For most sports fans, it’s difficult to recall the exact moment or even specific season when they fell in love with their favorite team.
Oftentimes, adulation for a team begins at birth when the parents bestow their devote fandom unto the child. Or it might occur a few years later when a child favors a team their older sibling follows. For me, there is no doubt when my love affair with a team become one of the most important aspects of my young life.
I became a Green Bay Packers fan in the fall of 1989.
I had just turned nine years old. My dad wasn’t really into sports and my older brother was more of a baseball fan. He helped foster my joy for baseball and the Milwaukee Brewers a couple years earlier. However, ’89 was about all about the Packers and their resurgence ignited my fandom.
After years of living in the NFL doldrums, the Packers had an exciting young team, led by second-year coach Lindy Infante. Don Majkowski, a hotshot, mullet-clad gunslinger led the offense and Tim Harris, a cocky, six-shooting pass rusher set the tone on defense. To fill in the gaps, there was Sterling Sharpe, Chris Jacke, Brent Fullwood, Mark Lee and other contributors that made ’89 memorable.
There were the dramatic, come-from-behind victories and the painful, nail-biting defeats. When it came to an end, a rollicking, roller-coaster ride season ended in heartbreak for the Packers … and this young fan.
The ‘Majik Man’ takes the stage
It’s impossible to dissect the 1989 Packers without highlighting Majkowski. The Buffalo native was the “Majik Man” that season and his accomplishments were certainly mystifying. Majkowski, drafted from Virginia in 1987, played sparingly his first two seasons in Green Bay before fully accepted the starting quarterback role in ’89.
Majkowski led the league with 4,318 passing yards. This was back in the day when finishing with 3,000 yards was significant. Majkowski also completed 353 passes (out of nearly 600 attempts) and notched 27 touchdown passes. His breakout season earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl. Majik Mania spread across Wisconsin and the blonde bomber was the NFL’s flavor of the month.
Majkowski’s favorite target was Sterling Sharpe, a second-year wide receiver from South Carolina. Sharpe was not especially big or fast, but was strong, physical and blessed with exceptional hands. In ’89, as San Francisco’s Jerry Rice was ascending to superstar status, Sharpe was stealing some of Rice’s thunder. Sharpe led the league with 90 receptions for 1,423 yards, while scoring 13 TDs. Sharpe was far and away the Packers’ biggest receiving threat, but fellow wide receiver Perry Kemp contributed with 48 receptions and 611 yards.
Green Bay didn’t have a stellar rushing attack in ’89, which explains Majkowski’s 599 pass attempts and more than 4,000 yards. Fullback Brent Fullwood, however, provided some pop from the backfield, gaining 821 yards with five TDs. Halfback Keith Woodside hauled in 59 receptions.
Defensively, Harris terrorized opposing quarterbacks, producing 19.5 sacks. I always thought Harris was a defensive end, but actually played right outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 alignment. He was Green Bay’s Lawrence Taylor in ’89.
One of my fondest memories was watching the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Harris swoop around a left tackle, hunt down the QB with a sack and celebrate with his “six-shooter” routine. In today’s NFL, that celebration would likely draw a flag for taunting. For his outstanding season, Harris went to the Pro Bowl and was an All-Pro selection.
The defensive backfield was led by veteran cornerback Dave Brown. In his final season, Brown, 36, posted six interceptions. Brown, a first-round draft pick for Pittsburgh, began his career in 1975. That was back when the Steelers were known for having a defense that wasn’t too shabby.
While ’89 produced its share of dramatic highs and lows, two signature victories stand out.
On Nov. 19, the Packers traveled to San Francisco and stunned the defending Super Bowl champs, 21-17. With the game deadlocked 14-14, Majkowski rushed for an 8-yard score in the fourth quarter and Green Bay’s defense held the 49ers to a field goal late in the game. Overall, the defense shined. While Joe Montana passed for 325 yards and two TDs, he suffered five sacks (Steve Young also took a sack) and safety Chuck Cecil intercepted a Montana pass.
The loss was only one of two for the powerhouse 49ers that season as it culminated with another Super Bowl championship. The Packers’ surprising win (they were 10.5 point underdogs) moved them to 6-5 and put the rest of the league on notice. This wasn’t the same old Packers.
Remember the “Instant Replay Game?” Nov. 5, 1989, Lambeau Field. The hated Chicago Bears were in town and Mike Ditka’s team was still formidable. They no longer struck fear in the hearts of opponents as the ’85 squad did, but they were capable of beating the league’s top teams.
