyway.

Zola: The hardcover edition of your book came out in 2009, the paperback—with a Super Bowl 45 “Afterword” —in 2011, and now this “special edition” Zola e-book. What’s special about it?

PH: I got to fix some typos and clunky sentences, thank god. No, but for readers what’s new is a section up front telling the story of a pair of 2011 and 2012 Green Bay weekend get-togethers with a group of hundred-plus Packers fans from all over the country. A lot of them are people I met via the book or on Twitter. Throwback Weekend, it’s called. It’s sort of a microcosm of Packers fandom in general and very much in the spirit of my book. Some of the Throwback participants are fans that appear in my account of the 2008 season.

37I also revisit where I lived that year, the corner of Crooks and Washington Street. Which happened to be where the Packers team offices were from 1949, the last year of Coach Curly Lambeau, through 1963, when the Lombardi-led organization moved across the river to what became Lambeau Field. I didn’t know this history when I was shown the room. Once I learned that Lombardi had had his office thirty feet from where I was standing, I asked to sign the lease immediately. That whole crazy ‘08 season, as the Packers kept losing, I kept thinking about Coach Vince Lombardi drawing up plays and meeting players and staring out the window at the same view south along the river that I had. It helped. It felt like I was in the right place.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.