It was Sunday, September 1st, 1991…a perfect fall Wisconsin day. Cool temperatures, bright sunshine, zero humidity, and just a hint of color around the edges of the leaves. I remember making the eight minute commute from my apartment down Lombardi Avenue to Lambeau Field. Coach Infante had instructed us to arrive in the locker room no later than 9:00 AM. I left my apartment at 6:45 AM…just in case. It was Gameday after all.
Having grown up in nearby Manitowoc, I had driven to Lambeau Field several times. For Wisconsinites, the journey to Lambeau Field on Gameday is nothing less than a sacred pilgrimage. You rise early, don your favorite Packer gear, load up the SUV, find a parking spot, set up the tailgate party, and crack a morning Budweiser while the brats start cooking on the grill. But this time things were different. This time I was a Packer.
I had been drafted in the third round by Green Bay four months earlier. I spent the offseason training with the team, survived a brutal six weeks of full-padded two-a-days, and was now counting down the seconds to my very first NFL regular season game against the Philadelphia Eagles. I was a reserve defensive lineman, probably the 53rd best guy on the team, but I was a Packer. I was teammates with Sterling Sharpe, Don Majkowski, Chuck Cecil, LeRoy Butler and the rest of the guys I idolized.
I remember sitting in my locker alone while the grounds crew, equipment managers, and trainers started trickling in. “You nervous, Donnie?” If they only knew. I was the first guy taped, the first guy dressed, and the first guy on the field for pre-game. As we started our team stretch, I glanced over to the other half of the field to see Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Jim McMahon, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen, and the rest of the Eagles warming up. It was true. I was really in the NFL.
I remember the incredibly deafening crowd noise that erupted as we emerged from the tunnel. I remember crying during the national anthem. I remember head butting anyone and everyone who came near me. I remember praying the Hail Mary over and over again. I remember that unique combination of adrenaline-fueled nervousness, excitement, anticipation, elation, confidence, and outright fear that would engulf me each and every Sunday for the next nine seasons. And I remember being completely addicted to every ounce of it.
But most of all, I remember the opening kickoff. It was the first play of the game, the start of the 1991 season, and the birth of my NFL career. I was part of the four man wedge on the return team. I heard the ref blow the whistle. I can still see the ball leave Roger Ruzek’s foot. It soared over my head as I retreated to my spot alongside Lester Archambeau, exactly seven yards in front of Vai Sikahema’s awaiting arms. I remember hearing the “Go” call, turning to locate my guy, number 54, a backup Eagles’ linebacker with arms the size of cannons. I set out to destroy him just like I had visualized over and over again in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the game…but underestimated his speed by what must have been an hour. I barely grazed the back of his shoulder as he flew past me and violently introduced his facemask to Vai’s sternum at the twelve yard line. I remember the ensuing explosion of sound that exists only on the football field. I remember hearing a sympathetic groan from the crowd. I remember thinking I would be cut as soon as I reached the sideline. And I remember vowing right then and there that if I ever was fortunate enough to step on an NFL field again, I would never, ever let my NFL Brothers down again.
Ironically, after having been bred to believe that Winning is Not Everything, It Is the Only Thing, I honestly cannot remember whether we won or lost that game. And as I look back on my years in the NFL, the wins and losses now seem much less significant to me than the distinctive experiences, the intense emotions, and the incredible relationships that were forged during my career. But what stands out to me more than anything else is knowing without a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing on this planet like NFL Gameday. Let the season begin!
For more about former NFL player Don Davey click here. Follow him on twitter @DonDavey92 and @PlayerInsiders
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