Nearly thirty-two years ago, Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was Packers teenage ball boy Mike Priefer.
“The summer of 1984, my dad [Chuck] has his first NFL coaching job as special teams coach,” Mike said. “He and I leave Chapel Hill, N.C., together so I can go work training camp before my senior year of high school.
“It’s July and I walk out onto Lambeau Field for the first time. I’m looking around and thinking, ‘Wow. Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor. All the greats who played where I’m standing.’ What a cool place. I got chills.”
Sunday night, Priefer will be back at Lambeau Field for the fifth time as Vikings special teams coordinator. The only extra chills he’ll get will be due to a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on the third day of January in Green Bay.
“It’s still a cool place,” Priefer said. “But we need a win.”
Special teams could play a big role in a game that will decide the NFC North title. Just ask the Packers, who missed out on Super Bowl XLIX and had their entire coaching system thrown out of whack by special teams meltdowns in a much bigger game — last year’s overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
It was the crowning fiasco in a terrible season for Green Bay special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. First, Slocum was fired. Then coach Mike McCarthy relinquished his offensive play-calling duties so he could keep better tabs on the rest of the team.
The latter contributed to the Packers struggling more on offense than at any other point in McCarthy’s 10 years as coach. Finally, three weeks ago, McCarthy, one of the game’s best play-callers, took the role back from assistant Tom Clements.
And to think, that whole chain of events started with a special teams coordinator’s nightmare of a game in Seattle.
Two major second-half gaffes turned a 16-0 Packers lead into one of the more disheartening losses in the Packers history. First, Seahawks holder Jon Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to backup offensive lineman Garry Gilliam on a fake field goal. Then, with 2:09 left in the game, Brandon Bostick tried to field an onside kick when he was supposed to block so Jordy Nelson could catch it. Bostick botched it and, well, you know the rest.
“The fake field goal, there was a tendency there that Green Bay rarely broke that Seattle found,” Priefer said. “Great call by Seattle. And then the onside kick, that’s why you have one guy who is going to recover the ball and four guys to block. The coaching was there, but the execution wasn’t.
“Those are all little things that I try to stay on top of, and that’s literally what keeps me up at night. I wake up on game day and I typically watch kickoff and punt before the game, break it down one more time. Go over all my calls, and then I look at all my notes for the week that I’ve consolidated.”
Then he heads for the locker room.
“Any tips or reminders that I worry about, I jot them down,” Priefer said. “Guys see me coming in the locker room and they know, ‘Oh, shoot, here comes Priefer.’ They know it’s one more last-minute reminder of what I want them to remember.”
Mike Priefer has been an NFL special teams assistant for 14 seasons. Chuck Priefer was one for 17.
In 1984, then-Packers coach Forrest Gregg hired Chuck away from North Carolina. Chuck had coached Gregg’s son at Padua High School in Parma, Ohio, when Gregg was head coach of the Browns.
Mike went to Abbot Pennings High School, an all-boys Catholic school in De Pere, Wis. He shared the quarterback position and led the team in interceptions at safety.
“I was 17, 18 years old, 5-11, 150 pounds dripping wet,” Priefer said. “Every day in training camp, the little kids would ask me for an autograph. They’d be so heartbroken when I told them I was just a ball boy. So I just starting signing and telling them I was the kicker.”
Priefer used to work the visiting sideline during the first half of the games at Lambeau.
“One time, we were playing the Buccaneers,” Priefer said. “I knew the game pretty well. Tampa Bay ran a halfback pass, and I saw it coming before anyone. I wanted to yell and scream, ‘Pass!’ But I was on the wrong sideline to be yelling that. I was so mad because they ended up scoring a touchdown.”
Sunday night, Priefer will be on that same sideline for the entire game. He’ll also have no inclination to help the Packers.