GREEN BAY, Wis. — Peter Mortell prepares for his day in his childhood bedroom. On the wall are a poster of Clay Matthews celebrating a sack and a pennant commemorating the 1996 Packers Super Bowl season.
He reaches in his closet, past the jerseys—there’s Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, B.J. Raji, Tyrone Williams, Donald Driver and Ryan Longwell. He grabs a Packers T-shirt and Packers shorts and heads to the kitchen.
He pours a glass of chocolate milk. It’s his favorite, so his mother, Ellen, has made sure the refrigerator is well-stocked.
He makes the short drive to Lambeau Field, parks in the players’ lot and walks into football heaven.
The smile rarely leaves his face.
Eventually, he jogs onto Ray Nitschke Field for practice on a cloudless day, carrying a gold helmet with a “G” on it. “Peter, Peter!” fans yell. “Can we have an autograph?”
The other specialists who are walking with Peter smirk. “Did you pay your friends to come out and ask for your autograph?” one says. The 23-year-old laughs and testifies he does not know the fans.
“EVERY MORNING I WAKE UP A PACKER, I SMILE AND I THANK GOD BECAUSE THIS HAS BEEN THE DREAM.”
— PETER MORTELL
During practice, Peter splits reps with veteran Tim Masthay, his competitor to be the Packers punter.
After practice ends, Peter rides a kid’s bike to the locker room. But it’s not a bike like the other players are riding. It’s a bike with training wheels.
On the first day when players chose their bike buddies, Peter noticed one kid getting passed up by all the players. He couldn’t figure out why until he chose him—and then he saw the training wheels.
It didn’t take long for Peter to bond with four-year-old Liam McCabe, owner of the bike. Now Liam has a Mortell jersey, and he tags along every day on the slow ride to the locker room.
For Liam, these rides are the thrill of a young lifetime. For Peter, these rides are the thrill of a young lifetime.
“It’s special,” says Peter, who was a bike buddy himself not too many training camps ago.
When Peter reaches the locker room, he changes clothes at his locker. It says “MORTELL” above it.
“Every morning I wake up a Packer, I smile and I thank God because this has been the dream,” he says.
Yes, a dream. This has to be a dream. Something like this just doesn’t happen in reality.
To completely understand how this came to be, we have to understand where we are. This could not have happened anywhere else. Only in Green Bay, where the sheriff grew up with the schoolteacher, whose cousin is the service station attendant, whose in-law, the mayor, is next-door neighbors with the barber, who cuts the head coach’s hair.
Everyone is connected here.
We also have to go back in time. Way back. Nearly a century of Packers history has brought the player and the team together.
You could even make a case that the Packers wouldn’t be here if not for some of Peter’s forefathers.
We should start with Max Murphy, Peter’s great-grandfather on the paternal branch of his family tree.
Murphy, a longtime member of the Packers board of directors, was part of a group of businessmen who had a duck-hunting club called Murder Incorporated. Legendary Packers coach Curly Lambeau was in the club. Murder Incorporated owned a hunting shack north of Suamico, Wisconsin, where its members had some good times back in the day.
But Murphy’s primary contribution to team history was not entertaining the Hall of Fame coach. It was helping to save the team in 1950 as one of the leaders of a stock drive. With Murphy’s help, the Packers sold 4,165.5 shares of stock at $25 apiece for a total of $104,137.50.
It was as if the Packers had been pinned deep in their own territory, and Murphy came up with a booming punt to save the day.
Another relative of Peter’s also helped improve the Packers’ field position. Murphy’s mother—Peter’s great-great-grandmother—was Gertrude Joannes. Her nephew—and Murphy’s cousin—was Lee Joannes, according to Peter’s father, Jerry Mortell.
In 1930, Joannes became president of the Packers, a title he held until 1947. When the Green Bay Football Corporation went into receivership in 1933, Joannes was one of the “Hungry Five” who took control of the team. Joannes made a personal loan to the team of $6,000 and helped lead a stock drive in 1935 that raised $12,100 and enabled the team to emerge from receivership and reorganize as the Green Bay Packers, Inc.
Joannes was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1981.
During this time, Peter’s predecessors on his mother’s side also were forging Packers ties. In 1931, George Bertrand opened Bertrand’s Sporting Goods in Downtown Green Bay. Bertrand is Peter’s great-grandfather.
Bertrand’s supplied the Packers with their equipment for decades until the NFL forced teams to purchase their supplies from a single manufacturer. Bertrand’s even helped design the uniforms together with longtime Packers equipment man Gerald “Dad” Braisher.
Ellen’s mother—Colleen Bertrand, Peter’s grandmother—remembers Packers players like Bart Starr and Max McGee frequenting the store. She has a photo of her father with Vince Lombardi in a duck blind.
Before closing two years ago, Bertrand’s performed services of all kinds for the Packers.
On Dec. 1, 1985, more than a foot of snow had fallen in Green Bay before the opening kickoff between the Packers and Buccaneers, and much more was forecast. The Packers turned to Peter’s grandfather, Dick Bertrand, to ask if he had any swim goggles to help the players see.
