Ten-year-old Tanya Krueger, decked out in a lilac party dress and black patent-leather shoes, sits patiently on the living room sofa in her family's lakefront bungalow in Menasha, Wis. She is waiting for Green Bay Packer quarterback Don Majkowski, who will be her "date" for the evening, a meeting made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Wisconsin, which helps satisfy the longings of seriously ill children. Tanya's wish is to spend time with Majkowski and to share a bucket of fried chicken with him.
Tanya was born with spina bifida and severe scoliosis. She underwent a tracheotomy at age three, and for the past five years she has had to breathe through a long plastic tube that runs from an oxygen tank into her throat. Her tiny, 30-pound body endures daily pain.
On this spring afternoon, a chef scurries around the Krueger kitchen preparing the chicken, along with mashed potatoes and sweet corn. On the dining room table are glasses bearing the Packer logo. A miniature football is tied to a bouquet of yellow tulips. At precisely five o'clock, Majkowski walks in the front door, carrying gifts for Tanya—T-shirts, key chains, pins, pictures and a poster—and gives her a big hug.
"You're as handsome in person as you are on TV," Tanya says.
June 10, 1990
For the next few hours, Majkowski answers all of Tanya's questions—Do you have any brothers or sisters? How many games is the team going to win this year? When did you start playing football? What's your favorite rock group?—admires her bulging Packer scrapbook; meets her brown Labrador, Molly Rae; and peeks inside her playhouse. After dinner, they take a limousine to a custard stand to get a dish of chocolate ice cream. As they pass by Clovis Grove Elementary, Majkowski lifts Tanya onto his lap, so she can point out her third-grade classroom. She relaxes in his arms all the way home.
At the end of his visit, Majkowski invites Tanya to attend a Packer training-camp practice. Then he kisses her goodbye. "I thought about Tanya on the drive home; I was overwhelmed by her wish," says Majkowski. "It's a reality check to make you understand what a role model you are to kids. Sometimes I lose a grip on that. I'm always worrying about myself and my responsibility as a quarterback. To see a little girl who has made a big scrapbook with all my clippings in it is amazing. I feel lucky to have been able to contribute to making her happy."
Majkowski's warmth and interest in children like Tanya may surprise a lot of Packer fans. After three years in Green Bay, Majkowski's image is a bit skewed, and he is partly to blame. Because he cherishes his privacy and rarely submits to in-depth interviews, Majkowski (pronounced Mah-KOW-ski) often is confused with "Majik," his brash, cocky, on-field alter ego.
The transformation from Don Majkowski to Majik Man occurs on game day. Upon arriving in the locker room, he pops a Phil Collins tape into his cassette player and listens to In the Air Tonight: "And I've been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.. .. Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord?" He plays the song over and over until he feels supremely confident.
After pulling on a pair of skintight uniform pants and a tapered number 7 jersey, he wraps white adhesive tape around his shoes and ankles. This ritual, known as spatting, is nothing more than a fashion statement. "It looks good," he says. Next, he stares into the mirror to check his hair, a 'do that is short on top and long in the back, with blond streaks straight out of a bottle. He smears black greasepaint in wide strokes under each eye. After warm-ups, he struts back onto the field to await the national anthem.
"I look across the field at our opponents, and I feel the adrenaline pumping," he says. "I thank God for giving me the ability to play football, and I promise Him that I will never lose my appreciation for this gift. My heart beats so fast and so loud. When the anthem is over, I'm so jacked up that I feel like butting heads with a lineman. I have to take three deep breaths to regain my poise."
Packer fans will tell you that Majkowski more than lived up to his nickname last season. He was indeed Majik-al in the way he rallied Green Bay to victory five times in the fourth quarter. The Pack wound up with a 10-6 record, its best showing since 1972, but lost a tiebreaker to the Minnesota Vikings for the NFC Central Division title and a playoff berth. Majik became the first Green Bay quarterback to be selected to the Pro Bowl since Bart Starr in 1966. He led the league in pass attempts (599), completions (353) and passing yards (4,318). His 27 touchdown throws ranked third.
Majkowski, 26, coined his nickname when he was a teenager because he was tired of having his last name mispronounced. "It's butchered to this day," he says. "I'm Maj-i-KOW-ski or MAJ-kow-ski. I've even been called Makowitz."
