GREEN BAY — Today, Marco Rivera calls his good friend and former teammate Mark Tauscher “an incredible human being” and “the definition of a diamond in the rough.”
These are remarkably heartfelt compliments considering the culture the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line built in the early 2000s — a band of brothers who loved each other, but usually showed that love by giving one another endless grief, with no one immune from the teasing.
But having played alongside him on the line and taken him under his wing upon Tauscher’s arrival as a rookie seventh-round pick in 2000, Rivera had a front-row seat to see the player Tauscher became. So Rivera couldn’t help but break with the line’s no touchy-feely ethos and speak from the heart about his pal.
Of course, that only lasted a fleeting moment. Because then Rivera had to share his memory of the first time he laid eyes on Tauscher. And, well, let’s just say Rivera wasn’t especially impressed.
“I remember when he came through the door, I was like, ‘Wow … who’s the pudgy kid?’” the three-time Pro Bowl right guard recalled as Tauscher prepared to be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday night. “I’m like, ‘Whew, this is going to be a short stay.’”
Rivera was wrong, of course. Tauscher went on to an against-the-odds 11-year career at right tackle — five years of which included lining up right next to Rivera.
Big first impression
And Rivera learned just how far off he’d been about the baby-faced kid from the University of Wisconsin during the first practice of training camp that first summer, when Tauscher lined up against Vonnie Holliday, an athletic, hulking defensive end, during 1-on-1 pass-blocking drills.
“Lo and behold, we go to camp, we’re doing pass sets 1-on-1, and Vonnie was our first-round pick two years before. And here comes Mark and here comes Vonnie, and I’m thinking, ‘Oooh, this is going to be bad,’” Rivera recounted. “But the ball is snapped, Mark takes his set, Vonnie comes in … and Mark puts the brakes on and puts Vonnie on his back.
“Vonnie, of course, didn’t want to take that. So he wanted to go again. And Mark, he didn’t just do it once. He did it twice. Right then and there, I knew we had something. I knew he was going to be OK.”
Tauscher turned out to be more than just OK. While two ill-timed major knee injuries in 2002 and 2008 — just as he was poised to hit free agency — cost him financially and forced him to endure two arduous rehabilitations to get back on the field, he far exceeded the local-boy-makes-good narrative.
Although he was never elected to the Pro Bowl, he developed into one of the league’s top right tackles and was crucial to the offensive line’s dominance in 2003 and ’04, when the unit kept quarterback Brett Favre safe (19 sacks allowed in 2003, a franchise-record low 14 sacks allowed in 2004) and paved the way for halfback Ahman Green’s record-setting 2003 season (a franchise-best 1,883 rushing yards, 2,250 total yards from scrimmage and a combined 20 touchdowns).
“I’m proud of people who take advantage of their God-given ability. And Mark is one of those people,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, who drafted Tauscher and counts the selection among the smartest calls he made during his nine-year tenure as GM. “I always thought that Mark had been in the Pro Bowl. And I didn’t realize until somebody corrected me a couple years ago that that wasn’t the case. Mark Tauscher had Pro Bowl ability.
“The interesting thing is, in order to play in the offensive line, the one thing you have to have — other than size, certainly — is you have to have balance. And this was the thing Mark had that was just unbelievable. Oh, the balance he had. In fact, when one goes to practice, one knows right away who’s going to make it and who’s not going to make it — who’s a good pick and who’s not a good pick. And you could tell right away early that offseason — and this was without pads — that we had a guy that probably should have been taken in the second round, without a doubt: Mark Tauscher.”
Auburndale to Green Bay
During his acceptance speech Saturday night inside the Lambeau Field atrium, Tauscher retraced his unlikely path to the NFL — from getting no Division I offers coming out of Auburndale High School; to his footwork catching the UW walk-on coordinator’s eye during a WIAA state basketball tournament game; to nearly calling it a career before a serendipitous meeting with UW coaches at the Kentucky Derby led to him returning to the Badgers for a fifth season of eligibility; to his one year as a starter coinciding with blocking for Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ron Dayne; to how his fancy feet playing hacky sack drew Wolf’s attention during a scouting visit to Madison.
