As you grow up, you make friends. If you're lucky, you have good friends, people who care about you and who are there for you during the good times and the bad. If you're really lucky, you have a friend like my great friend, Mark Miller.
Mills and I grew up together in Appleton, Wisconsin, mostly in the 1970s. It was a good place to grow up and probably as good a time as any. There was a lot of weirdness in the air during that time, but not in Appleton, which remained almost blissfully removed from the churning larger world. We grew up in a town filled with tidy houses and general prosperity. The major industry in town is papermaking, which is about as recession-proof an industry as one could imagine. Most Appletonians lived quite comfortably. While there was a pocket of poverty on the outskirts in the mysterious place known as Koehnke's Woods, if you grew up in Appleton chances were good that you had a nice house, an intact family and enough money for candy when you were little and gas to cruise College Avenue when you got older.
Mills and I were largely inseparable during our childhoods. We were prime devotees of faux sports all year long -- Wiffle ball in the spring and summer, Nerf football in the fall and Nerf basketball in the winter. We would play ball all day long and keep track of our home run statistics; most years Mills would end up with about 400 homers and I would usually have a few less. Once fall arrived, we would return to the open field in the park across the street from my house and re-enact the highlight packages we'd seen during halftime of the game. Since the highlights we saw were often of games on the West Coast, we would be John Brodie and Ted Kwalick (pictured here), or perhaps Daryle Lamonica and Fred Biletnikoff, or maybe John Hadl and Harold Jackson. In those days, the Packers weren't really capable of highlights, of course; it was hard to get too excited about Jon Staggers and Jim Del Gaizo. As we played, we'd be humming the soaring orchestral strains that accompanied NFL Films, straining to get our pre-pubescent voices to sound like John Facenda. And during the winter, we'd retire to Mills' basement, where his father had set up a full-court Nerf basketball court. We would play for hours, pretending to be Doctor J or Rick Barry or Bobby Dandridge or Hank Finkel or McCoy McLemore. Okay, we didn't really pretend to be Hank Finkel or McCoy McLemore.
It's easy to remember those days and smile about them. We had a lot of fun. But it wasn't just playing. As we played, we would talk and think and dream about the wider world beyond our little town. And even in playing faux sports, or walking around town, or cruising up and down College Avenue with the rest of the kids later on, we started to understand the larger world and our place in it. Today, over 30 years on, it's clear that a lot of my understanding of the world comes from the time I spent with my great friend Mark Miller. Today is his birthday. Happy birthday, good sir. Thank you for the great gift you have given me.