As I recently wrote about to great, um, reaction, FOX NFL broadcasters Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are not everyone’s cup of tea, especially when it comes to our beloved Packers. Such is the sentiment that a couple of local fans have taken it upon themselves to become the hometown voice of Green Bay games, the cheeseheads’ cup of Schlitz (OK, Riverwest Stein).
City Ald. Nik Kovac and Keith Gaustad, a Milwaukee poet, radio host and musician, are once again planning to call the action live at Linneman’s on Sunday, when the Packers face the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. The amusing amateur announcers have been preparing all week for the matchup, doing opposition research on Atlanta’s most mockable players, readying their jokes and stretching out their vocal chords in hopes of being able to call a Green Bay win – which would send the team to the Super Bowl – in a jubilant and unapologetically nonobjective way. In other words, they would assert, in a much-better-than-Joe-Buck way.
Indeed, if it’s an endearingly enthusiastic and entertaining Packers game-viewing experience you want, utterly biased but unquestionably fun, Kovac and Gaustad will supply it Sunday afternoon at the cozy corner spot in Riverwest, 1001 E. Locust St. Known there as Nik the Host and T.J. Langfellow, the two call the game from the bar’s venerable open stage using owner Jim Linneman’s high-quality audio equipment, going off the (of course) muted FOX broadcast that is projected onto a large screen in the back room. There’s no cover charge, warm homemade chili available for $2.50 and the kind of good vibes that come from being surrounded by fellow Green and Gold fans and hearing a pro-Packers airing.
Kovac came up with the idea last year, doing the initial game – it was against the Vikings – at the Riverwest Public House Cooperative with drag entertainer Dora Diamond. Kovac says it was Diamond’s first time watching a football game all the way through, and he remembers lots of tight pants/tight ends jokes being made that day.
Since then, the District 3 Alderman, who lives in the neighborhood and is a proud Packers stockholder, has done the play-by-play for about seven or eight games with an assortment of color commentators – including "Exile" and "Jim From the South Side" – and most recently Gaustad, aka Langfellow. Kovac’s wife, Grace Fuhr, selects the songs that are played during commercial breaks, which usually correspond to the region of Green Bay’s opponent, except for last week’s game against Dallas because, as Kovac says, "we mostly hate Texas music."
I dropped in to Linneman’s for that Divisional Round Game against the Cowboys (Ed. note: "Cowboys, booooo!"), found myself chuckling more than I expected and had a genuinely good time. As I noted in my story last week, which prompted the vehemently anti-Buck/Aikman Kovac to revive the live-calling event and invite me to compare the listening experiences, I don’t really have a problem with FOX’s No. 1 broadcast team.
But this alternative was so pleasantly partisan, so refreshingly different than the usual NFL announcers – regardless your opinion on their professional merit or team leanings – I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, along with the two or three dozen other people in attendance. This being Wisconsin, several of the fans present wore old Green Bay jerseys, including Robert Brooks, Greg Jennings, Nick Barnett (Kovac) and Craig Newsome (me), though there were a couple Rodgers replicas that redeemed all of us.
With Nik the Host and T.J. Langfellow, the obviously Packers-slanted tone continuously runs the spectrum of nervous wreck to happy delirium, depending on the guys’ whims and the game’s situation. You’ll hear nothing but first-person pronouns – "can we stop them?" and "the ball is at our 30-yard line" – and first-name-basis remarks, as in "Randall has the ability to grow to 8-feet tall when he needs to" and "C’mon, Aaron!"
Understandably, there are some mistakes – like on Richard Rodgers’ first-quarter touchdown reception, when the tight end was confused with Jared Cook – but they’re more easily forgiven than those of Buck and Aikman. Take, for instance, when Kovac and Gaustad couldn’t figure out why a flag had been thrown: They weren’t certain what the penalty was, speculated on what it could be, were told by an audience member who’d found the answer on Twitter – I’d already texted a buddy to ask – then informed the crowd and said sorry for not knowing. Buck and Aikman may have had the details and gotten the information right, sure, but they probably wouldn’t have apologized to the viewers if they'd been wrong.
On a listener level, Kovac is actually a talented play-by-play guy, with a rapid-fire cadence that is articulate and descriptive, similar in style to 620 WTMJ’s Wayne Larrivee, plus humor. In discussing the play of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, Kovac mentions that "he has an Icelandic mother, a Persian father and was raised as a bro in California." Gaustad is good, too, relevant and irreverent in his commentary, and sounding a fair bit smarter than the average ex-NFL-player color man. Both guys are funny, frequently dropping in quips that range in sophistication from a player’s appearance or name to obscure historical, political and pop cultural references. "He tiptoed the sideline like that Janelle Monae song!" is a thing that is heard; at another point, Kovac says after a catch, "Geronimo! He who yawns, that's its original meaning."
Impossibly, the Riverwest duo might even be better than these guys.
In the first half, with the Packers taking a 21-13 lead, Kovac and Gaustad were upbeat and freewheeling, drinking beers, mingling with visitors and blithely ripping on the Cowboys. As Dallas came back in the second half, though, eventually tying the game at 31 late in the fourth quarter, the announcers’ mood turned darker and more anxious.
But when Mason Crosby kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired, the call from Linneman’s was simple and triumphant, accompanied by loud cheering (from fans and announcers), giddy laughter, cries of "We beat the Cowboys! We beat the Cowboys!" and the fitting Tribe Called Quest jam "Can I Kick It" blaring.
Kovac, who hosts a weekly radio show called Packerverse on Riverwest’s Community Radio Station, discussed the upcoming game (and other, somewhat-tangentially related topics) on the program Thursday, along with "Jim from the South Side," "Exile," "Bob" and "Jeff" – real names Jim Owczarski, Martin Lemke, Chris Weis and Andy Stoffels.
On Sunday at Linneman’s, Kovac and Gaustad will be doing a Falcons preview about 20 minutes before the 2:05 p.m. CT kickoff. They encourage people to arrive early to get a seat, chili and all the pregame info and laughs they need, before the real contest begins and the real voices of the Packers call the action – nervousness, excitement and unabashed homerism therein – for what they desperately hope will be a super Green Bay win.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.