By Jared Max
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When I stepped outside my home on Wednesday night in North Jersey, sense memory shocked me into a freeze, sending me six years back to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Then, I thought about Governor Chris Christie and his likely pilgrimage to the NFL’s North Pole this weekend — and why he’ll remember this journey, regardless of the Cowboys’ result Sunday.
While his favorite sausage stand from the Seaside Heights boardwalk won’t be found in the industrial, meatpacking community near the Wisconsin sub-basin of icy Lake Michigan, the governor will experience America’s most vast selection of bratwursts and beers, embedded in a city I consider the happiest place I’ve ever been. And I’ve been around. I’ve hit nearly every major American city, all but six states, Canada, Mexico, the West Indies and Western Europe.
I have never, in another location, felt widespread harmony like I did in Green Bay.
More on my romanticized affair with this place known for producing two products I never ingest — milk and cheese — in a few paragraphs. Before delivering the dairy, I have to make a stop at Wisconsin’s version of Quick Chek convenience store. It’s called Reality Check.
Many have criticized the New Jersey governor for carrying the flag for an out-of-state team. Not me.
The fact that Christie’s favorite NFL team happens to be an archrival of a team that plays in New Jersey is insignificant. Unlike other sports leagues, the NFL is unique in that its fan base is not inherently loyal to its local regions. If I were the governor of New Jersey, my office would be decorated with Minnesota Vikings regalia.
As a lifelong New Jersey resident, I have no problem with my governor rooting for an out-of-state NFL team. I appreciate his fandom. I respect his conscious decision to not be swayed by potential ridicule — standing tall in his colors — even if his tone doesn’t match the blue and gray banner he waves.
“Just because I’m the governor of New Jersey doesn’t mean I change who I root for,” Christie said.
Before you criticize New Jersey’s head of state for unabashedly showing off his Dallas Cowboys colors, you should point a finger at the two teams who’ve lived in Christie’s state since 1976 and 1984, respectively, but refuse to acknowledge their true identities. If the New York Giants or New York Jets were as proud as Christie of their authentic selves, the Jersey governor might be less inspired to show the nation that he’s Jerry Jones’ pal. More so, if the NFL had not deemed Christie’s state so inferior that it scheduled most events for its “NY-NJ Super Bowl” in Manhattan, the governor in Jerry Jones’ suite might be Texas’ Rick Perry.
As a Vikings fan from New Jersey, I’m unaffected by the border crossing of a political leader into another state. Christie has attended a handful of Cowboys games this season, thrice as Jones’ personal guest. Last weekend, Christie’s family was flown to Dallas on Jones’ private jet.
Question: How does Christie’s bromance with Jones appear to the rest of our country? Sports fans might get a kick out of it, but are other voters wondering, “Why is the New Jersey governor dancing the Texas Two-Step, hugging the Dallas Cowboys’ owner?”
Question: Is Christie seizing this rare Cowboys playoff run as an opportunity to ingratiate himself to voters?
The Cowboys are America’s team, right? Christie answered critics this week saying, “I’m not going to be one of these politicians who changes their sports-team loyalties just to score political points.”
Conspiracy theorists who dislike Christie more than they despise the Cowboys may concoct grand scripts about how a pass-interference call was erased so the Cowboys could win and lead Christie to the White House. This is ridiculous.
Question: If Christie runs for president, could the Cowboys’ playoff run make or break his national popularity?
Question: If you were watching your favorite NFL team in a playoff game, would you stifle yourself from celebrating — or wearing a particular sweater — because it might be captured on live TV?
As unlikely as a New Jersey governor becoming an unofficial mascot for Dallas’ pro football team is his choice of game-day attire, which would seemingly place him in Cleveland, Cincinnati or Denver. Not in Big D. Go ahead and make all the jokes you want. He doesn’t care.
No serious football fan would. Remember this commercial? The orange sweater is Christie’s lucky couch, which he defended Monday after speaking to Boomer and Carton.
He might get to break “bread” as never before, though.
