Lee Remmel's stories, humor live on
One of the first things you noticed when you met Lee Remmel was the bump on the right side of his head that his hair couldn't fully conceal.
You wondered what the story was but of course didn't ask.
Next was his deep, distinguished voice, which he accentuated to announce the start of press conferences. When you think about it, it's a wonder he didn't work in radio rather than spending half his career as a newspaperman at the Press-Gazette and the other half as the Green Bay Packers' PR director.
Not long after you met him, you also were likely to get a taste of his endearingly bawdy sense of humor, which unfailingly entertained and never offended.
And then, of course, there was the Packers. He was a living, breathing repository of Packers history witnessed first-hand over a 62-year association with the team. He either covered or worked with all 14 coaches in team history, knew almost every principal in Packers lore and had stories about all of them.
Lee died Thursday at age 90. He took his treasure trove of Packers history with him — he never wrote a book about the team — though some of what he knew will live on in the stories he told and re-told over the years and many interviews he granted around the time he retired in 2007.
Though Lee started covering the Packers for the Press-Gazette in 1945, his stories date back to the team's founding in 1919. To begin with, he worked for more than a decade at the Press-Gazette with sports editor George Calhoun, who co-founded the Packers with Curly Lambeau and served as the team's publicity director from its inception until 1946.
Also, Lambeau still was coaching the team when Lee started on the beat as a backup. Over the years, he interviewed players dating back to that first team in 1919. When it comes to the Packers, if Lee didn't see it, he'd talked to someone who did.
Think about what he saw. At the first game he covered, in 1945, the great Don Hutson set NFL individual records for most points (29) and touchdowns (four) in a quarter, records that still stand.
Lee also was at the Brown County Courthouse that night in late 1949 for the board meeting to determine Lambeau's fate with the organization. He and a few other reporters could hear the intermittent shouting during the five-hour session that led to Lambeau resigning from the franchise he'd run since 1919.
There was former coach Gene Ronzani's bizarre behavior after being fired with two games left in the 1953 season. Though no longer the coach, Ronzani took the same train as the Packers to the West Coast and watched those last two games from the press box.
Then there were the Lombardi glory years, the drought of the '70s and '80s, and the Packers' return to the elite in the '90s, which included his fun friendship with quarterback Brett Favre.
But my favorite story from Lee dates to 1928 and involves maybe the most colorful character in Packers history, Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Blood.
In the '28 season, Blood faced the Packers twice as a member of the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons. Lambeau was impressed and badly wanted to sign the talented halfback.
So after the season, Lambeau cabled Blood a contract offer for $100 a game. But Blood was a renowned carouser and ladies' man, so Lambeau added that he'd pay $110 if Blood didn't drink alcohol after Wednesday night during the week before a game.
Blood cabled back, "I'll take the $100."
As for Lee personally, he was simply a decent man in the strongest sense of that word. He was kind and friendly and approachable. And it seemed like he was even a little more helpful to me than others when I started on the beat in 1993, I'm sure because of his love for the Press-Gazette.
But he scared me to death on one topic: The NFL Black Book.
The Black Book is the league's media directory, with all the names and phone numbers of media who cover the league nationally and locally by team. It's still a good resource but in the '90s, with no internet to look up news stories, it was essential because you regularly called reporters from other cities for information.
The league provided each team's PR director only a limited number of Black Books, and Lee treated them like gold. The Press-Gazette, for instance, always had several reporters on the beat but only two received a Black Book. One of the PR assistants warned me that Lee doesn't give out seconds.
Of course, in one of my early seasons, probably '95, I lost the Black Book. When I went to his office to plead for another, I was like Dorothy and the gang in their first meeting with the Wizard of Oz. I apologized for a couple of minutes before even getting around to telling him what happened, then asked if there was any chance I possibly, maybe, could get another. I braced for the worst.
Lee looked at me for about three seconds, said "sure," walked over to a cabinet and grabbed a new one.
In my first year on the beat, Lee also taught me a simple but important lesson about pro sports. In '93, Favre was in his second season as quarterback, and it still was far from clear how good he'd be.
I asked Lee what he thought, and he said, "I think he's going to be a great one."
Lee said it was because Favre wanted to be great. I didn't get it at the time, but over the next few years I realized his point was profound. There really are plenty of players with the talent to be good or great, but many don't get there, and desire often is the difference. Lee saw early on that Favre burned inside.
Anyway, it's time to get back to that bump on the side of Lee's head. Over the years, I'd heard he'd had some kind of surgery when he was young, and in the late '90s or early 2000s I finally asked. Here's what he said:
He'd started suffering epileptic seizures around the age of 15, and finally an X-ray revealed a tumor on his brain. In late 1939, he went to the University of Wisconsin's hospital to have it removed, and his prospects didn't look good.
The surgeon was the hospital chief, but his specialty was abdominal surgery. The first attempt failed to locate the tumor, and Lee nearly died from a brain hemorrhage. They tried again a few months later, in early 1940, and this time the surgeon found the tumor and cut it out. The seizures ended.
So it turned out Lee Remmel was something of a medical miracle. How lucky for Lee and everyone who'd get to know him over the next 75 years.
Well, Lee, I'm not sure what else to say. All I can think of is, here's to you and Fatty Arbuckle. (Lee knows what I mean).
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty