Kevin Zeitler was just 5 years old when he fell in love with the Green Bay Packers. Growing up in Waukesha, Wisc., he didn’t have much choice.
“The Packers are just a huge part of the culture there, along with the brats and cheese,” said Zeitler, the rookie guard the Cincinnati Bengals selected with one of their two first-round draft picks in April.
As big of a Packers fan as Zeitler was, the love affair was relegated to watching the team on television. Even though Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, is less than a three-hour drive from Lambeau Field, Zeitler never got to see his favorite team play in person.
But Thursday night he will when the Packers come to Paul Brown Stadium to face the Bengals in a 7 o’clock preseason game.
“It’s kind of ironic that my first Packers game will be one I’m playing against them,” Zeitler said. “I was in (Lambeau Field) at the pro shop once, and I went to the all-state banquet dinner there in high school. But this will be my first official Packer game.”
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Zeitler said the first Packers game he remembers watching on TV was the 1996 NFC Championship game, which Green Bay lost 38-27 to Dallas. The Cowboys’ secondary coach that year was Mike Zimmer, now the Bengals defensive coordinator.
While that season ended in heartbreak for the young Zeitler, he was able to celebrate a Super Bowl win the following year. And the memories are even more vivid from the Super Bowl the Packers won two years ago when Zeitler was a junior at the University of Wisconsin.
“Those were good times, but that loyalty has to be set aside,” he said. “It’s all about Cincinnati now.”
Zeitler’s parents made the trip to Cincinnati two weeks ago for his first NFL preseason game against the New York Jets, but they aren’t able to make it Thursday night. His fiancee’s family, however, will be in town in full force, along with a handful of Zeiter’s friends and former coaches and teammates.
“I’ll definitely have a huge cheering section up there,” he said.
He’ll also have a small one across the river in Kentucky.
While Zeitler was still looking for an apartment during the offseason, he stayed at the Radisson Hotel across the river, where he struck up a friendship with a wheelchair-bound youngster suffering from spina bifida.
“He was staying there while he was having some treatments done at the hospital, and we just happened to meet up,” Zeitler said. “We took a picture together, and he ended up writing me letters and had that picture blown up.”
With training camp officially ending Sunday, Zeitler said he was going to use his newfound free time Monday night to visit the boy again and sign the big photo.
“I called him a few times after we met, and I think it shocked him,” Zeitler said. “He was so thankful. It was really neat stuff. I’m excited to get over there and say ‘Hi’ to him again.”
Apparently there’s more than just being a Packers fan that is part of the culture in Wisconsin.
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