OSHKOSH, Wis. – Sam Barrington barely was a teenager the first time he met an NFL player.
Attending an NFL Experience event in his hometown of Jacksonville before Super Bowl XXXIX, the future Packers linebacker was introduced to Dolphins All-Pro cornerback Sam Madison during a meet-and-greet.
Barrington, not often at a loss for words, stood in awe.
“I could never forget that moment and that moment was 15 years ago,” Barrington recalled earlier this week.
It’s those experiences the fourth-year linebacker can harken back to now that he’s on the other side of the equation.
On Friday morning, Barrington, President/CEO Mark Murphy, and several other current and former Packers began the team’s 11th annual Tailgate Tour, a five-day trek across the state.
The event features several unannounced stops at schools, hospitals, parks, community recreation facilities, and military locations.
One of the first visits on this year’s trip was to the Oshkosh YMCA, about an hour’s drive from Lambeau Field, where unsuspecting kids poured outside during a fire drill to find Barrington, receiver Jared Abbrederis, linebacker Jayrone Elliott, and alumni LeRoy Butler, Robert Brooks and Sean Jones awaiting them.
Kids, whose ages ranged from 5-17, immediately welcomed the players with a “Go Pack Go” chant.
While neither children nor parents knew about the stop ahead of time, the Oshkosh YCMA held a green-and-gold spirit day on Friday to make sure the kids came prepared with their favorite Packers jersey or T-shirt.
For the next hour, they played kickball, soccer, tag, frisbee, ring-around-the-rosy and duck-duck-goose. They also tossed bean bags and footballs with the players. Afterward, Murphy and Co. handed out footballs and wristbands before the kids sent the bus off to its next stop in Ripon.
“They start as fans at such a young age and to have a moment like this it’s going to be very impactful,” said Secelie Schaeffer, the Oshkosh YMCA school-age department coordinator. “They had absolutely no idea we had organized this, but the looks on their faces was just incredible. It was a great moment.”
Abbrederis can relate to the excitement. Growing up in Wautoma, Wis., the third-year receiver used to cheer on the very same players with whom he’s now touring the state through Tuesday.
He’d previously met Butler, but this week is his first time interacting with Jones and Brooks, who caught 306 passes for 4,225 yards and 32 touchdowns in seven years with the Packers.
“It’s fun seeing those guys because I remember when I was little how much I looked up to them,” said Abbrederis, a Wisconsin alumnus who was a fifth-round draft pick in 2014.
“Obviously, growing up watching them, it’s kind of crazy. If you told me when I was 6, 7 years old that this would happen, I’d never believe it.”
Elliott said he relishes the chance to interact with fans, especially since players aren’t always able to do so as much as they’d like to during the heat of the regular season.
Regardless of their age, the opportunity to connect with fans on a personal level is something he doesn’t take lightly.
“I’m excited because it gives us a great opportunity to get out in the community and talk to the fans,” Elliott said. “I kind of pride myself on having a great personality and being able to reach out to kids. I’m just trying to interact with them and try to get to know one another. Try to interact with my teammates, as well.”
The decision to participate in the tour for the first time was a no-brainer for Barrington, who’s been incredibly active in the Green Bay community since his arrival as a seventh-round pick in 2013.
This past year, Barrington was chosen as the Packers’ recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award and also received the 2015 community service award from the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
He knows firsthand the impact an NFL player can have on a child’s life. Along with his encounter with Madison, Barrington also met former Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew by happenstance on a beach in Jacksonville when he was 18.
What stood out to Barrington – other than Jones-Drew’s large hands – was how humble the running back was. He saw him again during this year’s NFL Draft in Chicago when Barrington announced the Packers’ third-round selection.
While Barrington didn’t ask if Jones-Drew remembered him, he made sure to introduce his brother to the former three-time Pro Bowler.
It’s up to him to pass on the graciousness Madison and Jones-Drew once showed him.
“With the exposure of social media and how accessible athletes are these days, I don’t know if that will be as monumental for kids 15 years from now,” Barrington said. “I’m just going to make sure I put myself in position to give back to those kids as much as possible because I know how much it meant to me, so it’s about paying it forward.”