Losing 13-7 late in the fourth quarter, Majkowski moved up in the pocket, scrambled to his right and hit Sharpe in the end zone. The thrilling score kicked off a wild celebration at Lambeau, but the Bears said “not so fast!” Ditka argued Majkowski stepped over the line of scrimmage when he passed to Sharpe. But, instant replay, a very new concept in the NFL in the late 80s, showed the QB’s foot was not over the line. Jacke booted the extra-point and the Packers survived with a 14-13 triumph. The Packers swept Chicago that season, also claiming a 28-24 win Dec. 17.
The Packers had so many close wins and losses, they were dubbed the “Cardiac Pack” in ’89. They literally made your heart race.
Somewhat shockingly, Green Bay only played one overtime game, nipping Detroit 23-20 Oct. 29. The Packers won four games by a one-point margin and three others by four points or less. Their margin for error was razor thin. A 10-6 team could have easily finished 6-10. But, a couple more wins would have proved very beneficial for the Packers. And that’s where we come to the not-so-fun part.
Playoffs denied, Christmas ruined
On Christmas Eve, the Packers finished the regular season defeating the lowly Dallas Cowboys 20-10. Despite going 10-6, the Packers did not control their own destiny. They had to wait another day for the results of the Vikings-Bengals clash on Monday Night Football.
Up to that point, the Christmas night ’89 game was the most important MNF contest in my life. Green Bay and Minnesota split the season series. However, the Vikings, at 9-6, had a better head-to-head record against NFC opponents. But, if the Bengals knocked off Minnesota that night, the Pack were in the playoffs. Suddenly, I wished there would have been a Boomer Esiason jersey for me under the tree that morning.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Minnesota downed the Bengals 29-21, dashing the Packers’ dreams of a post-season run. The euphoria of Christmas, Packer Mania, toys, and other childhood joy came crashing down. I went to bed a sad, disappointed nine-year-old. Thanks, Boomer!
There is always next season, right?
As the sting of missing the playoffs wore off, there was optimism for the future.
But that slowly faded as the Packers limped through a 6-10 season in 1990, followed by 4-12 in ’91. Majkowski, often befuddled by injuries, couldn’t recapture the magic of ’89. In ’92, new coach Mike Holmgren gave him one more shot, but a terrible ankle injury ended his season. It opened the door for a second-year QB from Southern Miss with a rocket arm and boundless charisma. Four years later, Brett Favre led Green Bay to a Super Bowl title.
Following his years in Green Bay, Majkowski played for the Colts before finishing his career with the Lions in 1996.
For his efforts in ’89, Infante was named Coach of the Year. After being dismissed following the ’91 season, Infante coached the Colts for two seasons, going 9-7 in 1996. He was fired after Indy went 3-13 in ’97. He did extract some revenge on his former team. On Nov. 16, 1997, Infante’s 0-10 Colts stunned the defending Super Bowl champion Packers with a 41-38 win. Infante, at age 75, died in 2015.
Sharpe continued to thrive in Green Bay with Favre firing passes to him. However, a debilitating neck injury forced him into retirement in 1994. In his seven seasons, Sharpe was a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. There’s little doubt his career-ending injury derailed a shot at the Hall of Fame.
Harris, unhappy with his contract, left the Packers in 1991, signing with the 49ers. He played for the Eagles in 1993 before re-joining the Niners and winning a Super Bowl in ’94. Harris finished with 81 sacks in 10 seasons.
After a standout rookie season in ’89, Jacke remained the Packers’ kicker through 1996. He ended his career with the Cardinals in 1999.
Similar to most running backs, Fullwood’s career was fairly short. In 1990, he left Green Bay, played in six games with the Browns, then retired. Woodside played two more seasons with the Packers before calling it quits following the ’91 season.
While he did little on the field in ’89, Tony Mandarich certainly provided plenty of hype.
Mandarich, a mammoth left tackle from Michigan State, was the second overall pick in the draft, behind Dallas’ Troy Aikman. There was the Sports Illustrated cover story, hailing Mandarich as the “Incredible Bulk.” The highlight films of pancaking defenders in college, his intense weight-lifting sessions. He was a can’t-miss prospect. Perhaps the next great left tackle … until he wasn’t.
A few years later, he was on the cover of SI again, labeled the “Incredible Bust.” Years later, he admitted to abusing steroids. It often consumed his days in Green Bay. His play suffered. Eventually the Packers released Mandarich. He enjoyed a comeback with the Colts, under Infante, and turned his life around.
Thirty years have passed since I was hit with Packer Fever and became a football fan for life. While they didn’t win the Super Bowl or even a playoff game, memories of that team will also stay close to my heart.
About the Author
Kevin Damask is an 80sFootballCards.com contributor
as well as the Editor of the Columbus Journal in Columbus, Wisconsin.
You can contact Kevin at email@example.com
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kdamask