When the Green Bay Packers’ legendary guard, Fuzzy Thurston, passed away, I told my blog readers I needed a couple of days to collect my thoughts before I could write a tribute. Well, Fuzzy left us on December 14, almost a month ago. I hope no one is bored or offended by my posting this so long after Fuzzy’s death. I’ve been thinking about him, and I want to state what he meant to the fans and particularly to me.
I knew the public Fuzzy pretty well, although I wasn’t privileged to know the private one. But based on the accounts of his teammates, maybe there wasn’t so much difference between the two. Frederick Charles Thurston was a great-hearted, rollicking man who became a Green Bay icon.
Fuzzy came to the Packers in 1959, the first season under Coach Vince Lombardi, and retired after the 1967 season with rings from Super Bowls I and II. (You can see one in the picture below.) He stayed in Wisconsin and opened a succession of restaurants and bars. He also fronted a tour company for a while. He basically made a career out of being Packer legend Fuzzy Thurston. He mingled with the fans, and they found a lot to love. For many travelers to Green Bay, Fuzzy was the face of the Packers.
Over the years, Fuzzy faced bankruptcy and lost his larynx to cancer, but neither dimmed his enthusiasm for life. As Jerry Kramer, his running mate at guard, said of him in Distant Replay (written with Dick Schaap and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1985), “Fuzzy always lived his life as if it might end tomorrow. He jammed everything into it, relished every minute. He was always charging, always up. … Every day, he was like a little boy at Christmas.”
Fuzzy loved to party. In another anecdote from Distant Replay, Kramer recalls stopping by Fuzzy’s home on a Wednesday, three days after the Packers defeated the New York Giants 37-0 to win the 1961 NFL Championship. Fuzzy wasn’t there. He was still celebrating the victory and hadn’t been home since before the game.
I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the era when Fuzzy played for the Packers and they won five championships in nine years. To my girlfriends and me, the Packer players were our heroes, our role models, the objects of our teenage crushes. It would not be inaccurate to call them demigods. In our small city, they certainly seemed larger than life.
Each player had a place in our pantheon. Paul Hornung was the handsome playboy. Bart Starr was the virtuous family man. Fuzzy—well, Fuzzy was the accessible one who always had time to talk and joke with us. (I guess that’s why he keeps popping up in the pages of Incomplete Passes.) By his own admission, in his book What a Wonderful World (self-published with Bill Wenzel in 2006), Fuzzy never turned down an autograph request.
In the 1980s, when I was approaching forty, I was terrified at the idea of getting old and became obsessed with those glory years in Green Bay. I turned to Fuzzy during that time. Whenever I revisited my hometown, I could go to one of his establishments—Shenanigans on Monroe or Fuzzy Thurston’s Bar and Restaurant on South Broadway. I could talk to Fuzzy, and if I was lucky, some of his teammates as well—people who understood my attachment to that era. One night I was sitting beside Fuzzy in the bar on Broadway when someone played a song on the jukebox, Mary Hopkin singing “Those Were the Days.” Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. In a bittersweet moment, we all sang along.
And when my girlfriends and I decided to reunite in Green Bay and see a game, we bought our first ticket/hotel package through Fuzzy. Our reunion became an annual affair. We’ve missed only two years since 1998, and we’ve visited with Fuzzy on many of our trips.
Coming into the 2014 season, we heard that Fuzzy’s health was deteriorating. The cancer was back and spreading; Fuzzy was battling Alzheimer’s as well. He was scheduled to participate in an autograph signing at the Stadium View Bar & Grille in Green Bay on September 13, the day before the home opener. That was the weekend we would be in town. Early that week, it seemed doubtful that Fuzzy would make it. He was so ill that his family gave permission to have his address posted on Facebook. His fans were encouraged to write with messages of cheer.
Saturday the 13th came, and Fuzzy made it to the Stadium View, looking frail but happy to be there, sitting alongside his buddy Kramer. I realized that this was probably the last time I would see the two of them together. Although I’d collected autographs from both over the years, I bought a print of the two guards leading Hornung in the fabled Packer sweep. I handed over my photo for Fuzzy to sign, and my breath caught as a man standing behind him, obviously his caretaker, pointed out the spot where Fuzzy was to write his name and reminded him to include his number 63. Although Fuzzy’s faculties had clearly deteriorated, his signature was sure and strong.
Ever since Fuzzy lost his voice, it seemed natural to communicate nonverbally with him. As I stepped away from the table, I did what I had done several times before. I blew him kisses, and he smiled a little.
Fuzzy made several more appearances with Kramer during the fall of 2014, both at autograph sessions and at Lambeau Field during games. I haven’t heard anyone else use the term “farewell tour”—and I mean no disrespect by using it–but to me that’s what it was. Sports memorabilia dealer Rick Moncher told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an article published December 3, (http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/60s-packers-struggle-against-their-final-foe-b99400418z1-284516901.html), “Some people might look at this and think Fuzzy is being taken advantage of. The truth is, he enjoys this. He likes just getting out.”
Although I was unable to attend, I was gratified when Fuzzy’s family elected to have a memorial service in the Lambeau Field Atrium and invited fans to come wearing Packer green and gold. I thought Fuzzy would have wanted it that way. More than most of his teammates, he belonged to the fans. I send his family my condolences and hope that the past month has not been simply one of mourning, but also a time to draw close and share some wonderful memories.
So what have I learned from my late hero? Fuzzy overcame adversity and appreciated what he had. By all accounts, he enjoyed being Fuzzy Thurston. Here was a man who was happy in his skin—an example we all can take to heart.
I’m not a believer, and I don’t know if there’s anything on the other side, although I’d like to think there is. If there is an afterlife, Fuzzy has found the party that never ends, and he’s raising a glass with teammates Jesse Whittenton and Max McGee. And maybe, if I’m lucky, when it’s my turn to cross over, those old Packer greats will let me stop by for a while. In my mind, that’s a pretty fine view of heaven.