As famous as the Green Bay Packers players who visited Rhinelander on Tuesday are, the infamous Hodag isn’t too far behind.
When asked what a Hodag is during a question-and-answer forum at the Packers Tailgate Tour stop at the Rhinelander Ice Arena, Packers wide receiver James Jones quickly jumped in to field the question.
“I know what a Hodag is,” he said. “A Hodag is a made-up creature.”
Jones, who is joined on the tour by safety Nick Collins, left tackle Chad Clifton, fullback John Kuhn and President/CEO Mark Murphy, received rousing applause for their knowledge of the Northwoods from the roughly 200 fans in attendance.
All of the proceeds from the event benefit the Pelican Fire Department and Kindness For Kids.
The stop at the Rhinelander Ice Arena was one of five locations the Packers hit on the first day of their four-day offseason tour.
In the morning, the tour bus surprised students at Menominee Indian High School in Keshena before heading to Wabeno Elementary School and Wabeno High School. In the afternoon, the bus stopped at Rhinelander High School.
“We had a great time,” Collins said about the stop at RHS. “We got to get out there with the kids and play a little basketball, 3-on-3, and it was amazing.”
Collins wasn’t too worried about getting hurt during a pickup basketball game with high schoolers.
“We take it easy. We just like to have fun with the kids,” he said.
Murphy cringes sometimes when his multimillion-dollar athletes are playing recreational basketball.
“They’re great athletes, so you just hope their athleticism allows them to avoid injury,” Murphy said.
The players and Murphy love the planned stops on the tour, but usually the surprise visits are the most fun — especially at elementary schools.
“To see the kids’ faces when the Packers run in with their jerseys on, it’s pretty fun,” Murphy said.
Collins and Jones have been on the Tailgate Tour twice in the five years it has been running. It’s an experience both players said is a highlight of their offseason.
“(We want) to show that we appreciate them,” said Collins, a two-time Pro Bowler who signed a lucrative contract during the offseason. “We love their support, and hopefully the kids can take home a good message from us. We give them the real-life stories of how we were brought up and stuff like that. It’s just a good thing to do.”
“It’s good to get out in the state, areas we normally wouldn’t get to visit and just see the people,” said Clifton, who has been to the Northwoods once to snowmobile in 2001.
Murphy likes the opportunity to go around and thank all the fans — and “owners” of the team — for their support.
“The fans, I think for them to have a chance to meet our players and spend some time with them is key,” Murphy said. “You can see the players are really down to earth.”
From Rhinelander, the tour rolls into Chippewa Falls on Wednesday, Reedsburg on Thursday and Milwaukee on Friday, with several stops en route to that night's festivities.
Greg Bates is sports editor of the Rhinelander Dailey News.