Fans of sports teams in the state of Wisconsin are fortunate to have some of the premier, and most distinct, radio play-by-play men calling the games of their favorite teams on a regular basis. You’ve got Bob Uecker for the Milwaukee Brewers, Ted Davis for the Milwaukee Bucks, Matt Lepay for Wisconsin Badgers football, Steve True for Marquette basketball – and of course the "Voice of the Packers," Wayne Larrivee on WTMJ-620 AM.
Larrivee has been calling Packers game since 1999 after spending 13 seasons as the voice of the Chicago Bears. He also has been heard nationally on radio and television calling college and professional basketball and football games.
So, with the Packers making the final push toward the playoffs, we thought it was a good time to catch up with him. We talk about the "dagger," what he learns from Aaron Rodgers, and the one game in sports history he wishes he could've called.
OnMilwaukee.com: We’ll start with a look at the state. It’s a good time to be a Wisconsin sports fan, isn’t it?
Wayne Larrivee: You’re right. It’s kind of like it’s been, I don’t know, not so much a renaissance, but this is about as good as it can get in terms of the interest and what’s going on with all the sports team. The Brewers had a good summer for the most part. They didn’t finish as well as they wanted, but a very good team and very entertaining. And certainly the Badgers and what they did in the Final Four last year, Marquette has had some great seasons and have been very competitive and obviously with the new coach there is a lot of excitement there. And the Packers have been the Packers. A lot of people seem to think they’re on a roll toward the Super Bowl. We’ll find out, that’s for sure, but that would be really interesting if all that came together. And the Badgers football team with Melvin Gordon going for a Heisman – my gosh – that’s really something.
OMC: Turning toward the Packers, I’m fortunate to see how you get to work "behind the scenes" so to speak, and you spend some time with Aaron Rodgers during the week, every week. What have you learned most from the quarterback?
WL: We talk specifically about the upcoming opponent and what he thinks. On Thursday, I usually have my charts all done and printed out and everything – these are the charts we use during the game – and I’ll go to him and say ‘what do you think?’ because I’ve got my ideas and he’s got his ideas. And he’ll point out a few things that I do not talk about before the game or report on, that type of thing, but he gives me an idea of OK, we think we’ve got an advantage over here.
We think we can get something going here. Watch for this. We’ve got to know where No. 58 is at all times, that type of thing. Some of those little insights that sometimes I use on the air; during the game when something happens pertaining to that issue, but sometimes it’s just background for me. It kind of gives me an idea of what to look for, what they’re thinking about.
It prevents me from going into a statement that may be totally contrary to what the Packers are actually thinking. I might have an idea – this is what I’m thinking – but that’s not what they’re seeing and what they’re thinking. So, a lot of it is – I hate to say subliminal – but what it does is gives my broadcast a little more depth, let me put it that way.
OMC: When did you want to incorporate that type of insight into your broadcast?
WL: A lot of times I’ve relied on coaches. Usually assistant coaches are your best sources. But different staffs have different policies in terms of when you can visit with coaches, that type of thing. It just happened to work out that Aaron and I kind of got to know each other a little bit when he came here when he was backing up Brett Favre. That’s kind of where that whole thing went and that’s why I talk to him rather than somebody else. In the past it’s been coaches, it’s been scouts.
In Chicago Rick Spielman was the director of pro personnel under Mark Hatley, who later was with the Packers. Spielman is now the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings. Well, he and I every Thursday used to sit up at Halas Hall and he’d give me the full run down of the upcoming opponent, offense, defense, special teams. Just give me his thoughts on the players. He didn’t tell me what the Bears were going to do, obviously, nor did I need to know that. But he’d tell me "this guy is really good" or "we think this guy is really kind of weak here and we’re going to go after this guy." That type of thing. The same stuff that Aaron Rodgers provides. Aaron and I talk for maybe five minutes, but he knows exactly what I’m looking for and there’s no wasted time. We just boom, boom, boom.
OMC: It was funny that at the start of the Minnesota Vikings game broadcast two weeks ago you said to get ready for the "opening tip off" and you caught yourself and corrected it to "kick off." You’ve done basketball for so long, too – how often does that type of thing happen to you?
WL: Well, I did the Marquette the game the day before so I was going in basketball mode! Yeah, it’s kind of funny. The thing I did throughout my career – and I don’t do it anymore – I used to do a college football game on TV on Saturday and then a pro game on Sunday on radio. And about midway through the first drive of the game you had to remind yourself wait a minute, you’re doing radio, not TV, and you have to enunciate a little bit more on where the ball is and what yard line and that type of thing, give a little more description. You adjust as you go along. It’s the challenge of it, really. That’s what makes it fun.
OMC: I’m still relatively new to your radio broadcast, having moved to Milwaukee nearly three years ago, so for people like me, or new Packers fans or listeners, what was the origin of the "dagger" phrase? And, with the advent of social media, are you aware that predicting that call is kind of a thing among Packers fans?
