The long road to Packer fandom via Chico

I’ve been following the Packers off and on for about 13 years. While the Super Bowl XLV has yet to be played, the past couple of weeks have been the most exciting for me Packers-wise as Chico celebrates native Aaron Rodgers’ success as Green Bay’s quarterback.
My first big experience with the Packers came in 1998 when they faced off against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. The team was training at my college, UC San Diego. As the co-news editor of the college paper, I wanted to make sure we covered this fairly significant event.
The only hurdle and it was a doozy — the NFL didn’t particularly want to give a college newspaper access to the facility (especially since we were asking for permission during the week of the game). To be fair, the league didn’t want to give anyone access without permission. Crews had wrapped the chainlink fence around the track-and-field facility with black tarp.
To make a long story short, the paper staff launched “Operation Packer Tracker.” What was envisioned as a James Bond-esque plan to successfully take the photo and make a getaway, was resolved simply when the photo editor walked to an elevated position on public property and shot into the leased facility. The photo was a nondescript shot of the team on the field with a cherrypicker cart in the air. I was excited that we were able to get it.
My first professional gig was working at a small newspaper in Upper Michigan. One of the odd quirks of where I lived is that we had access to both Packers and Detroit Lions games on TV. If you had to choose, the Packers were usually the better choice considering how the Lions have been mired in mediocrity for a decade.
For those four years, I watched a decent amount of Packers games. I didn’t really become a fan, although my boss for most of those years was a diehard cheesehead.
Despite my lukewarm feelings towards the Pack, it was still a huge honor to take the tour of Lambeau Field in Green Bay in 2004 (it was just a little down the road on U.S. Highway 41). It was pretty cold and I could get an idea of how the frozen tundra moniker came about. I still have the 2004 Media Guide as a momento of the experience (the Brett Farve section was 25 pages long).
Less than a year later, I was on my way to Chico while Aaron Rodgers was on his way to the NFL after being selected in the 2005 draft. I’ve been impressed how Chico has embraced its hometown hero with his alma maters holding spirit days and Packers displays throughout the city. Everything, including media coverage, been a little overwhelming at times, but it’s hard to deny the mounting excitement. Being in this mini-maelstrom has been far more exciting than watching in Michigan or even trying to get that photo in San Diego.
Despite the outpouring of Packers backing, Chico’s not totally in the bag for Green Bay. There are still a lot of Raiders jerseys (even someone wearing a Seattle Seahawks sweatshirt). Some people are rooting for the Steelers or freely express less-than-favorable opinions of Rodgers. This easygoing and mostly welcoming nature is one of my favorite things about fandom in the United States.
Although I’m not ready to doff a foam block of cheese, I’ve enjoyed watching the Packers over the years, especially this run to the Super Bowl. Win or lose, Aaron Rodgers has forged a connection between cities and fans 2,200 miles apart.

In defense of the vuvuzelas — aka those annoying World Cup horns

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When I lived in Georgia in the ’90s, we would joke that everyone who visited the state was given a copy of “Gone With the Wind” because the film was a frequent, yet incomplete, base of reference for Southern culture and history.

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it seems like everyone in South Africa and their brother were given vuvuzelas, those cheap plastic horns that can deafen stadia and spark a global outcry. Across the globe, there have been stories decrying the constant use of the horns during games. Broadcasters have tried to filter out the buzzing horns and clever software programmers have started pitching apps geared to minimize the vuvuzelas’ droning din.

The whole thing is a hoot to me because I’ve owned a similar plastic horn for more than 15 years, way before I knew they were called vuvuzelas and before they became a controversy. (Interestingly enough, the vuvuzelas were an issue during the lead up to the event exactly a year ago.)

I bought my plastic instrument (pictured at top) as a souvenir during the 1995 Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. I had finished marching with the Poway High Emerald Brigade and I wanted something to help commemorate the event. If memory serves me, I purchased the trinket from a vendor’s cart for $4 or $5.

During my years with the UC San Diego Pep Band, I dubbed the instrument the “Horn of Victory” and brought it to many sporting events. The horn’s blue color was a good match for UCSD’s blue and gold.

While World Cup vuvuzela performers appear willing to toot their horns for the entire duration of a 90-minute match, I’ve tried to be more discreet. I tried to sound the horn only in moments of triumph — including scores and ultimate victory. I avoided the horn during gameplay (done in part because the NCAA had rules against “artificial noisemakers” while there is action on the field).

Despite my relative constraint, I’ve had to cope with accusations that the horn is annoying even as a lone performer. It has “disappeared” from time to time when a colleague hid it during a game. This week, someone wanted to actually use the horn as a beer bong — an idea I strongly discouraged for health reasons.

