Vandermause says farewell: 'Remember it's just a game'
After more than three decades working as a sports journalist, including the last 11 years at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, it's time to say farewell.
It's been an unforgettable ride that has included coverage of three Super Bowls, one World Series, and countless other high school and college championships.
Since December 1980, when I was named sports editor of the Portage Daily Register, my life has revolved around athletes, coaches and games. My career path took me to the Oshkosh Northwestern, Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Packer Plus magazine and the Press-Gazette.
Can you believe I fooled my bosses along the way into paying me to cover sports, something I truly loved?
But all good things eventually run their course, so it's time for me to blaze a different trail. On Monday, I will begin a new job as communications director at Green Bay Community Church. Before I make that transition, let me share some reflections on a memorable sports journalism career:
First big event
It was heady stuff for a small-time newspaper man like myself, barely a year out of the University of Wisconsin, to cover the American League playoffs in 1981. Everyone remembers the World Series in 1982, but the year before, the Milwaukee Brewers qualified for the split-season playoffs and hosted the New York Yankees at County Stadium.
There I was, seated in the outdoor auxiliary press box next to announcer and Yankees Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto. Before long, then-Brewers owner Bud Selig began pacing behind me and started kicking a metal folding chair every time an umpire made a call against the Brewers. I learned pretty quickly that even the rich and powerful throw temper tantrums in the heat of battle.
I've interviewed Selig on more than one occasion since, and he's a terrific quote and class human being. His passion for baseball led to his long and successful tenure as commissioner. But when he was an owner, I learned not to approach him when his team was getting pummeled by the Yankees.
The Brewers organization granted press credentials to small newspapers in Wisconsin that asked to cover the 1982 World Series. Press box space went to the bigger media outlets, so I was relegated to makeshift seats behind home plate for the Brewers-Cardinals games in Milwaukee, still an excellent vantage point.
My fondest recollection of that Series was interviewing Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, two Brewers stars who treated every media member with respect, no matter how small their market. I had the chance to speak with Yount during a recent Brewers' playoff appearance and he was as humble as ever. It's refreshing to see athletes remain grounded even after achieving great success.
I can confidently claim that no one has had a more memorable pro football media debut than me, because the first NFL game I covered was the Packers' 48-47 victory over Washington on "Monday Night Football" in October 1983.
Reporters congregated on the field in the final 2 minutes for better access to the locker rooms. I watched from the south end zone as Redskins kicker Mark Mosely missed a relatively short field goal that would have given Washington a 50-48 victory in the final seconds. I remember vividly both the relief and giddiness displayed by then-Packers coach Bart Starr after the game.
I grew up idolizing Starr as the Packers quarterback in the 1960s. The stress of coaching the Packers took its toll on him, and he had some feisty run-ins with reporters in those days. But his ability to release any lingering bitterness against the Packers after his firing is admirable, and he has become one of the team's greatest ambassadors.
I have interviewed him on occasion in recent years, either by phone or during one of his frequent visits to Green Bay, and he is always gracious. After one recent column, he called and left a voicemail thanking me. Small gestures can say a lot, and Starr remains the epitome of class.
I was lucky enough to have Dick Bennett as my summer basketball camp counselor when he was still a high school coach. It was only a weeklong camp but it's still burned in my memory. I would have run through a brick wall for Bennett and wasn't surprised that he became the greatest college coach in state history during stints at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, UW-Green Bay and Wisconsin.
I had the chance to interview Bennett recently, and it was revealing when he said the stress of coaching became worse as he got older. It makes me think Bennett attained so much success because he never got cocky or full of himself, a lesson all coaches should learn.
Bennett should be proud of one of his former players, Gary Grzesk, who quietly has turned St. Norbert into one of the best and most-respected programs in the state. Yes, it's only Division III, but Grzesk does it the right way. He gets the most out of his players on the court and at the same time puts them on a graduation path and prepares them for life after basketball. That's what college athletics should be all about.
It was Oct. 31, 1994, and I had just arrived in the Soldier Field press box, drenched from head to toe by a Monday night Chicago monsoon. As I attempted to dry myself off and prepare to cover yet another Packers-Bears clash, then-Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf confronted me.
Wolf was livid about a column I had written in Packer Plus the week before and proceeded to chew me out. That was vintage Wolf, never afraid to express his opinion. I stood my ground, as any good columnist worth his salt would do, and we agreed to disagree.
The best part of the story, and a reflection on Wolf's good character, is that he never brought it up again, never held it against me, and treated me the same as anyone else on the beat. Some choose to hold grudges and let pettiness get the best of them, but not Wolf. He said his piece and moved on. I have interviewed Wolf multiple times over the years and he has provided a wealth of information and historical perspective on the NFL.
He probably doesn't remember that rainy night confrontation in Chicago. I do and respect him all the more because of it.
Swing and a miss
With the benefit of hindsight and reflection, every columnist at some point will ask this poignant question: "What in the world was I thinking?" For me, my column on the Packers moving out of Milwaukee after the 1994 season couldn't have been more wrong.
I criticized then-Packers President Bob Harlan for the decision to turn his back on Milwaukee and play all home games at Lambeau Field. It was a controversial move, considering how Milwaukee had helped bail the Packers out of financial difficulties in the past, but as it turned out, it was absolutely the correct call. I was 100 percent wrong and am not ashamed to admit it.
Harlan saw the big picture and made a decision that served the long-term interest of the Packers organization. Thanks to Harlan's master plan, which included a much-needed Lambeau Field renovation in 2003, the Packers are one of the most financially secure teams in the NFL.
