When the NFL’s first great free-agent shocked the football world by signing with the Packers, it suddenly turned pro sports’ smallest—and whitest—market into a destination for black players and set a fabled franchise on course for a Super Bowl title
It’s Green Bay Week at The MMQB: Our staffers are embedded for a game week in Titletown, doing a deep dive into the NFL’s most tightly knit community. We’ll explore the dynamic between the players and the people of Green Bay and provide a glimpse into what makes it a bucket-list destination for football fans. Follow on Twitter for updates, Facebook for live streams, and Instagram for our “Humans of Green Bay” project.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Once upon a time, Packers defensive line coach Greg Blache was the only assistant coach/team barber in the NFL. It was the late ’80s, and it didn’t take long for Green Bay’s new defensive line coach to realize that the team’s African-American players were regularly driving 120 miles south to Milwaukee just to get lines and fades unavailable in Titletown. So Blache, who’d made extra cash cutting hair in college at Notre Dame, began plying his second craft at the Packers facility. Occasionally players who neither trusted Blache’s skills nor wanted to make the drive south could turn to a barber from Milwaukee who made semi-regular trips to Green Bay. He was there, Blache remembers, to cut the hair of inmates at the local prison.
“We had black guys on the team, but it was still the whitest community in the NFL,” Blache, now retired, says from his home outside of Green Bay. “If you were black in Green Bay, they just thought you were a Packer.”
In the first version of NFL free agency, a player only moved on to a new locale when the team that drafted him wanted nothing more to do with him; in that climate the Packers were getting the dregs of the dregs. In 1992 a man nicknamed “the Minister of Defense” led an antitrust lawsuit against the league that resulted in true free agency. That was great for players—after their rookie contract ended, they could now offer their services to any team in the league, choosing the town in which they wanted to play—but it sent a chill through the scouts and personnel men employed by the most successful NFL franchise of the league’s first seven decades. Thanks to free agency, the task of assembling a competitive roster in small-town Wisconsin was about to get significantly tougher.
“Among players, Green Bay was depicted as some Russian place where you go and no one ever hears from you,” says former NFL tight end Keith Jackson, a first-round draft pick of the Eagles in 1988 who would go on to play for the Dolphins and the Packers.
Then something unprecedented happened. Upon becoming an unrestricted free agent in 1993, a player who had been named to six consecutive All-Pro teams in Philadelphia made a shock decision that would change the course of a franchise and the tenor of a town.
“Before that decision guys would say, ‘If Green Bay drafts me, I don’t want to go.’ It was Siberia,” says Jackson. “But Reggie White saw something different about it.”
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White passed away on Dec. 26, 2004, at the age of 43. It was determined he’d suffered a fatal cardiac arrhythmia, and that sleep apnea had played a role in his death. He was remembered as a devout Christian, a dedicated and prolific philanthropist and one of the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history—the anchor of the defense on the 1996 Packers team that defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
White’s less-discussed legacy involves a decision that had a ripple effect through the NFL and persuaded a generation of black NFL players to evaluate their own biases and step out of their comfort zones.
Packers legend holds that it was coach Mike Holmgren who whispered the divine words into White’s ear to get him to choose the Packers, a team that had six winning seasons in the 25 years before 1993. After White had expressed that he would go with God in his decision, Holmgren called White and got an answering machine. “Reggie,” Holmgren said. “This is God. Come to Green Bay.”
In reality, the bulk of the recruiting legwork was done by Ray Rhodes, the 42-year-old African-American defensive coordinator who joined the team in 1992. “Everybody suspected he’d go to a big city for outside endorsements,” says Blache, who went on to serve as defensive coordinator in Chicago and Washington before retiring in 2009. “But Ray Rhodes did a phenomenal job of talking to and recruiting Reggie. I think it blew everybody’s mind that he would come to Green Bay. It set the tone. He was the premier guy, and it turned the tables to where guys didn’t just run to the big market.”
White’s decision to come to Green Bay, a city that was 95% white, with a TV market the size of Wichita’s, raised eyebrows across the league. Not long after he signed a record four-year, $17 million deal, White began calling on the network of pros to which he’d essentially provided free agency, looking for them to return the favor and give Green Bay a chance. The Packers had a young, promising quarterback in Brett Favre, and having made the playoffs that ’93 season for the first time in 10 years (they fell to the dynastic Cowboys in the divisional round) they seemed on the cusp of something big.
Players who joined the team in the ensuing seasons recall White’s gruff baritone voice and folksy manner of speaking during recruitment. “When I talked to Reggie,” says former NFL center Jamie Dukes, “he said in that Reggie voice, ‘Quit playing games and come win some football games.’ ”
“Reggie saw all these positives about Green Bay that no one knew about. It was an oasis to play football.”
