Part I: The Majik Man's final comeback
Don Majkowski has experienced a lifetime of punishment and pain. His body's patched together with plates and screws and fusions. He knows the script could've been so different, too.
DEPEW, N.Y. — Dark clouds drift over his old neighborhood as a slow drizzle builds into an all-out July downpour.
The dreary day is — sadly — fitting.
Inside this quaint home, 11 miles east of Buffalo, Don Majkowski grieves with family. He’s back in town for five weeks to say goodbye to his dying father and help his mother adjust. Sympathy cards and flowers sprout all over the dining-room table. More family and friends will be visiting soon to reminisce but, for now, the only sound is the splatter of rain outside and ticking of a kitchen clock inside.
Mom rests in a bedroom.
Son is in good spirits.
Son turns a corner into the living room where his parents preserved 8x10s of the “Majik Man” himself throwing and running and shouting audibles at the line of scrimmage. A commemorative glass from his 2005 Packers Hall of Fame induction still glistens.
Gazing at Dad’s favorite chair, Majkowski explains how his father’s health had been deteriorating for years. Fred “Fritzy” Majkowski suffered a stroke as young as 50 years old, back when his son was trying to negotiate a new contract with the Green Bay Packers after a historic 1989 season. Players had zero leverage then, so the Packers lowballed Majkowski and the stress got to Dad. Many more issues followed into Fred’s 60s and 70s and dementia soon took its debilitating toll. The last 10 years of his life, he was unable to speak.
Family brought Dad home from hospice care to spend his final days here — Don flew north from Atlanta — and he passed away on July 4. It wasn’t easy. Just to keep Dad comfortable, Don and his brother needed to inject the morphine into his mouth themselves every three hours. Then again, absolutely nothing has been easy in Majkowski’s life since you last saw him on NFL Sundays.
He moseys into the kitchen and takes a seat.
Where to even start?
He looks perfectly fine. In a dark blue tee, jeans and white Nikes, the Majik Man looks like he could lead the Packers down the field for one more game-winning drive. Then, Majkowski taps his cell phone open to reveal a catalog of grisly MRI photos straight out of a slasher film. He pulls you into his pit of endless surgeries and eternal pain and, by God, it’s a miracle the man sitting here is still in one piece.
Start with the ankle, his most famous body part. The image of No. 7 in green writhing in pain at Lambeau Field on Sept. 20, 1992 replays ad nauseum because, of course, that shattered left ankle is what launched the career of, one, Brett Favre. And as Favre proceeded to start an NFL-record 321 straight games, life was quite different for Majkowski. That ankle has since undergone nine surgeries and a fusion. Right there on his phone, you can see the 13 screws and two titanium plates jammed it in place.
His lower back is also fused. This required an artificial disc.
Lifting his shirt to display a deep scar, Majkowski explains that he was “gutted” like a fish. The surgeon needed to knife through his chest to get to his back via an operation so difficult that a vascular surgeon was needed to assist the orthropedic surgeon. His organs were, literally, removed so they could get to this spine.
“All my guts were out,” he says.
That’s not even the worst of it, either.
Just this past year, Majkowski had two neck surgeries six months apart.
First, a doctor cut into his neck from the back. He had the same surgery as Peyton Manning, complete with a “big ‘ol zipper” along his neck. When this didn’t work, a doctor cut his neck open from the front, which explains that visible scar near the jugular. From the front, a doctor inserted two massive plates and eight screws into the back. Majkowski shakes his head. Yes, it also blows his mind that a doctor can stuff so much into his neck from that angle.
The top of his spine is fused from the C4 vertebrae to the C7.
“A little horizontal slash,” he explains, “and then they open it up. They go all the way to your vertebrae.”
We know about the ankle — the iconic moment celebrated in Packers history — but what about this neck?
“How?” Majkowski says, tilting his eyebrows up and cracking a thin smile. “Let me show you something. This is good.”
With that, Majkowski taps YouTube open on his phone and explains that all of the discs in-between his vertebrae “disintegrated from the abuse” and, uh, yes. This clip most certainly qualifies as abuse. Type “Don Majkowski” into the search engine and it’s one of the first videos that pops up. The 2-minute, 32-second clip only has 243 views.
