GREEN BAY — Jetting out from the south side of the Packers’ locker room is a long corridor that leads to the office of long-time assistant equipment manager Tom Bakken.
It’s a modest space no longer than an average walk-in closet, but the keepsakes that decorate the walls and shelves paint a larger-than-life picture of service and gratitude.
Model aircrafts sit atop his desk with frames covering the rest of the room, including one arrangement of a United States flag that once flew over the Pentagon on the Fourth of July and aboard the USS Nimitz on the Dec. 15, 2009.
This is more than just a hobby for Bakken, the Packers’ nominee for the 2016 NFL Salute to Service award. It’s an appreciation that’s sprouted several lifelong friendships.
“Getting to know all of these folks that have come and done flybys for us and folks that we’ve met in passing when we’ve went on Navy trips to different places, you get a chance to look into their way of life and what they’re doing,” Bakken said.
“You come to find out what they do for us, the sacrifices they and their families make for us. Here, we play a game for a living.”
Bakken, known affectionately as “T-Bone” around Lambeau Field, joined the Packers in 1994 with equipment manager Gordon “Red” Batty.
Bakken developed an interest in the military at an early age. His father, Bill, served in the Army in the early 1950s and he’s read countless books on the history of the armed forces.
It was during his first years in Green Bay that Bakken developed an appreciation for pregame flyovers. It was exciting, patriotic and the Lambeau Field crowd seemed to love it.
Then, it was gone.
“A guy who worked here that’s since moved on, Ralph Ockenfels, used to do all the flyby stuff,” Bakken said. “He went to the Titans, so we didn’t have much for flybys for a year or two. I was kind of curious to know why and just happened to get one dropped into our laps when I asked about it.
“I said, ‘Well, if you can do any more, let’s do some more.’”
One acquaintance led to another for Bakken and the Packers, creating a vast network of contacts with servicemen and women that he cherishes to this day.
Bakken made it a priority to ensure every crew who came to Green Bay for a flyover felt at home, including a tradition of hosting dinner at the Union Hotel in nearby De Pere the night before home games.
One benefit of the small-town nature of Green Bay is the close proximity of Austin Straubel Airport to Lambeau Field, which allows crews the opportunity to get back to the stadium after the flyover to enjoy the last three quarters of the game.
It was through those interactions Bakken learned how important flyovers are to training members of the military. Aviation, communication and timing are all put to the test for the pilots and military personnel on the ground during a flyover.
Many close friendships have developed along the way.
“What’s been fun, too, is back in 2000-01 when I first started doing this, some of them were junior officers not even wet behind the ears just learning how to fly an aircraft,” Bakken said.
“Now, I got a good buddy who’s a Navy two-star. I have a good buddy who’s a retired Air Force three-star. The people you get to know is unbelievable and to see them come through the ranks, no pun intended, of their military careers has really been interesting to see them grow through everything.”
Along with helping coordinate flyovers, Bakken has helped put together numerous trips visiting aircraft carriers, including a visit to the Middle East six days after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV in February 2011.
The most recent came in 2014 when he, Batty and director of sports medicine administration Pepper Burruss led a group of current and former Packers on a military trip through Okinawa, Tokyo and Guam.
The trips showed Bakken firsthand how important the NFL is to members of the military. Most sailors live in small quarters with only a half-locker to store his or her possessions during deployment. Yet, many use that valuable space to keep a jersey.
Bakken recalls meeting an enlistee a few years ago who was wearing a Clay Matthews T-shirt onboard. He took a photo and texted it to the Packers’ Pro Bowl linebacker, who told Bakken to get his information so he could send him something.
Bakken’s currently in the early stages of arranging another trip, which usually consists of presentations, autograph signings and Q&As with military members.
“He has an incredible passion for the military and the relationships he’s established over the years, it’s special,” said Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy of Bakken. “We’re proud of him, supporting him and hopefully we can take it a step further.”
Finalists for the Salute to Service Award presented by USAA will be announced in January, and the recipient will be recognized at the NFL Honors awards show in Houston, Texas, on FOX on Saturday, Feb. 4, the night before Super Bowl LI.
You can send your support by tweeting out to these great nominees. The NFL is tallying all the hashtags and adding them to our Salute Count.
“It’s unbelievable. I’m completely humbled by it,” said Bakken, who also was nominated in 2014. “I don’t know if I feel worthy of it, quite honestly. I do it just because I’m trying to support them for what they do for us I guess in my little way.”