“If it ended tomorrow, I would walk away with the biggest smile on my face. I can’t believe what I’m able to do.”
There are a lot of football fans out there. I’m reminded of this every September, when people start changing their Facebook profile pictures to team logos (most frequently, from what I’ve seen, to the Green Bay Packers logo) and posting (or venting, or bragging) about scores, plays and calls.
It’s nice to know that one of football’s biggest fans is someone who’s spent the past 40 years living and breathing the sport. Gordon “Red” Batty—who in his youth had a fiery blaze of hair that inspired his colourful nickname—is the Packers’ head equipment manager. He’s been with the team since 1994, after having worked with the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) and the Montreal Alouettes. And he still speaks about the game, and his team, with such reverence that you’d swear he was a kid in the stands raving about his favourite players.
The Packers’ Director – Football Operations, John Dorsey, recommend Red as a Kickass Canadian. After describing him as “truly amazing,” John elaborated: “You just have to meet him to know what I’m talking about. You will find such a genuinely compassionate, committed, driven, sincere and humble human being. One of the all-time best storytellers I’ve heard, and I know many. He has a passion and drive to make his mark on this Earth, with that special touch that only a few people have.”
I “met” Red a few weeks later over the phone, and John was instantly proven right; I did know exactly what he was talking about. As Red and I spoke, I found myself beaming on the other end of the line, fully aware of what a sweet deal I had. I got to hear firsthand accounts of some of the greatest players and moments in North American sports history, from a man who has an infectious enthusiasm and appreciation for it all.
As someone who has rarely followed professional sports, I felt a bit guilty that I was the one in such an enviable position (rather than, say, the friends with the Packers logos on their profiles). But at least I can share some of Red’s stories with you here. There are many. And they are great.
Getting to know Red
“Red has been around so many sporting events, and what’s great is that he shares all the stories. He’s got relationships with so many people in the sports industry that he’s a pleasure to be around and listen to. When you think of Red, you think of the passion that he has for sports and athletes. I think he loves every second of it, I think he appreciates the opportunities that he’s had to work with wonderful athletes and great organizations and share experiences with great people. He’s so energetic and passionate about everything he does. He’s a phone call away from doing whatever you need for a favour… He’s a great, great guy.” —Tony Granato, Assistant Coach, Pittsburgh Penguins
First, let me say that Red is indeed “truly amazing.” He’s friendly and gracious, humble and sincere. He eagerly offers to help out with any Kickass Canadians fundraising initiatives (as long as they don’t happen during football season). And he proudly talks about how he gives back to the Green Bay community, helping schools and parents outfit their kids with the proper football equipment.
“You have to be able to extend your experience and help out in the community,” says Red. “Young players are the future of the game, and the emphasis is on safety—now more than ever before.”
One of the most telling things about Red is that he always goes back to his roots. That plays out in many ways: his intense passion for hockey (rivaled only by his great love of football); his disbelief at how far he’s come; his drive to always keep learning and improving.
He grew up in the Pointe Saint-Charles neighbourhood of Montreal, Quebec. The fifth of seven children, he has five sisters and a younger brother. His father worked at a pharmaceutical company, his mother at the Hudson’s Bay Company, and both worked hard to make ends meet. The family lived paycheque to paycheque, and sometimes relied on welfare.
As a youngster, Red kept his focus on hockey, “because that’s a natural thing that all young Canadian boys do,” he says. “I played in the back parks, on the streets. We played ball hockey and ice hockey.”
He adored the Montreal Canadians, and only really thought about football now and then when he ran into his neighbour, Bob Geary, who was the general manager of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. But one fateful night, Red unknowingly took a turn down a path that led to him spending a lot more time around his neighbour—and a lifetime around football.
TSN turning point
It all changed in 1973, when Red, his brother Greg and a few friends decided to hop the fence into the Autostade, which was then the home of the Alouettes.
“We were just a bunch of kids out in the neighbourhood causing a little mischief here and there,” says Red. But Bob caught them in the act and didn’t look lightly on their idle pastimes. Because he knew Red’s parents, he decided to lay down the law; though Red was only 13 years old at the time, Bob told him he’d have to work his way out of the trouble he’d caused.
Red started out cleaning the stadium gutters, but things began changing from the minute he got to work with the Alouettes. The team atmosphere provided structure, and there were new role models who took an interest in his growth.
