With a decorated, 36-year career as a Wisconsin sportswriter, Cliff Christl has handled his share of big assignments.
But it’s safe to say the UW Oshkosh alumnus has fielded nothing like the doozy facing him in 2019.
Christl, ’70, a 2009 UW Oshkosh Distinguished Alumni Award winner, a seven-time winner of the state sportswriter of the year honor and recipient of a host of other regional and national journalistic awards, was named the official team historian for the Green Bay Packers in February. That means his film-room hobby (microfilm, really) of studying Packers history has become an official duty. And, over the next few years, his job is, among other things, to help the Packers quarterback the drive to the franchise’s 100th anniversary in 2019.
Christl knows the monumental task ahead of him will take the fervor for green-and-gold history to an entirely new level.
“The Packers have some big plans for their 100th anniversary, and I think there are some things I could contribute to that in terms of preserving their history or rekindling it and, in turn, sharing it with their fans and readers of the website,” Christl said. “That’s going to be a huge investment of time.”
On Feb. 4, the Packers announced Christl as their new franchise historian. Aside from the UW Oshkosh political science alumnus’ storied career covering the Packers–starting with the Green Bay Press Gazette in 1974 and followed by a long stint with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel leading to his retirement in 2007–Christl channeled his passion for team history into development of the “Packers Heritage Trail.” The trail is a series of 22 commemorative plaques and a downtown Green Bay plaza “that tell about the rich history of the Packers over their first 50 years,” according to Packers.com.
“I think that the Packers really appreciated that effort,” Christl said. “… And I think they were simply aware of the amount of research I had done on their history.”
These days, Christl, who winters in Florida and also lives in Green Bay, spends much of his time commanding the controls of microfilm readers, either in libraries or newspaper morgues. His deep knowledge of the Packers organization and commitment to the preservation of team history has him regularly reviewing clippings and sports stories that chronicle the organization’s long, uphill climb.
Christl said there’s no disputing the “rich history” of historical heavyweights, such as the New York Yankees or the Chicago Bears. “But I don’t think there is a any franchise in any sport that offers a better story than the Packers,” he said.
That story will come into even clearer focus when the team’s ongoing renovation of the Packers Hall of Fame is complete and in its 2019 100th anniversary year. So much of popular Packers history is rooted in the hoisting of championship trophies and the mystique of the Lombardi era. But Christl said the real grit and tenacity of the franchise is rooted in its first few decades–decades that were far from glorious.
The Packers “grew from a sandlot semi-pro team to the most successful franchise in the NFL in its smallest city,” Christl said, describing the organization’s first few decades as a “battle for survival.”
“It’s almost impossible to believe they made it,” he said, noting that he’s currently deep into researching the team’s struggles through the 1920s. “They were essentially on their death bed for the first 30 years.”
It wasn’t until Lambeau Field’s construction and opening in 1957 that the franchise got its solid footing and grew into the juggernaut most sports fans recognize today.
Interestingly, it is the Packers’ website and digital presence that will now serve as one of Christl’s chief tools to help fans better appreciate the sepia-tinged memories and remarkable story of the team’s early struggle to survive.
“There’s no other team whose history compares to the Packers, other than possibly the Chicago Bears,” Christl said. “But they’re not unique. They were born into a city with big shoulders… Green Bay had to scratch and crawl and earn everything it earned.”
Christl spent two years at UW-La Crosse before transferring to UW Oshkosh in the fall of 1967. He majored in political science, spending three years at the University.
“I was certainly not an exemplary student,” he said. “I really had no clue what I wanted to do in life… My second year there, I took some radio and TV courses with Doc (Robert) Snyder. I’ve always had a keen interest in sports. And so I did some sportscasts there on the school radio station, and my third year there, I took some journalism courses and wrote some pieces for the old paper. I was lucky to get a job in Manitowoc after I graduated, and things went from there.”
After 16 months on the job, Christl left the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter when he was hired by the Press-Gazette in 1974 at age of 27. He was assigned to cover the Packers after former Packers historian and public relations legend Lee Remmel left.
“That’s kind of when my career took off,” Christl said.
And how. In February, when he was introduced as the new franchise historian, the Packers made note of Christl’s outstanding resume, He earned “numerous awards for his work, including being named sportswriter of the year in Wisconsin seven times. Twice, in 1999 and 2001, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association honored him in Salisbury, N.C., for writing the best national sports story. Three times in the 1990s, he placed in the enterprise reporting category in the Associated Press Sports Editors national writing contest. He also won two Milwaukee Press Club awards for best state sports story and a Wisconsin Newspaper Association award for best state sports column.”
The Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inducted him as a “friend of basketball” in 2006. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in a special citation category in 2007, according to Packers.com.
Christl still maintains ties to UW Oshkosh. He has occasionally collaborated with faculty, instructors and retiree groups, sharing a bit about Packers history. His family also created a special scholarship fund at the UW Oshkosh Foundation, which supports a Green Bay East High school graduate with plans to attend UW Oshkosh’s College of Letters and Science. The fund was created in honor of his grandfather, Peter Christl, and his father, Clifford H. Christl, who died when Cliff Christl was just a newborn.
Every once and a while, Christl said he also likes to visit his alma mater’s Polk Library. There, he can quietly do the diligent, backstage work of a historian, digging into microfilm reels to find old Milwaukee Journal and other newspaper clips, documenting the journey of a team that would become one of the globe’s most legendary.
“I’m most comfortable when in my little cubby hole, researching and writing,” he said.
- Cliff Christl joining Packers, packers.com as historian (Feb. 4, Packers.com)
- Alumni Pride: Christl a hit with sports-writing career (August 2009, UW Oshkosh Today)