The date is Dec. 4, 1994 and Majkowski is quarterbacking the Indianapolis Colts at Seattle. He completes a pass and defensive end Terry Wooden — unblocked — lifts him up and piledrives the crown of the QB’s head directly into the concrete-hard Kingdome turf. The hit prompts color commentator Todd Christensen to bring up some novel phenomena known as “concussions” and say there’s really nothing you can do since the name of the game is “to kill the quarterback.”
Wooden wasn’t even penalized on the play.
A trainer rubs Majkowski’s neck, backup Jim Harbaugh warms up and Christensen adds that quarterbacks should really start taking hits in practice to equip their bodies for such collisions like this one.
“I had electroshock,” Majkowski says. “It was scary.”
Harbaugh entered the game and handed the ball to Marshall Faulk, who took it 45 yards to the house. But by the time the Colts got the ball back? You guessed it. Majkowski trotted back out with the offense and played the final three quarters in a 31-19 Indy win.
Here, he replays the hit once more and points out the team doctor.
“Here comes the doc with his bag full of goodies — ‘Here you go!’”
Sure enough, there’s a Colts’ team doctor reaching into his bag for meds. Majkowski remembers taking Vicodin to play on.
He didn’t think twice. Nobody did then.
This clip has since climbed to a whopping 353 views or, in other words, the number of clicks a Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers highlight generates in a second. But before these two quarterbacks transformed the Packers and before Peyton Manning put those Colts on the map, there was Majkowski. He could’ve been special, too. In ‘89, he finished second in the MVP voting to Joe Montana. Hell, he beat Joe Montana at Candlestick Park.
He was a star. He was gushing with more swag than anyone in the league.
The Majik Man was primed to bring the Packers back to glory.
Then, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
For every retired superstar on NFL Network, there are far more Majkowskis that are long forgotten. They’re not in the public eye, no, they’re in quiet kitchens like this one simply trying to get to tomorrow. Majkowski still has one more surgery to go: His degenerative right hip must be replaced. A Cortisone shot is numbing the pain on this trip but that shot will eventually wear off.
He filed a lawsuit against the NFL and NFLPA that failed.
He battled depression. Finding a purpose in life hasn’t been easy.
Damn right, he’s hurting. Every morning, he’s hurting.
And, yet, he’d do it all over again.
“That’s what’s sick, man,” he says. “I loved it.”
You know all about the gunslinger’s rise from Kiln., Miss. (Here’s our series at Go Long, ICYMI.)
You’ve been bludgeoned over the head with urban legends of the #chip on Aaron Rodgers’ #shoulder. (One he’s still hellbent on sharpening.)
But Majkowski? He overcame longer odds to get to the NFL right here in Western New York. No, this isn’t exactly a hotbed for high school football and Majkowski didn’t even start at quarterback until his junior year at Depew High School. He was a defensive back. In Game No. 1 as a senior, he then broke his passing hand in two spots. His dream was to attend nearby Syracuse University but the Orangemen weren’t going to touch “Majik” — nobody would — so off he went to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.
This one-year, post-graduate school has served as a second chance for D-I level recruits who either needed to boost their grades or, like Majkowski, suffered an injury as a senior. Fork Union has since catapulted the careers of countless pros such Vinny Testaverde, Eddie George, Plaxico Burress and Michael Thomas.
Pure athleticism is what got Majkowski his opportunity. That’s it.
On the court, Majkowski could dunk “any which way.” Tomahawk. Reverse jam. Double-pump. You name it. In his lone track season, he took first in the 400 hurdles and high jump. Equally important, right here in Depew is where Majkowski adopted his signature swagger. He grew his hair out. He learned the guitar, played in bands and dreamt of being a rock star. His football idol, naturally, was Joe Namath. He’s the true inspiration for the “Majik Man.” He’s the reason Majkowski always wore white cleats and, man, did he love the “aesthetics” of playing quarterback. From the high eye black to rocking several wristbands to spatting those cleats up in tape, Majkowski was always dressed to impress.
Honestly, it didn’t matter what sport it was — he played baseball, too.