In particular, Larry Smith, the former CFL commissioner and current Progressive Conservative Senator, and Peter Dalla Riva, a former tight end and now a CFL Hall of Famer, told Red he’d have to get his high school grades up if he wanted to keep working with the team.
Don Sweet, current kicking consultant for the B.C. Lions, and Wally Buono, current VP, Football Operations and General Manager of the Lions, were other Montreal players who kept a keen eye on Red, making sure he stayed in line. And trainer Dan Deibert, who passed away in 2004, had a great influence on him.
“Those were the guys that turned my life around, for sure,” says Red.
The results were plain to see. Red immediately stopped getting into mischief, and started doing better in school—academically and socially. He was offered the role of student council president in his final year, an honour had turned down because of his work schedule. The principal, though intimidating to other students, often stopped by Red’s locker for inside information on the Alouettes.
Red also learned about responsibility and giving back to others. After a tearful and reluctant request from his mother, he started handing over his paycheques to help cover the family bills.
The young man’s dedication paid off. Not long after graduating James Lyng High School in 1978, Red was made equipment manager for the Alouettes. But his quick and impressive climb, which began with his first step on that fence in 1973, did nothing to curb his appetite; if anything, it pushed him to work even harder.
“I kept hustling and never gave up,” he says. “I always want to learn as much as I can.”
In the eight years he spent with the Alouettes, the team went to the Grey Cup five times (1974, ’75, ’77, ’78 and ’79), winning the CFL title in ’74 and ’77.
All the way to NFL
The NFL came calling in 1981 in the form of Joe Galat. He’d left his job as the Alouettes’ defensive co-coordinator and taken a position on the Houston Oilers coaching staff. Remembering Red’s words when he’d left (“If anything opens up, I’m ready to go”), Joe put in the good word for him when the Oilers needed a new equipment manager.
Even today, Red marvels at his good fortune. He interviewed for the job, and soon, at the ripe young age of 22, Red found himself in Houston, working as equipment manager for the Oilers. Then, after 13 seasons with the team, he moved on up to the Green Bay Packers in 1994, where he’s stayed ever since.
“I still go to bed at night, or I drive down the highway, and I think about the things I’ve done,” he says. “I mean this from the bottom of my heart: If it ended tomorrow, I would walk away with the biggest smile on my face. I can’t believe what I’m able to do. It is an amazing journey, no doubt about it, especially when you consider where I came from and what I had growing up.”
The Green Bay Packers
Red’s appreciation for his position is inspired by the fact that he works for such a unique organization. The Packers is the only non-profit, community-owned major league team in America. Founded in 1919, they’re the third-oldest franchise in the NFL, and have won more league championships than any other team (13), including Super Bowls I and II (’66 and ’67), as well as XXXI in ’96 and XLV in 2010).
When former Packers general manager Ron Wolf offered him the job of equipment manager back in ’94, Red asked his then-wife, Joanne, to think about it. The couple and their young daughter, Chelsei, would be uprooting from Houston to Wisconsin. But Red had no doubt that it was the right thing—the only thing—to do.
“I said, ‘We have to take this job. This kind of opportunity only comes once in a lifetime,’” recalls Red. “Joanne asked, ‘What do you mean?’ I told her, ‘It’s like working for the Montreal Canadians or the New York Yankees. It’s the Green Bay Packers. They’re a piece of American history.’”
Working the equipment
Red found his long-term home in Green Bay, and his time with the Packers has created a lifetime of memories. Among them: three Super Bowls, including two wins (1996 and 2010); and a second child—his 16-year-old son Cameron, who plays on the defensive line for his high school team. Red’s children are also sharing in their father’s legacy with the Packers; Chelsei works at the Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field, and, when he isn’t in school, Cameron works alongside his dad in the equipment room.
On top of that, Red’s job has helped him build relationships with some of his counterparts in the NHL. He’s participated in a number of events with some of the best players in hockey, and often has NHL equipment managers as guests at NFL stadiums. This year, he’s already had staff from the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues helping out.
“They work with me in the game,” he says. “These are all hockey guys, and we share our jobs by working together.”
It’s no wonder Red attracts other heavy hitters from his field. He’s known widely as one of the best in the business. Red attributes his success to having good communication skills, being organized and being able to think ahead.
“You have to be able to speak to people from a range of backgrounds,” he says. “You have to be organized and you have to know your job, and you have to be able to anticipate what the players will need. In my position, everyone turns to me for the answer. In our profession, if you do something wrong, the whole country knows about it.”