Like Wolf, Harlan never let criticism get the best of him. Through the years he has been as approachable, cooperative, informative and gracious as any team president could be. He often answered his own phone and to this day is a reporter's dream interview subject when it comes to any Packers-related topic.
I'm just glad he didn't hold that misguided column against me.
It was July 2008, and I was preparing to walk my oldest daughter down the aisle at her wedding when my cellphone rang. It was a colleague informing me of the latest development in the Brett Favre feud with the Packers. It was that kind of summer, with the ugly Favre-Packers divorce escalating by the day and invading every waking moment.
It actually started with a touching and tearful Favre retirement ceremony in March, but by summertime it morphed into a full-fledged soap opera.
There was Favre appearing with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. There was Packers general manager Ted Thompson facing an angry mob at the shareholders meeting. There was coach Mike McCarthy shouldering the brunt of the media obligations on an almost daily basis.
There was Favre's plane landing at Austin Straubel International Airport during the Family Night scrimmage. There was Aaron Rodgers getting booed by ardent Favre supporters. There was the McCarthy-Favre breakup meeting at Lambeau that dragged on interminably into the night.
It was an absolute circus and hands down the most bizarre set of circumstances I covered in three decades. It became a Favre vs. Thompson showdown of sorts, and fans were left to choose sides.
As a columnist, I supported Thompson's decision to trade Favre and move on with Rodgers as the starting quarterback. My instincts told me it was a sound football decision, and less than three years later that was proven correct when Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl title.
Every columnist learns to accept criticism as part of the job. If you can dish it out, you better be able to take it. But in the midst of the Favre fallout, the most ill-advised complaint I heard was that I sided with Thompson in order to stay in the good graces of the Packers organization.
Anyone making that absurd claim apparently hasn't read the columns I wrote over the years critical of the Packers. My stance was always to be fair but call it like I saw it, and sometimes that meant taking the Packers to task. In the case of the Favre controversy, I honestly believed Thompson was doing the right thing.
It was fascinating to watch Favre's popularity plummet in Green Bay after he signed to play with bitter division rival Minnesota. Who could have guessed that Favre, arguably the most popular player in franchise history, would one day get booed mercilessly upon his return to Lambeau?
As with most everything involving Favre, there is more to come, including his anticipated No. 4 jersey retirement by the Packers and Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2016.
Stay tuned. No one creates a bigger buzz or moves the drama meter more than Favre.
Night and day
The difference between winning and losing a Super Bowl is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm.
I stood in the Packers' locker room following their Super Bowl XXXI victory over New England in January 1997 at the Superdome in New Orleans and witnessed the fulfillment of a dream.
After 29 years, the Lombardi Trophy finally was coming back to Green Bay, and the joy and satisfaction on the faces of players and coaches was palpable.
A year later at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, I stood in the Packers' locker room and felt a sense of utter gloom and dread. The heavily favored Packers lost to the John Elway-led Denver Broncos, and I'll never forget the despondent looks worn by Wolf and coach Mike Holmgren.
They were shaken to the core by the bitter taste of defeat in the championship game. I have concluded that the most painful feeling athletes and coaches experience is to come so close and fall short.
Road to glory
The Packers' most-recent Super Bowl victory 3½ years ago was improbable. Some players thought the team was all but eliminated from the playoffs after a late-season loss to New England. I saw their faces light up when during the course of my postgame locker room interviews in Foxborough, Mass., I informed them that according to NFL tiebreakers the Packers controlled their destiny.
The team proceeded to win its final two regular-season games to earn a playoff berth as a No. 6 seed, then shocked the world by winning three straight postseason road games at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago. The postgame locker room atmosphere became more jubilant with each successive victory.
During the week leading up to the Super Bowl in Dallas, the Packers seemed like a team of destiny, and their victory over Pittsburgh was almost a foregone conclusion.
All the work and sweat and long hours paid off. Watching the satisfied expressions on the faces of McCarthy and Thompson in the locker room afterward said it all.
So, how can I walk away from all this sports-crazed excitement? I consider myself lucky to have held a job I truly enjoyed for a long time but to also recognize when to let go. I will still enjoy sports, but on a much more casual level.
It will be refreshing to watch a Packers game for the first time in decades and, when it's over, turn off the TV and do something else. The thought of no deadlines, no story angles and no quotes to chase sounds very appealing.
I'll close with one final bit of advice. The NFL and the media that provides blanket coverage would be wise to heed the words of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who earlier this year warned that pro football would one day reach a saturation point.
Everyone needs a break, even from the Packers and the NFL, yet there is no escaping football coverage all year long. Once the season ends, we jump from the NFL combine to free agency to the owners meetings to the draft to OTAs to minicamps.
Even in July, everywhere you turn there's Twitter updates, blog posts, feature stories, videos, chats, top-100 lists and player rankings, all in anticipation of the opening of training camp at the end of the month.
Media outlets are looking to capitalize on the seemingly insatiable appetite for NFL news, even if it means manufacturing content.
Wouldn't it be nice if everyone took at least a one-month break from the NFL, starting at the end of minicamps and extending to the week training camp begins? I know it's a naïve concept, but it would offer a chance to generate a renewed hunger for football.
Sometimes we in the media treat sports as an all-consuming obsession when, in fact, sports should serve as an enjoyable diversion from the real world.
Sports teaches us positive messages about teamwork, discipline, dealing with adversity and handling success. But the danger on the other end of the spectrum is that sports can overshadow everything else.
It's great to get caught up in the passion, the awe-inspiring competition and the unexpected nature of sports. Those are some of the reasons why my job often hardly seemed like work.
But all of us must remember it's just a game and there are more important things in life.
Mike Vandermause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.