Last Thursday’s game against the Chiefs was insignificant in many ways. It was the final preseason game, the starters only played one series, and the Packers were able to hold off Kansas City’s first- and second-teamers without their second- and third-teamers.
But one significant event happened immediately following that game. As players were exchanging pleasantries and making their way to their respective tunnels, linebacker Vic So’oto was taking a victory lap around Lambeau Field, slapping hands and greeting fans like he had just won the Super Bowl.
The undrafted linebacker from BYU was a long-shot at best to make the squad of the defending Super Bowl Champions, especially as the Packers had already drafted scrappy DJ Smith in the sixth round. Moreover, most of his competition at backup had served in a starting position last season at some point or another: Brad Jones, Frank Zombo, and Erik Walden were all jockeying for the start, while the losers would take a reserve spot So’oto coveted.
You know the saying about slim and none, and Slim just left town, right? Vic So’oto was Slim, and he knew it. An NFL lockout just continued to diminish his chances to catch on quickly in rookie minicamps and give his best audition in training camp.
By his own admission, he is still more than a little rough around the edges, a consequence of playing tight end in college until after his sophomore year, then switching to defensive end. Now, trying to transition from the line to the linebacker spot would seem to increase the doubt, not only from those around him, but in So’oto himself.
So, when you saw So’oto making the rounds after the Chiefs game, in many ways, this was his Super Bowl. He found his way into the backfield to be a part of two sacks, and picked off Tyler Palko’s fourth quarter pass, returning it for a touchdown. He did this while fighting off double- and triple-teams. On Thanksgiving, stats like that will earn you a Golden Gobbler Award. On Thursday, it earned Vic So’oto what he coveted far more: a spot on the 53-man roster.
Despite all the doubts, yet having a groundswell of support coming from his position coach, Kevin Greene, and the rabid Packer fanbase, this was a victory that deserved to be celebrated: with tears, with joy…but So’oto chose to celebrate with the fans that had cheered him on all along.
You can imagine So’oto going into the locker room and finding a mirror, looking at his reflection and saying, “I made it.” Then, perhaps surprised at the sound of the words coming from his own mouth, pausing and repeating them… “I made it.”
That sense of joyful disbelief harkens back to last December, when a team crippled by injuries was defeated by the lowly Lions, who hadn’t won a division game since 2007. High hopes early in the season had long since been dashed, but with but a mere sliver of opportunity to make the playoffs, the Packers forged on in spite of everything working against them.
Once their quarterback returned from injury, the Green Bay Packers went on a tear that would silence the critics, defy the doubters, and invigorate the believers like never before. The Green Bay Packers had almost no chance to make the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl, but they gritted out a victory, week after week.
Oh, mind you, it wasn’t easy. How many games do you remember coming down to a last-minute defensive stand, where a game-saving interception by Tramon, Charles, Nick, or Sam was necessary to advance the team and restart our arrested hearts? The Cardiac Pack, indeed.
In the end, one word could be used to define the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl Championship Season: perseverance. They achieved the monumental task of winning a Lombardi Trophy, not as the odds-on favorites like they were in 1996, but as the team that defiantly rejected the notion, even from its own fans, that they couldn’t take the field and win every game on the road with the personnel they had.
How many Packers do you think went into the locker room in Dallas and had to pinch themselves to completely fathom what they had truly accomplished? As fans, we lined Lambeau Field a few days later on one of the coldest days of the winter to watch Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson, and Aaron Rodgers hold up that trophy, as if we needed to see it for ourselves, too. Frozen tears lined the faces of folks who could no longer feel their hands, yet clapped wildly. We fought through that season of injuries and doubt, and this…this…was the reward. This is what Packers and their fans lived for.
This brings us back to Vic So’oto: the man without a ring (yet), the player who worked his tail off to overcompensate for his raw fundamentals. The man who had to impress to even be considered for a roster spot. The man who defied the odds. “I can’t lie,” he said. ”People doubted me. I had coaches at my school actually say, ‘What are you going to do now after football?’ That kind of hurt me. My wife asked, ‘What’s Plan B.’ I said, ‘There’s no Plan B. I’m playing football.’”
In reality, the Super Bowl team of 2010 wasn’t just one huge story, but a series of hundreds of little stories like So’oto’s. Sure, we know the big names: Rodgers’ rise from a draft-day drop and Favregate; Charles Woodson’s redemption from being labeled a locker room cancer by the Raiders; and Mike McCarthy’s head being called for by fans following the 2008 season. But every player on that roster had their own story, their own demons, their own doubters. Some made it all the way, like James Starks showing enough promise to avoid the IR and make a difference in January. Some, like Josh Gordy, collected a ring from the practice squad. AJ Hawk went from the guy we wanted to replace to the prototypical middle linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
Even guys who left the team made a mark. When guys like Jamon Meredith and Allen Barbre failed, it provided the impetus for Ted Thompson to draft a first-round tackle in Bryan Bulaga. Each position on that team has its own number of stories to tell.
Yes, the Super Bowl is the ultimate prize for any fan, but it isn’t the reason we watch. If it were, we’d only tune in sometime in February, and only if the Packers were in the game. The reason we watch is because of all these little stories, all of the little battles we see along the way. As Mike Homgren told his team in the 1990’s: The journey is its own reward.
What is a championship? Maybe nothing more than some mathematical equation of all of those little wins and losses, a sum of all the fights and controversies and celebrations that evolves into a team able to reach out and take that golden ring. Each one of those stories is important. Perhaps to us, they aren’t equally important: we might think that the story of Rodgers or Woodson or Clay Matthews had far more of a direct impact on the final product.
But don’t ever doubt how important each individual battle is to a player like Vic So’oto. He sealed up what may end up being just the 53rd spot on a 53-man roster, and may not even survive the season.
But as you watched him do his victory lap around Lambeau Field, you couldn’t tell him it wasn’t a big deal. He had not only defeated all the doubters around him, but the doubter inside him. He had persevered, sometimes through nothing more than pure grit and determination, willing his body to do whatever it took to reach his goal.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?