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In these parts, no doubt he’s the Big Cheese

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Since 1988, regular readers of the Globe op-ed page have become familiar with Derrick Z. Jackson, monitor of racial issues, sworn enemy of Big Tobacco, friend of the environment, and student of foreign policy.

I know another Derrick Z. (stands for “Zane,’’ as in “Grey,’’ by the way) Jackson. The Derrick Jackson I know from a prior incarnation was a frequent participant in our media basketball games when he covered the Knicks for Newsday and I covered the Celtics for the Globe. Most of all, the Derrick Jackson I know is a totally devoted follower of the Green Bay Packers, the team in town last night to play the Patriots.

Yes, folks, Derrick Z. Jackson is not just an egghead. He is a certified Cheesehead.

I wouldn’t call that room he occupies on the second floor of our building an office. Frankly, it’s a Packers shrine. I recently counted about 20 publications devoted to, or containing significant information on, the Green Bay Packers. Other Packers-oriented items include nine books, three hats, eight photographs, one big No. 1 finger saying “Go Pack Go!’’ and one football. The only things missing are kegs dispensing Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Old Style, plus a grill for the brats.

Well, he is from Milwaukee. And he really doesn’t expect you to understand. To him, being a Cheesehead is akin to acknowledging your gender or sexuality. Growing up as he did, there really was no choice.

This condition is specifically acute for those who lived through the Lombardi Glory Years, when the cute little, publicly-owned team located in the NFL’s smallest market became one of America’s all-time greatest sports stories. The entire state of Wisconsin became engulfed in a Packer mania that exists to this day, and which tethers all Cheeseheads, no matter how far they may roam.

Hey, who else can brag about the Ice Bowl?

“Bart Starr battered, beaten, bruised, playing with broken ribs,’’ Derrick Z. rhapsodizes. “I was 12 when they won the Ice Bowl.’’

That’ll do it, all right.

But to a young man of color growing up in a predominantly white culture, the Green Bay Packers represented something else.

“I really didn’t become fully conscious of it until later, but the Lombardi Packers were a somewhat integrated team at a time when that wasn’t the norm,’’ he points out, citing the likes of Willie Wood, Herb Adderley, and, of course, the great Willie Davis, that rare NFL player who became a much bigger success in business than he was as a player, and he was pretty darn good.

Still, being a Packer is what mattered.

“In the end, it wasn’t about black and white,’’ Jackson declares. “It was about green and gold.’’

“Most of all,’’ Jackson says, “it was their work ethic that appealed. It showed what sports can be if you do it the right way. I can honestly say it was a small motivation in my life. It shows that nothing can get in the way of your success. You may face obstacles, but you can succeed.’’

The Packers play all their home games at Lambeau Field now, but in Derrick Z.’s youth they split the home schedule between Green Bay and Milwaukee. Then, as now, he was a photography buff, and he was able to gain access to an occasional sideline as a photographer’s assistant. But he also took his own shots, and even enjoyed the thrill of having his own photos published. Not a bad memory.

For all Packers fans, the seminal event of the past 25 years was the dissolution of the marriage between the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre. Derrick Z. himself was not exactly conflicted.

“It was completely time for him to go,’’ he says. “[Green Bay general manager] Ted Thompson takes a lot of grief for some things he does, but he was right in his gamble to let Favre go and turn it over to Aaron Rodgers. As many thrills as Favre gave me personally, he had to go.’’

As for the home team, well, Jackson considers them worthy of admiration, paying them the highest compliment he can summon.

“They remind me of the good Green Bay teams,’’ he says. “They’re a complete team, and they just take care of business. They don’t talk; they do it on the field.’’

I’m certainly telling no tale the folks at the Globe don’t know. In case anyone thought he might have been completely converted to the home side, they learned differently when he was the only one to show up for a Patriots Super Bowl party in early 1997 wearing a Packers hat. But who among us doesn’t appreciate loyalty?

If 22 years in our midst hasn’t sparked a conversion, it’s doubtful if 22, or 122, more would change anything. Once a Cheesehead, always a Cheesehead.

“Yes, I live in Boston,’’ he says, “but this is something that keeps you in touch with your roots.’’

Anything else?

“And it’s something to share with the fellow Cheeseheads in Boston.’’

That’s my Derrick Z. Six days a week you can dwell on the weighty issues of the day. On the seventh, my man is a Cheesehead.

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