Tauscher’s big break in the NFL came early — and suddenly. When veteran right tackle Earl Dotson had trouble with his chronic back problems during training camp, Tauscher saw far more snaps with the starters in practice and preseason games than any seventh-round pick could have hoped for. That work foreshadowed an unexpected opportunity.
“I was getting set to start my first preseason game, and Brett had just signed a $100 million contract,” Tauscher said. “I can remember coach (Mike) Sherman saying, ‘Are we really going to put a rookie seventh-round pick in front of our $100 million investment?’ I said, ‘Man, I sure hope so.’”
Despite the confidence they showed in him, Sherman and offensive line coach Larry Beightol fully expected Dotson to be fine by the time the season started. While Dotson was indeed back for the regular-season opener, his back locked up during the first quarter of the Packers’ Week 2 game at Buffalo, and Tauscher was summoned from the bench.
“Earl goes down and I look over my shoulder, and here comes Mark Tauscher — fresh-faced, clean-shaven … and his eyes are as big as saucers,” Rivera recalled with a chuckle. “He gets in the huddle, Brett’s giving the play, and I’m like, ‘Kid, it’s going to be OK.’ The first play, you would think the coaches would call a run play with a rookie tackle in the game. Nope. They call a five-step drop for Brett.
“I remember the first set: I have a three-technique (defensive tackle), ‘Tausch’ has a wide defensive end. So I’m blocking my guy, and I can’t see what he’s doing. So I’m waiting for the fans to start screaming, ‘Sack! Sack!’ And I look, and Mark’s getting the job done. The kid put a good game together.”
As the years went on, Tauscher developed not only into a top player but one of the team’s veteran leaders. Protecting Favre early in his career and Aaron Rodgers late, he developed close friendships with both quarterbacking greats, along with linemates from both the start of his career (left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Mike Wahle, center Mike Flanagan and Rivera, all of whom were in attendance Saturday night) as well as the youngsters he mentored as he approached the end of the line (Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga, who also were at the induction).
While Favre wasn’t able to attend Saturday night, he was certain Tauscher’s speech would hold the audience’s attention — and draw laughs, which it did.
“He doesn’t need any tips on speaking,” said Favre, who delivered a pair of induction speeches not too long ago — for his 2015 Packers Hall of Fame induction and 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement. “He’s a hell of a lot smarter than I ever was or will be. And, you’ve got to be careful getting in a little matching-wits contest with him because you walk away and you’re the one who looks like a dummy. And as knowledgeable as he is, he can enter into any conversation and hold his own.”
And that’s what Tauscher did on the field, too — he held his own, playing in 134 career games before a shoulder injury early in 2010 landed him on season-ending injured reserve for the team’s Super Bowl XLV run. Today, he stays connected to the team and the game through his radio work while having invested in a number of Madison-area business ventures. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Sun Prairie with son Max and daughter Eleanor.
Dad was ‘my inspiration’
Most of Tauscher’s family, including his mother, Dianne, and brothers Craig and Pat, were in attendance Saturday night, with one notable exception — his father, Dennis, who died in 2013. Denny Tauscher not only ran the family dairy farm and spent two decades as a sportswriter at the Marshfield News-Herald, he also coached many of his sons’ sports teams and instilled in his middle son the importance of a strong work ethic.
“If I had to choose only one person I would want to share this with today, there’s no question who that would be — of course, my dad,” Tauscher said near the end of his speech. “My dad was a hard grinder — there for every sporting event, my inspiration to keep pushing me to limits I didn’t know I could meet. The amount of time he spent taking us to games and practices was incredible, and now as a parent myself I look back at how he did it in awe.
“There’s no doubt he’d be here today, loving this more than anybody. As children, we all want to make our parents proud. And I’d have to say we accomplished it.
“It’s hard to grasp how unlikely it is that a seventh-round pick, a UW walk-on from a Wisconsin town of 600 ended up having an 11-year career in the NFL and now is a Packers Hall of Fame inductee. This is a dream come true.”