Majik can afford to be cocky; he is the most athletic quarterback in the NFL. You name the sport, Majik excels at it. Speed skating, ice hockey, racquetball, tennis, golf, bowling, table tennis, skiing, gymnastics. Gymnastics? Majik performs handsprings and backflips, and walks on his hands. He has high-jumped 6'11", and he can dunk a basketball with a variety of midair turns. An outstanding pitcher and shortstop in high school, he was offered a tryout with the Toronto Blue Jays.
His athleticism translates into a flashy and daring brand of football. The San Francisco 49ers' Joe Montana is the only quarterback who is better at escaping would-be tacklers, and few come close to Majik's play-faking ability. He shows no fear in catapulting his 6'2", 197-pound body upfield, scrambling over linebackers and running through safeties. "If it means winning, he'll dive headfirst into the end zone," says Green Bay assistant coach Joe Clark. "He doesn't care if Godzilla is waiting for him."
Majik's flamboyance does not go unnoticed by his teammates. Guard Ron Hallstrom refers to him as Majik Child. "When I came to Green Bay eight years ago, my hair was brown," he says. "It has gotten grayer and grayer. Don came with sandy hair, and it's gotten blonder and blonder. Something's not right."
Coach Lindy Infante once caught Majik blow-drying his locks in the bathroom a few minutes before a preseason game. "It was so hot that day," says Majik. "I came in from warmups and had to dry my face because I hadn't put on my eye black yet. I hadn't applied my makeup."
However, the trait that's most often discussed is his toughness. "He never yells at us in the huddle if we blow an assignment," Hallstrom says. "In fact, after he's sacked, he often says, 'Wow! Did you see the hit that guy put on me?' "
Perhaps Majik's gutsiest performance came against the Los Angeles Rams on a smoggy, 86° afternoon last year in Anaheim. In the first half he threw three interceptions and ran more than 100 yards chasing down the players who had stolen his passes. On two of the interceptions, he made the tackle to end the play. By halftime the Rams led 38-7, and Majik was exhausted. "It felt like I had smoked a pack of cigarettes," he says. In the locker room, Majik was given water and nutrients intravenously in each arm. Infante told him to sit out the second half, to which Majik agreed. "But then I got to thinking, if I go out now, it'll look like I'm quitting," Majik recalls. "I can't ever let my teammates think I've given up."
Backup quarterback Anthony Dilweg loosened up for the second half, but Majik told Infante that he wanted to go back into the game. In one of the most memorable comebacks in Packer history, within 23 minutes Majik threw for two TDs and set up three other scores. But time ran out, and Los Angeles escaped 41-38.
Starved for a winner, Green Bay fans have embraced Majkowski—body, soul and nickname. What they have failed to recognize is that Majik and Majkowski are two distinctly different personalities: extrovert and introvert, perfect as opposed to ordinary. Majkowski says he feels as though he is supposed to be Majik all the time.
"When people meet me, they expect me to be as brash and conceited as I am on the field," he says. "You don't know how many people say, once they get to know me, 'You're not anything like we thought you'd be.' They're shocked I'm a nice guy. I sense that I disappoint people when I'm not superhuman like Majik."
Majkowski is a shy, soft-spoken man. He holes up in a nondescript two-bedroom apartment with rented furniture and a barren refrigerator. Majkowski is devoted to his family in Depew, N.Y., and to his charity work. He raises money to fight cystic fibrosis and visits hospitals, where he often shares a box of crayons and draws pictures with ailing children.
In a city where the Packers are the only game in town, there is no escaping the fishbowl for Majkowski. "Nobody acts normal around me anymore," he says. When he's behind the wheel of his gray Mercedes with the MAJIK 7 license plates, drivers pull alongside and gawk. Once a woman followed him home and stepped from her car with wine and flowers. Another time he found dozens of roses waiting for him in his locker after a game.
"I have everything I've ever dreamed of, everything I've ever worked for," Majkowski says. "Now that it's here, I shouldn't complain, but it's hard to deal with not having any privacy. The public wants to know everything about you. They suffocate you. After games, it's like Beat-lemania—girls pressing up against my car, screaming and crying for Majik. It's unbelievable. I can't imagine what it's like to be Michael Jordan."
Every week, he says, brings another rumor about Majik. The latest had a jeweler selling him an enormous diamond engagement ring. So Majkowski has become reclusive and mistrustful of people. He does not have a steady girlfriend, because he fears women may want to date him only because he's the Packer quarterback. He asked his brother Gary, 24, to move into his apartment with him, to act as a shield and security blanket.