When Red’s up to bat, that’s not a big concern. He knows how to get the job done. On a typical day, that job entails arriving at Lambeau Field at 7am and trying to get through the 10 items on his list. He juggles his “regular” daily duties with troubleshooting for any of the players who need special equipment, particularly those with injuries.
Two hours of each day during the season are spent at practice. It’s a responsibility that Red says is not only mandatory—because his department sets up the field and equipment for the workouts—but also essential.
“If you don’t go to practice, you don’t feel like part of the team,” he says. “You want to stay connected.”
After practice, of course, comes the mountain of laundry the team generates, which Red oversees with his team of four full-time assistants and two season interns. There’s also the daily repair of equipment. And Red gives special attention to maintaining the locker room, which serves as the players’ home during the season, and is a point of particular pride for him.
Game days are when everything Red and his staff do throughout the week comes together.
“Everything the team is wearing—from the uniforms to jackets to gloves to helmets to shoes to the shoulder pads—I order every single piece of that equipment,” he says. “And there are extra supplies that are needed. When I’m watching the game, I think to myself, ‘Wow, the Packers are out there and everything each player and staff member is wearing comes out of my office.’ That’s stressful. So you really have to do your preparation and do your research.”
On top of that pressure, there’s the emotional attachment to the players that he works with every day.
“You get involved with these guys because we’re all part of the team,” says Red. “You want to see them succeed, and if they struggle or have an injury, you feel for them. It works both ways. If the support staff is having a rough day, or I’m having a rough day because of the weather conditions, everybody’s around to support each other. It is truly a great big family.”
Super Bowl XXXI
That family passed a very big milestone on January 26, 1997. They won their first Super Bowl in 30 years, with a 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots. Red (among a few others) was ecstatic.
“This is the Super Bowl!” he says. “Millions of people watch this game, and we won it. And my brother Greg and I—two Canadians from Pointe Saint-Charles, Montreal, Quebec—were put in charge of the Super Bowl trophy.”
Technically, Red was in charge, but he readily shared the experience with Greg, who followed in his big brother’s footsteps by working for the Alouettes, before going on to be equipment manager for the Ottawa Renegades. After Red finally tracked down the Lombardi Trophy, which had been passed from player to player following their big win, he put it in a very secure place.
“I stuck it in the trunk with the game jerseys,” he says. “So you’ve got 46 sweaty jerseys from the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl!—and I stuck the trophy in there and locked the trunk, so nobody could get to it.”
Once the crowd thinned out, he and his brother carefully washed the trophy with a steaming hot face cloth. “We shined it up like it was July 1st,” says Red, revealing his deep-rooted ties to Canada. “We had tears in our eyes. We were so excited, we were happy as hell.”
With the trophy sparkling once again, Red eased it into a duffle bag and took it back to the hotel where the team was staying. He marched it up the escalator and into the ballroom, where the team was celebrating their Super Bowl victory. “I took the trophy out of the bag and I lifted it up like it was the Stanley Cup, and the room went crazy.”
He took the trophy over to “the big bosses” (the team’s president, general manager and head coach) and proudly presented it to them. “Bob Harlan, the president of the Green Bay Packers (at the time), said to me, ‘Red, I want you to take care of this trophy the rest of the night, like you take care of the team, and I know it’ll be safe,’” says Red. “I said, ‘It will be my honour.’”
The next day, he took the trophy back to Green Bay, where it spent two weeks in his care. Then, Bob Harlan bestowed another honour on him: he asked Red to escort all three of the team’s Lombardi Trophies—numbers I, II and XXXI—to Tiffany & Co. in New York to have the first two refinished and the new one engraved.
“I didn’t even know what Tiffany’s was, growing up,” says Red. “It’s an amazing journey, no doubt about it.”
Despite his pride in the team and its victories, he hasn’t gathered any memorabilia for himself over the years. He has a small glass replica of the Super Bowl trophy above his fireplace at home, and that’s it.
“If you came to my house tonight, you wouldn’t even know I work in football,” he says. “When it’s over, I might regret not collecting anything. But right now, I live in it every day.”
Maybe Red doesn’t need any extra memorabilia because he has the most important trophies of all: two Super Bowl rings and two Grey Cup rings. He also has the memories and the stories he shares. Here are just a few more of his many, many tales from his unique and dazzling career.
