Ten-year-old Tanya Krueger, decked out in a lilac party dress and black patent-leather shoes, sits patiently on the living room sofa in her family's lakefront bungalow in Menasha, Wis. She is waiting for Green Bay Packer quarterback Don Majkowski, who will be her "date" for the evening, a meeting made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Wisconsin, which helps satisfy the longings of seriously ill children. Tanya's wish is to spend time with Majkowski and to share a bucket of fried chicken with him.
Tanya was born with spina bifida and severe scoliosis. She underwent a tracheotomy at age three, and for the past five years she has had to breathe through a long plastic tube that runs from an oxygen tank into her throat. Her tiny, 30-pound body endures daily pain.
On this spring afternoon, a chef scurries around the Krueger kitchen preparing the chicken, along with mashed potatoes and sweet corn. On the dining room table are glasses bearing the Packer logo. A miniature football is tied to a bouquet of yellow tulips. At precisely five o'clock, Majkowski walks in the front door, carrying gifts for Tanya—T-shirts, key chains, pins, pictures and a poster—and gives her a big hug.
"You're as handsome in person as you are on TV," Tanya says.
For the next few hours, Majkowski answers all of Tanya's questions—Do you have any brothers or sisters? How many games is the team going to win this year? When did you start playing football? What's your favorite rock group?—admires her bulging Packer scrapbook; meets her brown Labrador, Molly Rae; and peeks inside her playhouse. After dinner, they take a limousine to a custard stand to get a dish of chocolate ice cream. As they pass by Clovis Grove Elementary, Majkowski lifts Tanya onto his lap, so she can point out her third-grade classroom. She relaxes in his arms all the way home.
At the end of his visit, Majkowski invites Tanya to attend a Packer training-camp practice. Then he kisses her goodbye. "I thought about Tanya on the drive home; I was overwhelmed by her wish," says Majkowski. "It's a reality check to make you understand what a role model you are to kids. Sometimes I lose a grip on that. I'm always worrying about myself and my responsibility as a quarterback. To see a little girl who has made a big scrapbook with all my clippings in it is amazing. I feel lucky to have been able to contribute to making her happy."
Majkowski's warmth and interest in children like Tanya may surprise a lot of Packer fans. After three years in Green Bay, Majkowski's image is a bit skewed, and he is partly to blame. Because he cherishes his privacy and rarely submits to in-depth interviews, Majkowski (pronounced Mah-KOW-ski) often is confused with "Majik," his brash, cocky, on-field alter ego.
The transformation from Don Majkowski to Majik Man occurs on game day. Upon arriving in the locker room, he pops a Phil Collins tape into his cassette player and listens to In the Air Tonight: "And I've been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.. .. Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord?" He plays the song over and over until he feels supremely confident.
After pulling on a pair of skintight uniform pants and a tapered number 7 jersey, he wraps white adhesive tape around his shoes and ankles. This ritual, known as spatting, is nothing more than a fashion statement. "It looks good," he says. Next, he stares into the mirror to check his hair, a 'do that is short on top and long in the back, with blond streaks straight out of a bottle. He smears black greasepaint in wide strokes under each eye. After warm-ups, he struts back onto the field to await the national anthem.
"I look across the field at our opponents, and I feel the adrenaline pumping," he says. "I thank God for giving me the ability to play football, and I promise Him that I will never lose my appreciation for this gift. My heart beats so fast and so loud. When the anthem is over, I'm so jacked up that I feel like butting heads with a lineman. I have to take three deep breaths to regain my poise."