“Dick went down to the store and grabbed as many swim goggles as they had and delivered them,” Peter’s father, Jerry, says. “They wore them under their helmets. That’s the kind of service they did on a Sunday morning. When the Packers needed something, they would be there.”
Peter’s mother, Ellen, worked at Bertrand’s, as did most family members.
“I remember being at the store, and my grandfather would go to the Packers’ stadium four or five times a day with a car full of shoes, fitting players,” she says.
Peter’s grandmother Colleen made her own mark. When the Packers were at the height of their popularity during the Lombardi dynasty, they couldn’t keep up with the demand for autographed balls. The solution was to produce stamped autographed balls.
The stamper would be Colleen.
“She would do it at our house,” Ellen says. “Whatever year they needed, she had to know which player stamps went on each ball. She had racks for the balls on our pool table. Our job was to line the balls up. She would stamp them, then we would put them back in the plastic bags, then back in the boxes. My father would take them to the store, and they would get shipped all over the country and probably out of the country. I still have those racks.”
The story gets better.
In the 1960s, NFL games started at 1 p.m. CT on Sundays, so Lombardi had enough time to attend 8:30 a.m. mass at Resurrection Church. Peter’s grandfather, Jerry Mortell Jr., always attended the same mass with his family, and he and Lombardi became friendly. Shortly after the Ice Bowl in 1967, Lombardi offered Mortell Jr. a job—clock operator for Packers games.
Mortell Jr. became a fixture at Lambeau Field, and he also became close friends with many of the most influential Packers decision-makers over the next few decades. He and Lombardi hosted cocktail parties together. He later was a confidant of Packers head coach Dan Devine. In the years to come, Mortell Jr. had a regular Thursday golf date with Packers president Bob Harlan.
Peter’s father was 10 years old when Peter’s grandfather became the clock operator. And Peter’s dad became his assistant. Since 1968, Peter’s father has attended every Packers home game but one.
In 2000, Jerry Mortell III succeeded his father as clock operator. At various times in subsequent years, Mortell III has been assisted by Peter, Peter’s grandfather and Peter’s older brother Max.
Wait, there’s more to the story.
On August 11, 1996, three-year-old Peter was at Lambeau Field to watch the Packers play the Steelers in the preseason. The family still has the ticket stub, with the words “Peter’s first game” written on the back.
The next year, he became a stockholder of Green Bay Packers, Inc. when his father’s parents gifted him one share.
For six consecutive years, Peter dressed as Brett Favre for Halloween. He once went trick-or-treating at former Packers running back Dorsey Levens’ house—Levens signed his jersey.
Since attending his first Packers game, Peter has been to more than 100 others, including playoff games and Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas. For several years, Peter attended games with his good friend Ben Sherman, the son of former Packers head coach Mike Sherman. They sat in the coach’s suite on the seventh level of Lambeau.
Getting into Lambeau never has been a problem. In the 1950s when money was tight, the Packers offered George Bertrand season tickets to pay off debt for equipment. Peter’s family still has the seats—six on the 50-yard line, seventh row. And they also have a set of eight on the 45 in the 16th and 17th rows, passed down from Max Murphy.
Peter hasn’t used the tickets much. When he was in high school, he worked for the team as a stats runner in the press box. He was hired by the public relations director at the time, Jeff Blumb, who also happens to be his uncle. Blumb is married to Marcia, sister of Peter’s father.
The Packers paid him $8 an hour. Truth be known, he would have paid them.
“I got to go into the locker room for the team I loved,” he says. “I was handing stats to Aaron Rodgers after a game, or Brett Favre early on.”
Sometimes, Peter would walk the mile-and-a-half to the stadium rather than fight traffic.
When he started training for football, he would take a three-mile jog from his house—down Sweet Water Court, right on Morris, left on Ridge. Around the stadium he’d go, right on Lombardi, right on Oneida and then back to Morris and Sweet Water Court.
And all the while, he’d be dreaming about one day getting inside the stadium—not as a fan, not as a press box runner, but as a Packer.
“As I ran, I kept telling myself, ‘I want to play there one day, and I’m going to keep working until I can,'” he says.
Young Peter envisioned himself as a quarterback or wide receiver. He played wide receiver and defensive back in high school, but his teams always seemed to need a punter. He would help out for the sake of the team, more sacrifice than passion.
Then, after his junior season at Notre Dame Academy in 2011, Peter started thinking about punting more seriously. But he needed to learn more about the finer points of the position.
“I WATCHED THAT KID GROW UP. THAT’S WHAT WE DO IN GREEN BAY.”
— FORMER PACKERS LINEBACKER JOHN DORSEY
When Chiefs general manager John Dorsey was a rookie linebacker with the Packers in 1984, he was befriended by Peter’s grandfather. He subsequently became close with the family. They spent time together over the summers in Door County, an idyllic vacation destination north of Green Bay.
“I watched that kid grow up,” Dorsey says of Peter. “That’s what we do in Green Bay.”
So Dorsey, who was the college scouting director of the Packers during Peter’s high school days, was happy to help. He introduced Peter to Chris Bryan, an Australian punter on the Packers roster. Peter’s father, a banker, helped Bryan get a loan for a used car. Bryan offered to work with Peter.