WL: Yeah, I do. It’s an old basketball term in all honesty. We used to use it on the Bulls games. When it got really dramatic in the end and somebody got a field goal and the game was out of reach, say it was a two score game and only time for one possession, that kind of thing. But I first used it, I want to say, 2000, 2001, somewhere around there. I don’t recall when it was. But I do recall the two teams playing.
The Baltimore Ravens when they were the defending world champs and Brian Billick was their coach and they came in to Lambeau Field and I think it was Bubba Franks who caught a touchdown pass from Brett Favre and it kind of put the game out of reach – and I said "And there’s your dagger!" And that’s where it took off from. When I didn’t use it the following weeks, people started asking about it, that type of thing. It picked up steam again from there. I’m surprised it’s become the thing that it is.
OMC: Are you conscious of that call? Meaning, do you guard against saying it too early in a game – like better be late with it than early?
WL: It’s a feel thing, when it comes down to it. I don’t pay attention to it, I don’t plan it – unless you can really see how the game situation develops. It’s a feel type of thing. It has nothing to do with numbers or anything like that. If you know a team has made a score that pretty much has ended the game essentially, you can tell by the body language of the players on the field, that’s usually when I say it.
OMC: You’ve been in the business for a long time and have called some great games played by great teams in Chicago and Wisconsin, covered iconic figures in major sports. If you could go back in time, what game do you wish you could call?
WL: I’d love to – if there was a time machine and you could go back and travel back in time – the game I’d like to go back to would be the Ice Bowl between Dallas and Green Bay, New Year’s Eve 1967. That’s the game. I remember listening to that game. I was at a ski arena in Massachusetts as an 8- or 9-year-old kid, something like that, whatever it was – and I remember listening to that game on the radio. It was real cold that day. That’s the game I’d love to call. That would be a great game to call.
OMC: I ask this of athletes, too – do you get a chance to reflect on the moments, the games, the people, you’ve been around in this game? Do you allow yourself to say "Wow, I was a part of that?"
WL: Yeah, sometimes I’ll do that – but usually during the offseason. Because, and again, it’s so hard in today’s game to know if you’re going in to a moment or not. Like 2010, I didn’t really think the Packers were going to make that kind of a run. I knew once they beat Atlanta the way they beat them that they were, but that was late. You just didn’t anticipate – there wasn’t a ramp up to it, like oh, this is a Super Bowl team. That was a 10-6 team. The ’85 Bears, that was a type of situation where that team was the best team on the field in training camp in July and they were the best team at the end of January after winning a Super Bowl. But it doesn’t happen that way anymore. Teams rise and fall. Really, at the start of the season in the NFL, you really don’t know who is going to emerge as the Super Bowl champ because so much can happen in between.
At times I’ll look back. The one thing that really strikes me, probably the thing – maybe the only thing I’ll be remembered for – would be I broadcast the Super Bowl championship for the Chicago Bears and I broadcast a Super Bowl championship game for the Green Bay Packers. Those are the two premier franchises in the history of the NFL. I’m very fortunate, very fortunate, to have been able to do that.
OMC: What are the games that come to mind that you can say, those were the best games I’ve called?
WL: It’s funny. There are the two Super Bowls, obviously. Then there were several games for the Bulls, but when I was doing Bulls games I was doing regular season games. I didn’t do the championship games. We were just doing the regular season games on Channel 9 in Chicago.
But, the two Super Bowls obviously stand out, but there is one game that nobody talks about or remembers: It was Christmas Eve, I want to say it was 2004, and the Packers played the Vikings. They were the only two teams playing. I think it was a Friday afternoon. It was basically a one game playoff for the NFC North Division championship and it was a great game, Vikings-Packers, in the Metrodome.
The Packers in those days, winning in the Metrodome was rare for them. And it went back and forth. It was Brett Favre – I’m trying to think of the Vikings quarterback – it would’ve been (Daunte) Culpepper. And it was just a great ballgame. Brett threw an interception and the Vikings took the lead, and Brett brought the Packers back right down field and got the game tied. And then the final drive, Ryan Longwell hit a field goal to win it. That was just a great ballgame.
There was another week to go in the regular season but the Packers had clinched home field. They won the division and they were going to play a playoff game in Green Bay. The next week they went to Chicago and beat the Bears in routine fashion, and then the Vikings went out and lost to the Redskins and they thought they were out of it, but just by the quirk of the playoff race, they get (into) a playoff game.
So here they are. The playoff game happens to be against the Packers. I remember Mike Tice, the (Vikings) coach said "This is exactly what we needed for our team to get our guys heads up and back in to it, a rivalry game," the whole bit. And the Packers knew that was the last team they wanted to see coming to Lambeau Field and that’s the way the game played out (the Vikings won the wildcard game at Lambeau Field, 31-17, on Jan. 9, 2005).
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.