Shotgun formation | Zombo, Harrell continue Packers’ outdoors tradition /

Cascade – The game plan was set, the lineup established.

Green Bay Packers players Frank Zombo and Graham Harrell slipped
on headgear with the familiar “G” and took to the field.

It amounted to the second road trip in two days.

But unlike last Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins,
this outing was far from any crowd and entailed an outdoor activity
older than
football.

Helmets were replaced with soft tops, green-andgold was
substituted by blaze orange.

“Feels great to get out,” Zombo said, stretching his legs along
a shaded farm lane. “Can’t wait to see some birds fly.” Visiting
stadiums are rarely – if ever – so welcoming.

Bright sun filled the woods and fields of the Kettle Moraine
region; red maples stood beside blond rows of corn.

A rooster pheasant cackled in the distance.

As you might expect, the life of an NFL player is consumed by
football. Meetings, practices,
workouts, travel and games typically take up six days a week during
the season.

But Tuesday is the standard “off” day around the league.

Players might spend the day resting, playing video games or
taking care of family obligations.

Zombo and Harrell, both enthusiastic hunters, like to try and
fit in some time in the great Wisconsin outdoors.

They joined me for a hunt Tuesday at the Highlands Sportsmen’s
Club, which offers upland bird hunting, sporting clays and dog
boarding.

We were guided by Highlands manager Josh Walsh and a bevy of
skilled canines.

Zombo, 23, is a rookie linebacker with two starts and two sacks
on his growing NFL r?sum?. Harrell, 25, is a first-year quarterback
on the practice squad who set NCAA records for touchdowns and
completions at Texas Tech.

Over lunch, Zombo explained how he had taken hunter safety as a
youth in Sterling Heights, Mich. But he hadn’t really started
hunting in earnest until his junior year at Central Michigan
University.

Two years later, he’s a serious hunter. How so? With his first
Packers check, he purchased a bow.

Harrell grew up outside Dallas and has hunted since his youth.
His family owns a ranch in southwest Texas where they regularly
hunt white-tailed deer and doves.

The Green Bay Packers are famous for winning the most NFL
championships; the city is notorious as the smallest market in
major American sports.

The latter can turn away players seeking bigger marketing
opportunities. But the smallertown feel also can allow players to
focus more on their job.

And if that player also happens to be an outdoorsman, the
franchise arguably offers the finest opportunities and closest
proximity to hunting and fishing of any team in the league.

In the Lombardi era, players like Dave Hanner, Jerry Kramer and
Fuzzy Thurston would pheasant hunt straight east of Lambeau Field
after practice. Those fields now grow buildings.

But players still find excellent hunting within a short drive of
Lambeau.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed hunting during my time as a
player,” said Brian Noble, a Packers linebacker from 1985-’93.

Noble, now a resident of Las Vegas, said he especially
appreciated the chance to bow hunt for deer.

“When you’re sitting in a bow stand by yourself, you’ve got time
to think, digest the game plan and gather your thoughts,” he said.
“Once the season kicks in, you are so obligated to
football, it’s priceless to be able
to get away like that.” Noble said, especially later in his career,
he would be in the field every Tuesday. And if it was a home game
week, he would try to get out Thursday and Friday, too.

Noble said his affection for hunting was shared by several
players during his era, including linebacker John Anderson. They
often would offer to take players with no hunting experience
out.

“Many NFL players have never shot a gun, much less gone
hunting,” Noble said. “Green Bay is world class for hunting, no
doubt about it.” As any dedicated hunter can appreciate, Noble
often pushed his time afield to the limit.

Noble recalled one particular incident: It was a Saturday, with
the team bus loading for a trip to Milwaukee. Noble was the last to
arrive, a minute before the 11 a.m. departure. He wore camouflage
coveralls and had a deer strapped to the back of his Jeep.

Coach Forrest Gregg, who required the players to dress in sport
coats and ties for such trips, stood at the front of the bus and
shook his head.

“You better be back in here quick,” Gregg said, expecting Noble
to dash for the locker room.

Noble simply pulled off his coveralls, revealing a dress shirt
and tie, added a sport coat and the bus departed.

Rookie linebackers like Zombo and practice squad members like
Harrell aren’t likely to push such limits.

But they are fully aware of the very good place they’re in.

“The organization and the community are outstanding,” Harrell
said. “To have the chance to get into the outdoors like this is
icing on the cake.” With the mercury pushing 70, we formed a line
and walked behind two of Walsh’s yellow Labrador retrievers.

The dogs nosed into milo and switch grass on the scent of
pheasants. In minutes the first rooster erupted to my right. I
fired and the dogs made their first retrieve of the day.

Any misgiving at not letting the players take the first shot
soon departed.

Showing his linebacker’s inclination, Zombo quickly and with
notable success attacked each opportunity.

Harrell displayed a bit more reserve, surveying the airspace
before firing.

But you don’t set NCAA passing records by being inaccurate – he,
too, was largely on target.

We ended the afternoon’s hunt with 13 pheasants in the bag. The
birds were quickly cleaned and will provide excellent table
fare.

By 4 p.m. Zombo and Harrell were headed back to Green Bay,
getting set to restart the practicegame film-workout sequence. They
declared the outing a success. Not only had they gotten a
head-clearing break from
football, visited a new part of
Wisconsin and enjoyed their first pheasant hunt of the year, but Al
Harris, cornerback and one of the senior members of the team, gave
the young players orders to bring home some pheasant breasts.

“I really love
football and feel blessed to be able
to do it for a living,” Zombo said. “Playing here in Green Bay and
being able to hunt has made me love it even more.”

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The franchise arguably offers the finest opportunities and
closest proximity to hunting and fishing of any team in the
league.

Copyright, 2010, Journal Sentinel, All Rights Reserved.