Majkowski knew for a fact he was better than everyone else.
“It might’ve come across as an arrogance,” he says. “But it definitely leads to a confidence. Especially if you’re going to play quarterback, you have to have it.”
Life wasn’t easy at the military school. He still remembers the Fork Union motto: “Grind now, Shine later.” But that raw confidence would only metastasize.
His season at Fork Union led to a slew of D-I offers and Majkowski chose Virginia, where he started for three seasons. Even then, a second-degree separation to his throwing shoulder cut his senior season short and plummeted his draft stock. It also didn’t help that he was a self-described “athlete running the option.” Majkowski was lucky to throw the ball 10 to 15 times a game and never threw for more than eight touchdowns in a season. Into the sixth round of the 1987 NFL Draft, Bills GM Bill Polian even called to see if he’d be willing to play free safety.
Polian was set at QB with Jim Kelly but liked the local kid’s athleticism.
Majkowski declined the offer, told Polian he was a quarterback and had to wait until the 255th pick in the 10th round to get selected.
Off to the doldrums he went. To the Green Bay Packers.
Absolutely nobody wanted to play here. This was widely considered NFL Siberia… only worse.
Nobody had a clue who Majkowski was, either.
“Everybody’s saying, ‘Who’s this?’” Majkowski says. “I went in there and I knew I was way better than a 10th rounder. I couldn’t wait.”
Why? That swag. Through it all, the swagger never wavered because Majkowski always knew what his right arm was capable of. He just needed a chance, and that chance came with the arrival of Lindy Infante his second season. He says the detail-obsessed, ex-Browns offensive coordinator taught him “everything” about the position and, in 1989, Majkowski injected life into a lifeless franchise.
Majkowski made the Pro Bowl and led the Packers to their most wins (10) in 17 seasons.
His 599 completions and 4,318 passing yards both led the league. His 27 touchdowns were two shy of the NFL high.
Of course, the San Francisco 49ers dynasty steamrolled the league that season. That Montana-, Rice-, Craig-led machine went 17-2 and outscored opponents 126-26 through the postseason. The second of those two losses, though, was a 21-17 decision to the Packers at home. Only a tiebreaker with the Vikings in the NFC Central prevented Green Bay from thumping those ‘Niners again in the playoffs.
To this day, members of that Packers team believe they would’ve won it all if they got in.
Safety Tiger Greene recalls a lost 49ers offense that day. Montana was so preoccupied with defensive end Tim Harris that he wouldn’t even call out the “Mike” linebacker before the snap. And as San Francisco shifted its protection over to Harris, others feasted. That day, Green Bay had six sacks and forced four turnovers. On offense, Majkowski accounted for all three touchdowns. In an interview with our Bob McGinn, later that season, head coach George Seifert would all but declare Majkowski the next Montana.
This team could do no wrong.
“If we would’ve made the playoffs,” Greene says, “we would’ve won the Super Bowl that year. When we went to Candlestick and won out there, we realized, ‘Damn, we can beat anybody.’ We took their will away. They couldn’t do anything.”
For the first time since Vince Lombardi, football was truly alive in Green Bay, Wisc.
After the Packers beat Dallas the final week of the season — on Christmas Eve — Greene says “20,000 or 30,000” fans waited for them at the airport in seven inches of snow. That’s probably not too hyperbolic, either. Players needed police escorts just to get to their vehicles.
Says Greene: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The rock star central to all the madness was Majkowski. He brought the cool to a perennially uncool franchise and his shining moment, of course, was a 14-13 win over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field forever known as “The Instant Replay Game.”
The Bears had beaten their bitter rivals eight straight games and appeared set to do it again.
On fourth and goal from the Bears’ 14-yard line, with 41 seconds left, Majkowski took the shotgun snap, rolled right, ran forward, slid back, rolled… rolled… rolled… and fired a spiral across his body to Sterling Sharpe in traffic for a touchdown. The line judge threw a flag, ruling that the ball was across the line of scrimmage when Majkowski threw it. Upon review, however, the play was overturned to a touchdown and the Packers were victorious.
As Majkowski held Sharpe tight for a long embrace near the sideline, the future for both him and the franchise never seemed brighter.
