Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tackles, Turf Toe and Tears

 The writer on the left, getting tips from the kicker on the right.

(Wanting to write about the most important thing in Wisconsin right now -- Recall? What recall? The Packers are 10-0 -- my thoughts go back to a few Novembers ago when I was hanging out at Lambeau Field with the Packers themselves. This story first appeared in The Capital Times in 2008.)
What makes a woman cry? You'd be surprised.

It's not the umpteenth viewing of "Beaches," nor the theme from "Titanic." It's not the sight of her youngest child walking across the stage at graduation.

No, it's sitting amongst 330 women and having your number called as the winner of an autographed Green Bay Packers football, still smelling of the felt-tip markers from the signatures of the players who just scribbled on it.

That's how serious the women are about the game and their favorite team at Football 101, the annual women-only clinic hosted by the Green Bay Packers at the end of November.

My friend Patty is one of those serious football fans and somewhat sheepishly asked me if I wanted to go. She needn't have worried. A chance to go to Green Bay to run through drills with actual Packers and hear their take about life in the NFL? A no-brainer.

"Sign me up," I told my friend.

The biggest misconception about sports is that it's a guy thing. But women love sports. Maybe not in the same proportion as men, but certainly with the same passion. And it's not just about who's cute, although there were a few whistles in the Lambeau Field banquet room when Packers equipment manager Red Batty held up Aaron Rodgers' pants during a demonstration on the team's gear. My guess is that wouldn't happen if he were talking to the Rotary Club.

That passion is why chairs were jam-packed into that banquet room for the first part of the 10th annual event, which is typically a sellout.

"Have you been here before?" asked the woman sitting next to me.

I hadn't, I replied.

"Oh, you are going to love it," she said. She certainly did; she was the one who about two hours later won the autographed football and had to dry her tears of joy.

Football 101 begins with players, their wives and others with team connections discussing what they do and take questions.

After Batty's fascinating presentation ranging from what players wear and why or how they stay warm, six players' wives spoke, followed by their husbands. And before anyone thinks this was a giant sporty "Oprah" show, the cheesiest question came when emcee/linebacker Brady Poppinga asked the wives how they met their husbands.

No, the women in the crowd couldn't be bothered with such trivial matters. One woman asked a player to differentiate between the nickel package and the dime package and wanted an explanation of the Cover-2, a defensive alignment. Another wanted to know the difference between a regular formation and the slot formation. The leverage penalty was another topic for discussion.

People magazine, this was not.

Another asked center Scott Wells about the changes in the facemask penalty this season; Wells didn't know the penalty had been changed.

"When my facemask is grabbed, no one cares," he said.

As interesting as those sessions were, the real highlight of Football 101 is the drills. From Lambeau, we marched across the parking lot to the Don Hutson Center to learn first-hand from the Packers. If any of them were bummed to give up a Saturday teaching mostly middle-aged women the finer points of football, it never showed.

When I was a kid, we had the biggest backyard around and drew kids from all over town to play football there. So I once was confident enough in my skills to enter a Punt, Pass and Kick competition when girls just didn't do that kind of thing.

But that was back when elephant pants were cool and gas was 39 cents a gallon. Now, I just hoped I wouldn't trip on something and burn my chin on the artificial turf.

The first drill, not so bad. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson talked us through a rushing drill in which we had to high-step through the ropes just like the pros. I did not trip. These days, this is how I measure success.

Then, it was on to kicking. Mason Crosby taught us about the sweet spot on the ball - which, if hit squarely, provides the best results - and gave us an extra-point demonstration. Then it was our turn. I took a few steps to the right to come in as a left-footer. Such detail was hardly necessary; I stubbed my toe on the approach and the ball dribbled weakly off the tee. Shame, yes. Turf toe, maybe.

Shortly afterward, a huge cheer went up in that corner of the facility. Someone had made an extra point.

"Must have been one of the young ones who played soccer in high school," a 50-something woman in my group said.

Next up: defense. What Wells didn't know about facemasking he made up for in blocking schemes. He gave a detailed presentation on the three-point stance, the team's formations and how to bowl your way past someone. That might have come in handy for those who went shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

What I flubbed on the extra point, I made up for as a receiver. Routes taught by James Jones, Ruvell Martin and Jermichael Finley all resulted in caught passes on my part, with the players doing the throwing. And I rather enjoyed taking out the tackling dummy after running Poppinga's drill.