On dressing the best at the NFL Players Rookie Premiere preseason event:
Every year since 1994, Red has served as the equipment coordinator for what is now called the NFL Players Association Rookie Premiere. He secures the equipment and jerseys for each rookie invitee’s trading-card photo shoot—the first time the new players will be dressed in their NFL uniforms.
“Go back 19 years, so take some of the current stars in today’s game—Peyton and Eli Manning, Adrian Peterson, even Aaron Rodgers, our star player. I’m proud to tell you I’m the first guy to dress them in a professional uniform. These are the cream of the crop, the top 35 guys going into the NFL each year, and I dress each one of them for the first time in their NFL uniforms. The top stars are in my hands for three days at this rookie premiere and I’m responsible for making sure everything runs on time. Those guys walk in there on Saturday morning and they put their uniform on, and it’s just like they’re in an NFL locker room. Their time has finally come. They’ve been drafted, and all of a sudden they get to put on the real uniform of their NFL team. I’m proud to say I’m the guy responsible for that.”
On partying with Team Canada Hockey after their 2002 Olympic win in Salt Lake City:
“I was in the stands like everybody else. I was just a fan. At the end of the night, after Team Canada won the gold medal, I was able to get into the championship party because of my trainer buddies. All the players are there, and I’m thinking, ‘This is unbelievable.’ And suddenly someone says ‘Shhhh!’ and Wayne Gretzky starts talking. I thought to myself, ‘This is a moment every Canadian wants to be part of, and I’m in the room, I’m there, I’m in it. I’m not reading about it or watching it on TV or listening to it on CBC Radio. I’m in it.’ I was able to be part of this major Canadian story.”
On working the Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas:
In February 2012, Red stepped in for Edmonton Oilers equipment manager Barry Stafford, who was recovering from an illness and couldn’t make the event. Red arrived at the camp shortly after working the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. “Where does that happen in sports? Where do you go from working at the Pro Bowl with all these great players, and a week later, you’re with Wayne Gretzky and 10 of the world’s best hockey players?”
On outfitting former Packers defensive end Reggie White:
(Football legend Reggie White was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, two years after passing away in 2004 at the age of 43.)
“He was a phenomenal guy. He was a very strong Christian man, strong fellow in many ways, but most important of all, strongest in his faith. You didn’t have to actually see him in the building—you could feel him in the building, you could feel his presence. He was a battler, always physically drained at the end of a game. He would get to the locker room and he wouldn’t say a whole lot. And I’d say, ‘Reggie, are you alright?’ and he would say, ‘Go get the doc.’ And I would run over and get the doc and they would have their private talk. And I’d think, ‘Wow. 70,000 people just watched him play, and millions more on TV, and here I am taking his pads off.’”
On how a few Canadian treats helped lead Brett Favre to victory:
“The No. 1 treat that Brett always asked me about was those Canadian Jos. Louis cakes from Quebec. There’s also a store in Stratford, Ontario called Rhéo Thompson Candies that makes mint smoothies that Brett just loved. So I had a family friend bring me some of those smoothies, and I brought them to his locker for the 2007 Thanksgiving game in Detroit. Brett saw them and said, ‘You son of a gun, give me one of those.’ And once he had one, he had to have five, because he couldn’t eat just one. So he ate five, and then he came back after warm-up and had two more. So Brett ate seven of them before an NFL game! Then he went out there and played one of the greatest games he’s ever played.” (The Packers beat the Lions 37-26, with Brett passing for 381 yards and three touchdowns.)
Play-by-play on a brilliant career
The stories could go on and on; Red’s mind packed full of incredible memories that he’ll eagerly share. Like meeting Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux on the same night at the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. Scrambling to put staples in the Alouettes cleats at the last minute, so the players wouldn’t slip on the icy fields during the 1977 Grey Cup. Calling the Packers up to pray over their revered “G” logo (a pre-game ritual) minutes before the Super Bowl. “I’ll never forget that,” he says. “That was the ultimate.”
For all his reverence for these legendary players and legendary moments, Red himself is the common thread holding a lot of them together. He’s played a key role in countless professional sporting events, and the best part is, he’s just getting started. There’s no doubt that the famous names that have walked through his life have stories of their own to share about Red, a humble equipment manager from Pointe Saint-Charles who has climbed to the top of his profession—grinning all the way.