Mike Vandermause column: Philbin tragedy hits Packers' extended family hard

Jan. 11, 2012

It’s been a painful, gut-wrenching week for the Green Bay Packers.

The drowning death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin’s 21-year-old son, Michael, has been felt throughout the organization. That was obvious on Wednesday when usually stoic coach Mike McCarthy got choked up during his press conference and needed several seconds to compose himself.

“The reality of this just gave everybody a punch in the heart,” said McCarthy.

It was a genuine display of emotion and indicated just how hard coaches and players are taking the loss. They feel for Philbin and his family and want to do everything they can to offer support.

McCarthy said Philbin can take as much time as he needs away from the team, which could include Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field.

Assistant coaches have banded together with McCarthy to pick up the duties normally performed by Philbin this week. And players are dedicating Sunday’s game to him.

“We’re going to go out there and play our hearts out for him,” said defensive lineman Ryan Pickett.

“It’s tough. It’s a lot of emotions behind that. Coach Philbin is a good guy. Everybody jokes with him, plays with him every day. He’s a great guy. To see him go through this is horrible. … We’re going to play this game for him.”

The tragedy has produced a galvanizing effect in the locker room. Players seem intent on rallying around their heartbroken offensive coordinator.

“Come Sunday, we’ll know we’ve got to go out and perform well,” said receiver Jordy Nelson. “Joe wouldn’t want anything else, and we’ve just got to kind of play for him a little bit and his family.”

This is a tight-knit team, and players feel like this is their extended family.

Receiver Greg Jennings said players were informed Monday during a team meeting about the body of Philbin’s son being found in the Fox River in Oshkosh. It was a sobering moment, but everyone wanted to do something for Philbin.

“When everything was relayed to us, you can just sense that, ‘OK, we’ve got to do this for Joe,’” said Jennings.

“We need to make sure that he knows that we’re thinking about him, and the one way we can definitely show that is going out there and performing and executing the way he would want us to perform and execute.”

Don’t be surprised if an inspired Packers team takes the field on Sunday against the Giants.

The “win one for the Gipper” mentality sounds sappy, but the Packers appear to be a team on a mission.

McCarthy called the energy and focus at practice Wednesday outstanding.

While a playoff victory won’t take away Philbin’s pain, players seem intent on giving their best effort with him in mind.

“Joe is such a great guy,” said guard T.J. Lang. “To have something happen like that is just tragic.

“We’re definitely rallying around him and everybody on this team loves him.”

Lang has been dealing with his own heartache. His father died at age 55 last week.

“Just having the guys let you know that they’re there for you, that they support you, has been big,” said Lang, who like McCarthy got a little emotional while he spoke. “It helps ease the pain a little bit. Nothing’s ever going to make it go away but it really helps.”

A strong sense of unity has emerged in the locker room amidst the sadness.

“I think it will make us a stronger team,” said Lang.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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