"I am really lonely—really, really lonely," says Majkowski. "I live like a hermit. I make my buddies come over to my house. I am selective of who I hang around with. I'm always on such good behavior. I have to be. The Packers are everything here, and I'm the top conversation of the whole town. I want to be a good role model."
Some days Majkowski wishes he had more of the Majik swagger in him off the field. Last spring, at a Las Vegas sports bar owned by Packer fans, he entered the room and the crowd started chanting, "Majik, Majik, Majik." He wanted to dive under the nearest table. "I'm not the kind of guy who walks in, throws up his arms and soaks up the cheers," says Majkowski. "I was so embarrassed. I thought, Please, God. Get me out of here."
Depew, where Majkowski grew up, is a suburb of Buffalo. His father, Fred, is a barrel-chested fireman stationed at Hook & Ladder No. 14 on Buffalo's east side. When Don and Gary were youngsters, Fred told them tales of battles against 100-foot flames and perilous rescues from burning buildings. On visits to the fire-house, Fred allowed the boys to try on his helmet and slide down the brass pole.
By age eight, Majkowski showed signs of having a little bit of Majik in him. He insisted on wearing white shoes in Pop Warner football games to emulate his idol, Joe Namath. Even fussier about his baseball uniform, he instructed his mother, Geri, to sew elastic into his socks to elongate the stripes, and to alter the pants until they were supersnug. One year he demanded she dye his shoes green to match his uniform.
An All-Western New York safety as a junior at Depew High, Majkowski occasionally played quarterback but did not become the starter until his senior year. In the first quarter of the season opener, Majkowski broke his throwing hand on the helmet of an onrushing lineman. Doctors told him it would be in a cast for five weeks. Impatient, Majkowski cut off the plaster with a hacksaw three weeks later and ended up starting the last three games of the season.
Syracuse had seriously recruited Majkowski as a quarterback but stopped calling soon after the injury. Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure were interested in him as a basketball player, but Majkowski was determined to be a major college quarterback. Jim Tressel, a Syracuse assistant who had recruited Majkowski, suggested he spend a year in prep school, at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, to gain more experience at the position before going to college. The Majkowskis visited Fork Union, where their tour guide was Vinny Testaverde, then a student soon headed for the University of Miami and now the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The military environment gave Majkowski the creeps. "It was a shock to my system," he says. "I had hair halfway down my back. I played guitar in a rock band. I wore a leather jacket and boots to high school every day."
That evening back at their hotel, Majkowski and his father debated the pros and cons of Fork Union for several hours. Majkowski was dead set against enrolling; he wanted to take his chances by going the junior college route or trying to make it at a major college as a walk-on. "You're going to have to sacrifice yourself for this goal," Fred told him. "If I were you, I'd let 'em kick me in the butt for one year. Then, you'll see, all the doors will open."
Finally, at about 3 a.m., while fighting back tears, Majkowski gave in. Fred sold Don's car to help pay the $9,000 for tuition and other expenses. Majkowski lived in a small barracks with cement walls and bunk beds. Reveille at 6 a.m., lights out at 10:15 p.m. He dressed in a uniform, except on Monday and Wednesday, when he reported for military drills in fatigues. Saturday inspection was the biggest test.
"I got down on my hands and knees, waxed floors and cleaned toilets," he says. "I used a toothbrush to shine my belt buckle. Closet hangers had to be two fingers apart. I asked myself all the time, Is this worth it? I was so homesick and uptight, but I knew I was on a mission."
A straight-A student, Majkowski quarterbacked the football team to its best record in 10 years (8-0-1), excelled in basketball and track, and received the school's Best Athlete award. He never got a demerit and graduated with the rank of sergeant. "That year taught me mental toughness," he says. "It changed my life. I became a lot more serious and mature."
Majkowski considered several scholarship offers, most from major colleges in the South, before deciding to attend Virginia, located 22 miles from Fork Union. He was so sure of himself that he asked for—and was given—a jersey with the number 1 the first day of freshman practice. By the sixth game of his sophomore season, in 1984, Majkowski had won the starting job. Throwing for 1,235 yards and rushing for 305, he led Virginia to an 8-2-2 record, including a 27-24 Peach Bowl victory over Purdue in the Cavaliers' first bowl appearance.