For whatever downsides the vuvuzela has, it has a remarkable power. Its sonorous notes can reverberate through arenas. Critics have decried the horns’ overwhelming use in South Africa, but the vuvuzela can be a powerful accompanist during celebrations. As the clock turned midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, I sounded the horn and joined the clatter of banging pots and pans in my neighborhood to greet the start of a new century.

The vuvuzela also causes a sincere ruckus, especially compared to airhorns and their artificial wails. The noise from the horn is drawn from the core of the performer, not from a can of compressed air or some electronic gizmo.

The vuvuzela is egalitarian — anyone who can purse their lips and forcefully exhale can use one. This openness has thrown me off a couple of times — during one of UC Davis’ Picnic Day parades, I was thrown off by what I thought was a blaring trombone only to realize it was a child along the route joyously playing along with the music on his vuvuzela.

While acknowledging that some teams have said that vuvuzela performances have led to on-field communication confusion, I don’t think their use should be discouraged. Fans should be allowed to express themselves as long as it doesn’t
cause physical harm to others or prevent others from witnessing the
game.

Football has a rich and mostly proud tradition of fan participation. The vuvuzela is merely one of the latest in a long line of customs. Long may the vuvuzela buzz.

NHL players needed in the Olympics

There has been some talk about the National Hockey League not participating in the Olympics after this year. The National Hockey League has only agreed to provide players through the Vancouver Games. And, according to numerous sources like the CBC, the league hasn’t committed to future tournaments.

As a fan, the Olympic tournament offers many more pluses for the sport of hockey, the NHL, the players and for the fans.

If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I may not be interested in hockey until the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in mid-April. I think the NHL season is already too long to sustain a general fan’s interest — it lasts three-quarters of a year, for crying out loud. A relatively short, two-week tournament is a great tonic to a 82-game slog.

The Games are a great showcase for hockey. I’ve watched more games in the past three days of the Games than I have in the past three months. In the early rounds, there are lots of games on the air (and they don’t air at 9 a.m. on Sunday, iike many of NBC’s weekly NHL games). Some of them turned into nail biters, like Thursday’s Canada-Switzerland squeaker.

The players also seem to enjoy playing in the tournament. There seems to be a much different attitude now than when the professionals were first introduced during the 1998 Nagano Games when Team USA players trashed their rooms after an early exit. At least, I hope there is a better attitude.

The benefits to the NHL seem less direct. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says the league’s presence in the Games is primarily because it helps “our game.” I would definitely think it helps build the global audience for hockey. Building such an audience is something the NHL has been working on for years — at least that’s why I think the league opened its season in Europe for the third year in a row.

The NHL does have some valid concerns — including the possibility of player injuries affecting a team’s playoff prospects — and they are putting a lot on the line in the form of the players. The worries about injury also concern columnists in Chicago and Sacramento.

Some of the possible discussion points — such as a greater say in the tangled web of Olympic broadcasting rights — may create complications that may make the Gordian knot seem like a Sudoku puzzle on Monday.

While some of these concerns may be daunting, I hope the league and the international hockey federation find a way to work together to keep the players in future tournaments.

The airing of Vancouver Olympic grievances – a list

I’m generally enjoying the Vancouver Games as it enters the seventh day of competition, but some things are sticking in my mind. Please share your “grievances” in the comments.

The fence around the Olympic Flame: I think the organizers were caught flatfooted by the fact that people may want to be close to the beautiful outdoor Olympic Cauldron. At the very least, the image of a chainlink fence in front of a symbol of peaceful competition is disconcerting.

Kudos for the organizers for making changes and creating more viewing opportunities (according to this CBC News article). However, I didn’t necessarily care for one of the organizers’ excuses:

Organizers said the cauldron is far closer to the public than Olympic flames of past Games, where they’ve usually been located in or atop stadiums.

The cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games was outside Centennial Olympic Stadium and it was generally accessible to the public (at the very least it wasn’t blocked by a massive fence). I remember having lunch and taking photos mere yards from that Olympic Flame along with many spectators and families.

The Lack of Curling on NBC: This is a minor gripe at most, but it is sad when FOX has more curling on a 30-minute episode of “The Simpsons” than NBC will have in two weeks on its main network. Yes, curling is available on cable channels (that I don’t have) and is streaming live online (which I don’t have access to because I don’t have the right cable package). In recent years, curling almost always gets praised as a pleasant surprise of the Games. Maybe it’s not a primetime event, but it’s lame that NBC couldn’t find time to at least air the gold metal match on broadcast (like in the afternoon).