Running back Vince Workman was a rookie then, thrown into action on a fourth down that drive.
He remembers this moment like it was yesterday.
“You’re sitting there on your hands waiting for something to happen,” Workman says. “You’re clenching your teeth. Your heart stops waiting to see what happens. It seemed like that play was in slow motion. We go crazy. It takes forever for them to do their instant replay. And when the ref comes back to say it’s a touchdown, it was just crazy. It was the icing on the cake for our season.”
The Packers had a few memorable players post-Lombardi and pre-Majik through the 70s and 80s — John Brockington, Lynn Dickey, James Lofton — but nobody like Majkowski.
“When I got there, I brought a whole different style of play than Packer fans were used to,” Majkowski says. “I was mobile. I could throw on the run. I was way more athletic than some of the quarterbacks in the past. It was exciting, you know? Pulling out a lot of games last minute. Bringing back that respectability, and that’s one of the coolest things when I go back to Wisconsin. They always remember and say, ‘You’re the reason I became a Packer fan again and you brought back some excitement and respectability. You made the Packers relevant again.’ Even though we never made the playoffs or won a playoff game, we brought back some excitement.”
He was the ultimate women-want-him, men-want-to-be-him 80’s heartthrob who always knew where the cameras were.
Players took on his personality, too.
Whereas the quarterback who preceded him (Randy Wright) was more of a square who “dressed like Bart Starr,” Greene says, Majkowski rocked tight pants, loving showing off his guns, pulled his socks up high and, all in all, “brought a swag to our team.”
No play was ever dead… Majkowski danced outside the pocket with such grace. He was ahead of his time.
No game was ever over… Majkowski led five fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. Four of the Packers’ 10 wins were by one point.
“Defensively, we got to the point where we felt like, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, Don can bring us back,’” Greene says. “That’s how we felt: ‘If we just hold them to 17 points, we can win.’”
Adds Workman: “He had the swagger but he also had confidence and we felt like with him at the helm, we always had a chance to win the game because he kept fighting the whole time. When we were coming from behind — in games that seemed to be over—that San Francisco game made us feel invincible. Kind of like the Cardiac Kids.”
After that ‘89 season, Majkowski received the phone call of a lifetime. It was Namath, his idol, personally inviting him to his golf tournament in Beaver Falls, Pa. Was this real life? Majkowski had to pinch himself and was sure to get an autographed helmet. Back in Western New York, he also attended Jim Kelly’s golf tournament that summer. And at one point, he felt someone tap him on the shoulder.
It was Polian.
The Bills GM wanted to let Majkowski know he made the right decision.
After everything, that season felt so rewarding. Majkowski was destined to ascend — only ascend — right with Marino and Elway and Cunningham and Esiason and Kelly into the 1990s.
“All that hard work,” Majkowski says. “All that believing in yourself and going through the grind and having it pay off. You get one year of incredible success and you’re like, ‘This is going to be fun from here on in.’”
Yet, like always, his timing was juuust off.
The very next season, the NFL expanded its playoff field from 10 teams to 12 teams.
True NFL free agency wouldn’t arrive until 1993. After one of the greatest statistical seasons in franchise history, Majkowski was expecting to sign a long-term deal. Instead, the Packers refused to budge because they held all leverage. The only option Majkowski had was to hold out of training camp for 45 days and he was eventually forced to sign a one-year deal that didn’t come close to his worth.
He wasn’t alone, either. Several key starters held out. That was the only way you could get a raise of any sort in Green Bay where GM Tom Braatz was an unapologetic Scrooge.
Greene remembers that summer being an utter “mess.”
“None of us could understand it,” the safety says. “Why would he do this now? When we’re coming off a 10-6 season and everybody is back? Everybody. That was our downfall. That offseason. It was awful.”
Majkowski didn’t start until Week 3. It took him a while to hit his groove, too. But once he did, he insists the magic started to return. Wins over the Vikings and Raiders sandwiched a damn good performance vs. the 8-0 49ers.
Green Bay (4-5) traveled to Phoenix to play the Cardinals.
The magic, then, vanished.
His body and mind would never be the same again.