Already spatting his shoes, Majkowski was well on his way to becoming Majik. Students and professors often referred to him by his nickname. Basketball coach Terry Holland was so impressed by Majkowski's athletic talents that he asked him to join the team as a walk-on three years in a row. Majik declined each time.
As a junior, Majkowski started eight games and Virginia went 6-5. In the fourth game of his senior year, he separated his throwing shoulder and was sidelined for three games. He forced his way back into the lineup with almost no rehabilitation. "I was in a lot of pain," Majkowski says, "but I felt it was critical to get back in there if I wanted to be drafted."
Virginia finished 3-8, and two months later Majkowski's shoulder still hadn't healed. He went to the NFL Scouting Combine, where scouts were disturbed by his lack of arm strength. In the 1987 draft, Majkowski waited while 12 other quarterbacks were picked before he got the call from the Packers in the 10th round. He signed a two-year deal—$65,000 in '87 and $81,000 in '88-and headed to Green Bay. Upon arrival, he asked to wear number 1, but the Packers refused.
"They probably said, 'Who does this peon think he is?' " says Majkowski. "I may not be the best passing quarterback, have the strongest or most accurate arm, but I always find a way to win."
Majkowski started five games as a rookie, throwing for 875 yards and five touchdowns. After the season, Infante replaced coach Forrest Gregg. Hoping to make a good impression, Majkowski attended voluntary off-season workouts the next spring. As the only quarterback attending the workouts, he threw to a dozen receivers for almost two hours a day, five days a week. He developed tendinitis in his right shoulder and had to stop throwing until training camp began in July.
During camp Majkowski overworked the shoulder again. He missed 2½ weeks of preseason practice but still wound up sharing the starting job with Randy Wright. Majkowski changed his throwing motion to a slower windup and a sidearm delivery in hopes of minimizing the pain. That didn't help. "My arm got so bad that I couldn't hold it up to change stations on my car radio," he says. "I had to hold it with my other hand. There were times when I thought it would never get better."
Majkowski started nine games in 1988 but threw for only nine touchdowns. He feared his career was finished. Following the season, he began an extensive rehabilitation program for what had been diagnosed as a severe case of tendinitis. While undergoing seven months of therapy, he spent hundreds of hours analyzing videotapes of the throwing motions of Montana and Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins. "I realized I'd been overstriding," he says. "My delivery was too long. I'd been compensating for my shoulder."
When the 1989 season arrived, Majkowski was pain-free, confident and ready to work some Majik. He did, and now it is time to collect on his All-Pro performance. Majkowski's $250,000 base salary last year was the lowest among full-time starting quarterbacks. Recently the Packers began contract negotiations that could make him the highest-paid player in Green Bay history. The team's opening offer was between $600,000 and $700,000 a year. Majkowski's agent, Randy Vataha, has countered at $3 million-plus.
Majkowski might already be a millionaire but for the reluctance of NFL teams to pursue free agents. Majik was one of 274 players whose contracts expired on Feb. 1, rendering him a conditional free agent. Signing Majik would have cost the new team two first-round draft choices as compensation to the Packers. When none of the 274 players received an offer, some player agents huddled with the NFL Players Association. The agents came up with eight free-agent players to serve as plaintiffs, the NFLPA provided funding, and an antitrust suit was filed against the league seeking damages for the eight players. They hope that a ruling in their favor might lead to the NFL's agreeing to a broader system of unconditional free agency. New York Jet running back Freeman McNeil is the lead plaintiff in the suit, but Majkowski is the marquee name.
"I don't think people realize I've worked my tail off to get to where I am," he says. "It's been such a hard road to success for me. I think I appreciate it more than the average athlete."
A fighting spirit and a passion for life are two qualities shared by Majkowski and Majik. He sensed those same qualities in Tanya Krueger. When she was born, doctors said Tanya would never walk, but now she participates in gym class, passes a football at recess, plays baseball in her backyard and bowls.
The new autographed Don Majkowski LEADER OF THE PACK poster is tacked over Tanya's bed, and she traded her nightgown for a Majik Man T-shirt. Every night she falls asleep listening to a tape of Majkowski singing the popular hit Every Rose Has Its Thorn, proceeds of which he donates to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. After her date, Tanya wrote a letter to her favorite quarterback:
Thank you for giving me my wish. I'm so glad you like chicken and ice cream just like me.