I’ve been pretty fortunate in my life in that I’ve gotten to meet quite a few sports celebrities. My step father was involved with the Clearwater for Youth charity when he first married my mom and we would head to Clearwater, FL every February/March to support the event. My stepfather has been dead for 10 years now but we still make the pilgrimage south every winter to attend the banquet.
I first started going in 1980 and the list of celebrities I met is impressive. As a quick side note, I was a walking encyclopedia of sports knowledge as a kid. As I’ve gotten older a lot of that has faded but at that time I could tell you career batting averages, home runs hit, games won and other points of note on all hall of famers. I ended up getting into some cool situations because all of these "old time" players were impressed a 11 year old kid could recite all of their career statistics and achievements from 20+ years earlier.
I can’t begin to name them all but here are the ones that stick out:
- I had breakfast on a few occasions with baseball hall of famer Bob Feller and his wife.
- I had quite a few meals with football hall of famer Chuck Bendarik.
- I remember sitting next to Joe Dimaggio for dinner one year and watching my grandfather remain speechless/starstruck for the entire night as he sat next to a true sports legend.
- I was at a cocktail party in a hotel suite sipping on Shirley Temples with the likes of Tommy Lasorda, Roger Maris, Ron Jaworski, and Johnny Bench.
The encounter that sticks out the most is not a single incident but an ongoing series of events. My family became very close with football hall of famer Ray Nitschke and his family. It evolved mainly from the fact that their son Rich was a couple of years old than me and their daughter Amy was the same age as my sister. It was a perfect fit for parents who were looking a way to keep their pre-teen kids preoccupied. The net result is that we ended up spending the majority of our time around the hotel with the Nitschke kids.
We got to the know the Nitschke’s very well. We would share many meals, sit together at the beach or swimming pool, and spend a bunch of time hanging out in either their hotel room or ours. My sister even spent a few weeks in Green Bay visiting the Nitschke’s during the summer.
The lasting legacy from this relationship is my love of the Green Bay Packers. When we first started getting to know the Nitschke’s, I was an Eagles fan and wore a lot of Eagles tee shirts. Each time Mr. Nitschke would see me in Eagle garb, he would return with some Packer paraphernalia and tell me to take that Eagles crap off.
It didn’t talk long for me to switch my allegiance over and it’s been all Packers since then. They’ve turned into an obsession for me and I have Mr. Nitschke to thank for that. The eighties weren’t a wonderful time to be a Packer fan but all that changed with the arrival of coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf, which ushered in the Brett Favre era. Since that point in time the Packers have been Super Bowl champions twice and perennial playoff contenders. It’s been a good ride.
It was always a simple choice, I mean it’s not like I knew a former Eagle who was trying to influence my thoughts?