It's been a long time since I spent a Saturday tossing around a football, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I'd ever toss one around with a Packer. But for $65, I got great memories, some cool stuff and a great day in Green Bay.

Unfortunately, I also got a sore left foot from the worst kick ever and a few extra aches and pains the next day. That's all right. I may not be able to kick and it might take me a while to come up out of that three-point stance, but at least I knew months ago that the NFL had changed the facemask penalty this season.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Homegrown Hero

Mildred Fish while a student at the University of Wisconsin. (UW Archives photo)
Shortly after I graduated from high school, I took a trip to Europe. Among the places we visited was the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

There were many things to disturb anyone about the place: the sign that said, “People were hanged from these beams,” the towers that were everywhere and the buildings that were the real thing, not part of a movie set.

Yet the thing that haunted me most from that trip wasn’t from the camp itself. It was afterward, when we grabbed some sandwiches at a shop, sat in a beautiful park in the Bavarian town called Dachau and ate lunch just a few miles away from where so many horrors took place.

“How could they not have known?” I thought to myself of the people who lived there, and it has bothered me for decades since. I was horrified to think that people accepted what was going on and the na├»ve, youthful optimist in me couldn’t imagine that people were so awful as to not do something about it.

So it was with great relief about humanity that, decades later, I learned about Mildred Fish-Harnack and the Red Orchestra. Not only was there a relief that indeed there were average citizens in Germany trying to undermine the Nazis, but also pride that one of them was a native of Wisconsin.

Mildred Fish-Harnack, a Milwaukee native, was the only American woman executed under the direct orders of Hitler during World War II. She was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison; Hitler instead ordered her guillotined.

It was only relatively recently that I learned about Mildred, her husband Arvid, whom she met at UW, and another German woman who also attended the University of Wisconsin, Greta Kuckhoff. I was given the book “Red Orchestra” almost by happenstance and eventually interviewed its author, Anne Nelson. Nelson’s book references the Wisconsin connections to this group, as they met to discuss issues of the day while students in Madison and reconnected in Berlin years later.

Their vast network, including Arvid Harnack working at the Reich’s Economic Ministry, tried to get word out to the Allies about Nazi plans. Ultimately they were found out and many of them were executed, although Greta Kuckhoff served her sentence and survived to old age.

It’s a story few know about because, among many reasons, they gave information to the Soviets as well as Americans and the name Red Orchestra was given to the resistance group by the Nazis who had branded them Communists. In the post-World War II world it was worse to be a Communist than it was to be a Nazi and the story of the Red Orchestra was nearly lost to history. When the University of Wisconsin’s alumni magazine did a story on the university’s connection to these brave souls in 1949, it triggered an FBI investigation of the school as potentially harboring Communist sympathies.

Slowly, their story has come to light. In the 1980s, the Wisconsin legislature declared Sept. 16 as Mildred Fish-Harnack Day in the state. The hope of that declaration was that on each Sept. 16, Mildred’s birthday, schoolchildren would be taught something about her and the work of her companions.

World War II and the Holocaust continue to fascinate people, and deservedly so. Much of the fascination stems from the madness of Hitler and the horrific things that happened. But I also think part of the fascination stems from people wondering about themselves, what they would have done in a similar situation.

Would I have turned in my Jewish neighbors? Would I have tried to escape? Would I have given information to other countries? Would I have tried to help? Would I have stood up against what I believe is so wrong?

In this day and age, when people will throw their own co-workers under a bus to ensure job security, those are tough questions to answer.

In the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Sign of Four,” Sherlock offers an observation from British philosopher Winwood Reade as to what makes mysteries both easy and difficult to solve.

“While the individual man is an insoluable puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty,” Holmes says. “You can never foretell what one any one man will do but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.”

So that’s what it comes down to for all of us: to be an insoluable puzzle or a mathematical certainty.

If only, my dear Watsons, it were as elementary as it sounds.
. . .

This post was originally written to coincide with the broadcast of a Wisconsin Public Television documentary, "Wisconsin's Nazi Resistance: The Mildred-Fish Harnack Story." It can be viewed online at

Two books have been written on the subject. “Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler” by Anne Nelson and “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra” by Shareen Blair Bysac.

In Berlin, there is now a German Resistance Memorial Center. Part of that center is the former Plotzensee prison where Mildred Fish-Harnack, her husband and fellow resistance members were executed.

The University of Wisconsin Archives has a webpage dedicated to the life of Mildred Fish-Harnack.