After eight years in Atlanta, Dukes took a shot with the Packers in 1994. “There is no question, had Reggie not gone to Green Bay to make Green Bay cool, that wouldn’t have happened,” says Dukes, who retired in 1995 and went on to work as an analyst for NFL Network. “Prior to that, Green Bay wasn’t on the menu of places you wanted to go.”
Jackson, a former teammate of White’s in Philly, signed with the Packers in 1995 and was a Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl champion the next season. He compared the perception of Green Bay to the Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s commentary on human ignorance. Jackson says the typical NFL player’s view of Green Bay pre-Reggie White was a shadow image that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“Reggie saw all these positives about Green Bay that nobody really knew about,” Jackson says. “He saw it as an opportunity to go somewhere where the people are super fans. And when you lose a game, there’s nobody screaming at you saying you’re a bum. The media is reporting the facts and not trying to create a controversy. It was actually an oasis to play football, and you really concentrated on being a football player.”
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Getting players to follow Reggie was easy enough, but the day-to-day of living in Green Bay for African-Americans who had grown accustomed to life in the league’s coastal and urban destinations was a new challenge. Defensive end Sean Jones had spent four seasons in Los Angeles after the Raiders drafted him in the second round in 1984, then played in Houston for six more seasons, before White helped bring him to Green Bay in 1994. Jones had been a part of a group of players around the league, organized by White, who regularly discussed ways to use their voices to promote racial equality in their communities. Jones arrived in Green Bay to discover that equality was not exactly an issue.
“The thing that people have to know is that just because there’s a lot of white people, that doesn’t make them racist,” Jones says. “It’s probably the least racist place I’ve ever been in my life.
“That said, they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know how to cut a fade with a No. 2, and they don’t know how to make fried chicken and cornbread. Where’s the black history museum? Where’s Chinatown? They didn’t have any of that, but they embraced you and they wanted to win.”
To provide a taste of home and some semblance of normalcy for White’s wave of recruits, general manager Ron Wolf arranged for more regular visits from a Milwaukee barber. He also contracted a Milwaukee soul food eatery to cater a meal on Wednesdays at the team facility. The players pigged out on fried catfish and barbecue from Bungalow Restaurant and had enough time to work off the calories in advance of Friday weigh-ins.
Says Jackson: “I think management said, ‘We’ve got to figure out how to make sure that when they come here, they feel at home,’ because Green Bay didn’t present that by itself.”
Management could do the little things to make its black players more comfortable, but it couldn’t do much to replicate the metropolitan environment of an Atlanta or a Miami. Honestly, they didn’t want to. White fostered an increased sense of fellowship among religious teammates, serving as bible study leader and mentor to young players. He even served as a sort of marriage counselor for young couples.
By 1996 the roster had coalesced to the point where 50 out of 53 players could be found staging a takeover of a local bowling alley on Thursday nights. (The teetotalling White reluctantly approved a local hangout where beer was served. He drank only Diet Cokes.). But the true test of Green Bay’s transformation would come with the arrival of a player who seemed ready to challenge that sense of community.
Andre Rison had been a veteran of four clubs by the fall of 1996, most recently in Jacksonville, where he had requested his own release during the ’96 season after reportedly being late to meetings and confrontational with coaches. He also had a checkered relationship with Favre dating back to their time as teammates in Atlanta. (After Favre expressed relief that the Pack hadn’t signed Rison before the ’96 season, saying he was a “problem internally,” Rison responded, “Maybe a couple of years ago, I would have said he’s a hillbilly jealous of a black man making money. But now I’m at this age. No comment.”) Despite this, and despite a tempestuous off-field history that included a 1993 domestic violence and shooting incident, the Packers signed Rison, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver, after his Jacksonville release in November 1996, to plug holes left by Robert Brooks’ season-ending knee injury and Antonio Freeman’s broken arm.
“Dre was about winning,” Jones says, “but he was also about the swag, the pomp and circumstance. It took him a minute to embrace the culture and really believe. You have to buy into the pattern and the routine, and he did that. The guy ended up being one of the best teammates.”
A quick convert in Green Bay’s new oasis, Rison lasted just a half-season, but in Super Bowl XXXI he caught two passes for 77 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown from Favre to open the scoring. White’s influence had sent one fish out of water swimming upstream and would usher an era of prosperity that saved one NFL franchise from the potential crush of a changing economic landscape.
“You ask anybody that played there long enough and they will tell you Green Bay was the best thing that happened to their careers,” Jackson says. “But nobody really wanted to see until Reggie said ‘God sent me to Green Bay.’ ”
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