Shoddy online coverage: There’s a huge difference between the online coverage of the 2008 Beijing Games and in Vancouver. Just two years ago, many non-marquee events were streamed live and in their entirety. Now, it’s mostly hockey and curling aired live (with other events posted after NBC has aired them in primetime). Hockey and curling are both fine sports, but the offerings are like night and day.

Tape Delay: It’s a gripe as old as NBC’s coverage of the Games. It is certainly frustrating that NBC insists on starting its primetime program right at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. Central) even though there are live events taking place at 5 p.m. Vancouver time. And, of course, Vancouver time is the same time as Chico and the entire West Coast which just compounds the silliness.

NBC didn’t have to do this. It could have emulated a model from Canada that I thought could work fairly well here. In previous games, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation would air its primetime program live nationwide. After the end of that broadcast, the CBC would offer a special West Coast-only highlight package to help round out the night. I don’t know what the current Canadian broadcaster, CTV, is doing.

Media coverage of “the glitches”: I’m sure some of the criticism of the Vancouver organizing committee’s operation of the Games is justified, but the howling has seemed ferocious at times. The situation has drawn many comparisons to the Atlanta Games in 1996 when the media lambasted ACOG’s miscues, particularly regarding transportation (as this 1996 New York Times article details).

The disconcerting thing about the Atlanta criticism and the Vancouver gripes is that these woes somehow become part of the “legacy” of the Games. I was in Atlanta for the Games, and the woes weren’t my “highlight” of those Olympics. Yes, it wasn’t pleasant at times — I had to brave the crushing crowds on MARTA and I once had to give directions and a map to a bus driver so we could get to our destination. However, it pales in comparison to witnessing the opening ceremonies, watching track stars break world records and enjoying some of the finest art and music in my life.

Bruce Arthur of the National Post offers a nice perspective on the criticism. While acknowledging that Vancouver has been far from perfect, Arthur points out how there are at least three different views of the Games:

There is the Olympics that we in the media experience, the one the athletes experiences, and the one the public experiences. But only one of us write the verdict on the Olympics in question.

For another take on the Olympics’ legacy on host cities, The Independent looked at how cities capitalized on the infrastructure changes made for the Games. Atlanta seemed to fare much better on that score and I hope Vancouver does too.

Tennis grunting and you

Much has been made of professional tennis players who grunt or otherwise emit loud noises as they swing at the tennis ball. BBC News did a large piece on it in late June. About 10 days later, ABC News did a piece, thus making the matter suitable for American consumption.

The BBC News article tells the story pretty well, including discussing why it’s an issue now considering that there have been a number of noisy players since the ’70s. Monica Seles and her auditory performances were cited as a landmark shift in the woman’s game.

Also, the article quotes trainer Nick Bollettieri who says the grunting (or just exhaling at the end of a maneuver) can be natural.

“I prefer to use the word ‘exhaling’. I think that if you look at other
sports, weightlifting or doing squats or a golfer when he executes the
shot or a hockey player, the exhaling is a release of energy in a
constructive way,” Bollettieri said.

I decided to put Bollettieri’s theory to the test. I wanted to see if grunting was a natural release of energy. So my friends and I went to the best court we could find — the table tennis set at The Oasis.

After a couple of warm-up rounds, I tested to see if grunting would help my game at all. With every swing of the tiny wooden paddle, I tried to push out a little more air and emit a loud “UGH” or a breathy “EH” as I reached out for the ping pong ball.

While it cracked my opponent up, I don’t believe it helped my game much. It also seemed artificial emitting a sound as I lined up my return.

Perhaps the field of play was too small — maybe table tennis isn’t ready yet for grunters. I wonder if grunting in tennis is necessary — I played racquetball over the years and don’t recall a lot of grunting.

I guess my experiment was rather silly, but at least it had a paddle and a ball. BBC Radio 1’s “Newsbeat” didn’t even have that — they asked people outside Wimbledon to play “grunt tennis,” where they pantomimed playing tennis grunting all the while.

So, to grunt or not to grunt? What do you think?