If Christie is as fortunate this weekend as I was at The Frozen Tundra on January 20, 2008, he’ll be introduced to a decadence that forced me to miss most of the Giants’ opening second-half series.
I had never seen or eaten what I’d hesitantly lumped onto my plate. Seconds later, I yelled across a few rows of tables lined behind the press-box seats.
“Bruce!! Len!! Have you guys tried this??”
My buddies, Len Berman and Bruce Beck, looked at me like I had two heads.
“Guys! I don’t what this is, but you have to try this dessert!”
I brought a third helping to my seat just in time to see Brandon Jennings score a one-yard touchdown. I turned to NY1’s Kevin Garrity, seated beside me, and said, “Kev, I don’t know what this is. But, have you tried this??”
It was bread pudding.
Covering the 2008 NFC Championship Game was everything it could be and more.
The day before the game, I tagged along on a tour of Lambeau Field and eventually got myself lost. Normally, I’d have been concerned that I might trigger security the way I was dressed. But it was so frigid — even for Green Bay — that most people I encountered were comforted to just see another warm-blooded soul, breathing. I snapped one photo after another. The shots were terrific. Some of the best photos I have taken during my career came from that weekend at Lambeau Field. Some of my best memories, too.
So what if my fingers neared frostbite within two minutes of exposure to the mid-day air as I interviewed a Giants fan from New Jersey? I was there to absorb the Green Bay experience. While I had to pause my interview for WCBS 880 to prevent any need for medical attention on my hands, I relished the moment. I shared the audio of us walking back into the hotel lobby to finish our conversation. It’s the only interview of dozens I did with fans that weekend that I recall.
At minus-one degrees at kickoff (-23 with the wind chill), it marked the second-coldest game in Packers history. While it was still toasty in the press box, I left my heated space several times during the game. I wanted to experience Lambeau Field.
When Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants into the Super Bowl, I was standing among the fans, one section below the press box at the 40-yard line. While Christie will likely be insulated by Jones’ suite, I strongly encourage him to walk around the stadium. Mingle with fans (potential voters) as they smoke cigarettes and cigars while downing beers, watching on TVs near concession stands. Snap selfies while wearing a cheesehead. Take group shots with Packers fans wearing dead animals on their heads. Pose in front of Vince Lombardi’s statue. He was a Jersey guy.
I wonder if Lombardi fell in love with Green Bay for the same reasons I did: its kind, simple people.
Imagine a small town where everybody attends the Friday night high-school football game. Everybody talks about the next game for days — in barber shops, pizzerias and courthouses. Only it’s not high school. It’s an NFL team. A darn fine one, too. Any Giants fan who made that trip would likely attest that he was greeted warmly, with sincere respect and honor for having traveled to pro football’s holy land to see his team take on the Pack.
As a former colleague prophetically wrote me the night before I flew to Wisconsin, “No doubt you will soak it all in and toss in some fun. Lambeau Field: 4 degrees, wind chill, who the hell knows… Brett Favre… NFC Championship game… HOW F—— COOL IS THAT? It’s so cool. I’m living vicariously through you for the wknd ;)”
I get the impression that many are thinking the same about another Jersey guy, who will likely embark on professional football’s sacred land this weekend. Dress appropriately, Mr. Governor. And don’t fear shame or criticism by Charlie Babbitt, as I did in Green Bay. Stop at Kmart to buy more thermals and ski masks. The store is located a snowball’s throw from Lambeau. Trust me, I didn’t buy enough layers beforehand at Ramsey Outdoor.
P.S.: While it is not germane to this story, I am comfortable sharing that I have never voted for Christie. I sacrifice my privacy here to extinguish any thoughts that this story is partisan, or politically motivated.
Jared Max is a multi-award winning sportscaster. He hosted a No. 1 rated New York City sports talk show, “Maxed Out” — in addition to previously serving as longtime Sports Director at WCBS 880, where he currently anchors weekend sports. Follow and communicate with Jared on Twitter @jared_max.
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