Given it was winter in Green Bay, Dorsey arranged for Bryan and Peter to work out in the Hutson Center, the Packers’ indoor practice facility.
That August, Bryan was beaten out by Masthay. He never played in a regular-season game for the Packers, but his influence on the team might still be felt this season.
“He gave me some pointers and really sparked my interest in being a punter,” Peter says. “From there, it was pretty clear to me that this was going to have to be my path in order to play college football.”
Initially, Peter’s interest in big-time college football was one-sided. So he made a highlight tape and a stats package and handwrote letters to 90 FBS schools. He sent the package to Minnesota four times. Then his father convinced him to send it a fifth time.
Finally, he heard back. The school was going through a coaching change. Jerry Kill had been named the new head coach. Kill had received a call from a mutual friend recommending Peter, and the Gophers were inviting Peter to try out as a preferred walk-on.
The mutual friend? Dorsey.
Peter walked on. By his sophomore season, he was on scholarship. After his junior season, he was Big Ten Punter of the Year. By the time his college career ended, his 44-yard net average was the best in school history.
After the NFL draft in May, three teams besides the Packers were interested in him as a free agent. One team, the Vikings, was well-acquainted with him because it shared a stadium with his college team. The other two teams had Packers ties. One was Dorsey’s Chiefs. The other was the Seahawks.
Among Peter’s teammates at Notre Dame Academy were the nephews of former Packers executive and current Seahawks general manager John Schneider, and Peter had struck up a relationship with Schneider over the years.
Peter didn’t have to think too much about which team to choose, though. “There was no doubt this is where I wanted to be,” he says.
As the players prepared to take the field at Lambeau for Peter’s first NFL game, Masthay and kicker Mason Crosby told him he would lead the team through the tunnel during player introductions. Peter suspected they were pranking him, that he would run onto the field alone while his teammates stayed behind.
But this was no joke.
“And now, your 2016 Green Bay Packers!”
With a heartbeat that could have been made by a timpani, Mortell led the Packers past the flag-bearers, through the drum line and into the stadium. He didn’t just hear the roar of the crowd—he felt it.
“I can’t even describe it,” he says. Days later, goosebumps still cover his arms when he recounts the moment.
During the pregame, Peter’s father typically spends time on the field talking with the officials about clock management procedure. Peter found him at the 30-yard line by the Packers bench. They embraced, and in a heartfelt moment, father told son how proud he is.
When Peter became a punter for the first time in fifth grade, his grandfather—”Grandpa G” he called him—came to one of his games. He told young Peter something Peter really didn’t believe.
“You’re going to be an NFL punter one day,” Grandpa G said.
Grandpa G passed away 10 years back, but Peter never forgot his words.
“He would have loved this,” Peter says. “I know he’s helped me with a few bounces here and there.”
Peter’s sister, Colleen, recently presented him with a beautiful scrapbook of Peter and the Packers. It goes back to his childhood and continues through this summer. And, Peter points out, many more pages can be added.
Though you would never sense it by talking to him, there is a significant amount of pressure on this easygoing young man.
He understands that kids all over town find hope in his story. If Peter Mortell can play for the Packers, so can I.
He isn’t just punting for himself. He’s punting for those kids, and for mom and dad, for brother and sister. He’s punting for Grandpa G and for Grandma Colleen, the stamper. For Uncle Jeff and Aunt Marcia Blumb. For John Dorsey and Chris Bryan, the Aussie punter. He’s punting for his old pal Ben Sherman and his father, Mike, the one-time coach of this team. For the Bertrands—George, Dick and the rest—and for Packers forefathers Lee Joannes and Max Murphy. For those fans yelling his name at the practice field. And for little Liam McCabe.
So many people are invested in him. They’re pulling for him, praying for him, cheering for him.
“He’s a good kid, he’s my grandson, and I love him,” says his 81-year-old grandmother, Colleen, who attended Peter’s first game as a Packer. “I want him to kick it a mile.”
Peter wants to kick it a mile, too. But if he doesn’t…
“There are going to be days when I don’t punt well,” he says. “My family and friends need to understand that and realize I will get criticized. I’m more worried about them handling it than me.”
In two preseason games, Peter has a net average of 48.8 yards on five punts.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy says Peter has been a little inconsistent, but he has redeeming qualities. He also makes it clear the job is there to be taken.
“He absolutely has NFL ability,” McCarthy says. “He is a directional punter, which is what I’m looking for. He’s punted in these elements his whole life. I like the young man.”
Still, there is a chance this story will not end the way it is supposed to end. If he fails?
“It won’t be the end of the world,” Peter says. “I was a fan of this team the day I was born. I’m going to be a fan of this team the day I die. This team has meant so much to me and my family. They gave me an opportunity. I’m so appreciative. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll reflect on the months I’ve had here and smile.”
This has been an incredible experience, a dream come to life. Twenty years from now, it will make an even better memory.
No matter what happens, Peter Mortell is a Packer. Always was. Always will be.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.