His only reaction was, “Who woulda thunk it?”
Twenty-nine years ago, New York native Pepper Burruss first set foot in the state of Wisconsin as the assistant athletic trainer for the New York Jets, who were playing a preseason game at Lambeau Field. Like all teams visiting Green Bay, the Jets stayed at the Paper Valley Hotel in nearby Appleton.
Then, less than two months ago, here was Burruss at that very same hotel getting inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame, the third Packers head trainer to be so honored.
“What kind of crystal ball would it take to say that when I walked in off the bus on Aug. 13, 1982, I’d eventually work for the Green Bay Packers, stay here long enough to win a couple of Super Bowls, and get inducted into the Hall of Fame in this building?” Burruss asked. “No way.”
Yes, Burruss couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by it all.
Secretly nominated for induction by his own staff in Green Bay, which includes full-time assistants Kurt Fielding, Bryan Engel and Nate Weir, Burruss took a moment in front of the ballroom full of accomplished trainers and physicians to ask everyone who at some point had worked for the Packers – as an intern, summer assistant, consultant, you name it – to stand up.
Most of the room got to its feet.
“This isn’t about me, this is about the Packers,” Burruss told everyone.
Green Bay’s head trainer since 1993, Burruss joins the Packers’ Carl (Bud) Jorgensen (1940-69) and Dominic Gentile (1970-92) as WATA hall of famers. Jorgensen was inducted in WATA’s inaugural class of 1989, Gentile in 1993.
“To be put in that company is such an amazing honor,” said Burruss, who last year was appointed by the NFL to the Head, Neck & Spine (“Concussion”) Committee. “Then to look around the room at all the other people, people that welcomed a New Yorker to this state, all these Hall of Famers … I wanted to recognize those in the room that have come before me.”
There was even more to make the induction special.
Team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie also received an honorary WATA membership, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy made a surprise appearance to speak in Burruss’ honor.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘It’s great to be here for Pepper and for ‘Doc’, but holy smokes, we had the longest IR list, the most surgeries, the most missed time due to injuries, and we’re honoring these guys?’” Burruss said. “The place went nuts. It was perfect.”
All joking aside, McCarthy’s appearance meant a lot to Burruss, and Burruss suspected it made an impression on many in attendance.
“All of those young athletic trainers out there in the crowd, to see a trainer’s coach come down and think enough of him to be there and to pay honor, that touches the other trainers about bonding that relationship,” Burruss said. “They were probably saying, ‘Boy, I hope my coach does that for me one day.’ It didn’t go unnoticed.”
Neither did the irony of the evening’s location for someone transplanted from the NFL’s largest city to its smallest.
“We love it here,” Burruss said. “It’s been a great run. To have a Super Bowl ring, a couple of them, and to have these events when your peers are involved, it’s cool.”