Editor's note: This column was published in the Nov. 22, 1998 edition of the Star Tribune.
A small number of people are born with a gene that creates an irresistible urge to agitate. If left untreated, many of these people will become sportswriters.
As a whole, Minnesotans have a low tolerance for the irreverence that this gene produces. They prefer to be presented an upbeat view of most things - including the local sports teams. They also want to see the opposition treated respectfully in pregame accounts, so as not to provide bulletin-board material for a team due to play the Vikings, Gophers, etc.
This all changes when the opponent is the Green Bay Packers. Bring the Packers to town and Minnesotans explode with ridicule. Suddenly, the airwaves and the office gathering places are filled with derision for Mike Holmgren, for Brett Favre, for Reggie White and, of course, for the overwrought followers of this team, the Cheeseheads.
If the urge is that strong for you, Mr. and Mrs. Minnesota, you can only imagine the need to ridicule that afflicts Twin Cities sportswriters - those of us already plagued with the agitation gene - when the Packers appear on the schedule.
We have been taking our best shots at the Packers and their gullible backers for several years now, but the truth is this:
Those of us currently working as Twin Cities sportswriters are merely imitators. There has been one master when it comes to agitating Packers' loyalists with the written word - and he was so good at it that, 10 years after his retirement, he can still fill an auditorium and get booed vociferously at any hamlet in western Wisconsin.
The name's Don Riley.
He went from Roosevelt High in Minneapolis to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1943 and worked there for the next 45 years. His column, The Eye Opener, was the staple of St. Paul's morning newspaper for three decades.
If some information found its way into The Eye Opener, that was OK, but Riley's goal was to make readers laugh. It was a goal that he modified for the Pioneer Press' many subscribers in western Wisconsin. His goal then was to make readers scream like stuck pigs.
"You might not remember, but the Packers were the team we followed before the Vikings started in 1961," Riley said. "I knew this was going to turn into our best rivalry - Vikings and Packers. I thought, "We can have fun with this.'
"One of the first times we played them, I wrote, `I don't know what they are so proud of in Wisconsin. They have a dictator for a coach in Lombardi. He has a bunch of robots who can only run five plays.'
"They got a copy of it in Green Bay. Mrs. Lombardi called Bernie and tried to get me fired."
Bernie Ridder was a co-owner of the Vikings and publisher of the St. Paul newspapers. He went with sound economics and decided to trade the Lombardis' unhappiness with him for Riley's ability to sell newspapers.
Riley forevermore referred to Green Bay as Green Bush. When students at Wisconsin-River Falls sent letters of protest, that school became Silo Tech in Riley's columns.
"I went to cover a game there and the Packers wouldn't put me in the press box," Riley said. "They put me in a snowdrift in the 55th row. They were mad, I guess, because that week I wrote, `Did you hear about the beauty contest in Green Bush? Nobody won.' "
Riley also once wrote that if the Vikings did not defeat the Packers, he would push a peanut with his nose all the way to Appleton, Wis.
"The Packers kicked the daylights out of us," Riley said. "I quit counting when my letters reached 4,200 the next week."
This is true. I was working there. Riley's daily mail was arriving in boxes that were large enough to hold a television set.
Ten years after retirement from daily newspapering, Riley remains a coveted after-dinner speaker in western Wisconsin. He still is the speaker at the annual Packers' fan club gathering in New Richmond, Wis.
"One year, I talked to a group of Packers fans and they gave me a big crate of cheese," Riley said. "I thought that was nice of them. I brought it home. Dotie [Mrs. Riley] opened it up and said, `Don, I hate to disappoint you, but they gave you a crate of horse manure.' "
Riley has been working on a book in recent months. It's called "Gallivan's Gang" and is due out in the spring. It revolves around the true-life characters who used to hold up the bar at Gallivan's saloon on Wabasha St. in St. Paul.
Riley and his Gallivan's cronies financed many promotions that sounded sure-fire over cocktails, but invariably lacked something in the execution. Included was Riley's memorable Lassie promotion, which went like this:
Young Shannon Riley, Don's daughter, was a fan of Lassie. To provide Shannon with the ultimate birthday present, Riley convinced pal Jim Rogers to join in renting Met Center to bring in the heroic mutt.
There would be two shows to handle the Lassie-loving youth of the Twin Cities. Shannon would get to pet the collie and The Eye and Rogers would make a tidy profit.
"Rogers and I stopped at Gannon's for a couple of pick-me-ups on our way to Met Center," said Riley, now long sober. "When we got back outside, there were cars backed all the way down West Seventh. We were sure we had struck gold.
"There was a cop there and I said, `Is the traffic like this all the way to Met Center? They must have a real popular event going on.'
"The cop looked at me and said, `What the hell are you talking about? A tanker overturned trying to make the turn to Fort Snelling. Once you get past this, there isn't a car between here and North Dakota.'"
Shannon had what amounted to a private audience with Lassie. "The only way I could have lost more money is if I had put everything I had in a pile and took a blowtorch to it," Riley said. "And then they sent a bill for arena cleanup. They had to pick up three Snickers wrappers and the bill was $311."