Steam train ride available … for $500 to $1,000

I enjoy the Barenaked Ladies song “If I Had a Million Dollars.” This week, I’m singing about having a $1,000 to take a train ride. Not just any train ride — for a special excursion aboard a train pulled by a 65-year-old steam engine.
According to the Mercury-Register article, the engine is steam locomotive No. 844 — the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific. The excursion was organized by the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola for the 100th anniversary of the Western Pacific Railroad (since acquired by Union Pacific).
To ride the train this week, it will cost $1,000 to go from Oroville to Portola or $500 to go from Portola to Winnemucca, Nev. The money goes to a good cause — it’s a fundraiser for the Feather River Rail Society.
For people who don’t have a hole burning in their wallets, the train will be arriving in Oroville Thursday, spend the day there Friday for viewing near Mitchell Avenue and depart on Saturday morning.
It would be fun to go on the excursion, but it will be exciting to see a piece of history this week. It’s not just the train, the Feather River Canyon route was one of the scenic highlights for passenger rail travel for years.

If “SportsCenter” was broadcast in the middle of a forest, would anyone notice?

ESPN started broadcasting its 10 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter” from Los Angeles this week (LA Times article). Can anyone tell me if they can notice the difference?
To be honest, it took me a while to realize that the switch was made. The LA broadcast looked very similar to every other edition (all other editions of “SportsCenter” continue to originate from Bristol, Conn.).
I was catching snippets of Tuesday’s “SportsCenter” while at The Maltese. Every so often, there would be background footage of Los Angeles — Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, stuff like that. I didn’t think there was any major sporting event originating from LA, so the whole thing threw me off until I remembered about the changes.
At first, there don’t seem to be any major changes — the sports highlights looked the same (although the graphic presentation looks to have been updated in the past few weeks). The studio looks pretty similar to its Bristol counterpart.
I think many of the changes are beneath the surface. Some commentators have said ESPN is throwing the West Coast a bone after decades of being headquartered in New England. I think the changes could be more profound than that.
Having a production center and “SportsCenter” in Los Angeles is an excellent move on ESPN’s part. Sports is increasingly becoming “sports entertainment” (to steal a phrase from pro wrestling). I think the network could have a better access to superstar athletes with their studio across the street from Staples Center instead of relatively rural Connecticut.
Being close to Hollywood could help with other things, such as their series of original movies. ESPN is also ready to kick things up to the next level of TV production — the new studio is the first capable of producing 1080p high-definition TV.
I guess we’ll see if the left coast has an influence on the worldwide leader in sports.

No stinkin’ diet needed with ‘Bacon Explosion’

Going through old e-mail messages can be rewarding. For example, I was introduced to the meaty goodness that is the Bacon Explosion.
The New York Times delved into the creation and publicity of the 4-pound roll of bacon and sausage. Apparently, the product has caught the eyes of many Web surfers and it has drawn people to BBQAddicts.com, the Web site of the Burnt Finger BBQ team.
Several people have pointed to the Explosion as an example of gastronomical excess, but I don’t think it’s too outside the box. The amount of meat involved seems excessive, but I think I used nearly that much for my Super Bowl chili last year.
At the same time, I can practically feel the artery-clogging poundage that would come from a slice.

Searching for Super 3D glasses

I nearly missed kickoff for today’s Super Bowl XLIII. I was running errands … and trying to find 3D glasses. The glasses are for an iced tea commercial airing during the game, but I wanted them for the 3D episode of “Chuck” Monday.
I checked three stores and none of them had those darn glasses.
This whole “go to the store” for promotional glasses stinks anyway. I wish they distributed the glasses through direct mail or inserted them into Sunday newspapers. It’s true they wouldn’t get to everyone, but at least they would cover a large amount of households. Still, I may be a little biased on that score.
As the game is starting to unfurl, I think the Steelers will prevail, but the Cardinals have been surprising teams and fans all season long. Perhaps Arizona has one last surprise.

One good thing about the NFL Network …

… I won’t be able to easily see tonight’s game between the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers.
For years, the National Football League has been pushing to get its limited-appeal NFL Network on to cable systems’ basic tier. Their goal — to get into as many homes as possible and increase the amount of per-customer subscription fees that the cable companies have to pay. Many cable companies object — pointing out that subscribers who want to fork out the dough for the NFL Network can easily subscribe to a higher level of access to watch the channel.
Anyway, whenever there’s a big game on the NFL Network, the league uses the game and upset fans to put pressure on the cable systems. This happened last year when the New England Patriots put their perfect season on the line during a game scheduled to be aired on NFL Network (the network’s coverage was ultimately shared with two broadcast networks).
It’s really silly — the only time I would want to see the network is when there’s a game on. That’s about eight or 10 times a year. For the remaining 355 days, I have no desire to watch or pay for the NFL Network.
That’s when the games are worth watching. Tonight’s rivalry matchup between the two struggling franchises doesn’t really inspire me (even if it is being broadcast in 3D in certain locations).