Darren McMullen was born in Scotland, immigrated to Australia with his family at age 12 and moved to Los Angeles in 2009, so it’s not hard to see how his first visit to Green Bay came as something of a culture shock.
The 35-year-old TV host whose past credits include “The Voice Australia” and “Love in the Wild” immersed himself in all things Green Bay Packers last fall for an episode of “NFL Football Fanatic,” the new USA Network series that has McMullen traveling to different NFL cities in search of a team to call his own.
His Green Bay adventure — a crash course in Lambeau Leap 101, game-day breakfast at The Pancake Place and a dip into the world of cheese curds — airs at 10:05 p.m. Monday.
McMullen had no idea what was, or wasn’t, awaiting him when he and his crew rolled into town in September for the Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I was completely blown away. I mean, it’s farmland,” he said. “I just had no concept of this huge juggernaut of a team, this massive franchise with the most NFL championships of any team in the league actually is in a town of only 100,000 people. That’s something you don’t even really think about when you watch them on the TV. You’re in kind of that NFL world. The stadium looks big and packed and modern, and then you get there and it’s like, ‘Where’s the city? Well, you’re in the city.’ Oh, wow, this is incredible.
“What an amazing feat it is that the people of Green Bay and Wisconsin have managed to hold on to that team, and that in a lot of ways is to do with the people there who ended up puffing up and paying the money for the shares to divvy up the cash for the team to remain there and not to be sucked away by the closest metropolis,” McMullen said. “You can really see why they have such a sense of loyalty up there for that Green Bay team. It’s such an integral part of that community. The people of Green Bay really kept that team going through some of the harder years and now that team has paid that back to the people of Green Bay. It’s just kind of this symbiotic relationship, the team and the city, which I think is kind of amazing.”
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The small-town feel of it all was exaggerated by the fact that the show’s previous stop had been the colossal AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys — or the “megaship,” as McMullen calls it.
“It’s glitzy. It’s glamorous. It’s celebrity-driven.” … You kind of leave there thinking how on earth are we going to top this, and then you come to Green Bay and it’s different. It’s not state-of-the-art and glitzy and glamorous and celebrity-driven, but it has this beautiful soul. This family quality, this community vibe that maybe gets lost a bit when you do go huge and big and massive like they did in Dallas. So that was a very lovely thing that came out of Green Bay,” he said.
“Being at Lambeau Field for the first time, walking in there … you can feel the echoes of the legends that have played on that field. And it’s quite a beautiful, haunting experience walking out there for the first time. It’s sacred, sacred ground.”
Leaping with LeRoy, talking curds
The idea of the show is to take a deep dive into the fandom in each NFL city. McMullen, who grew up watching American football as a child in Scotland but never gravitated toward a specific team, visited eight teams for the first season of “NFL Football Fanatic”: Green Bay, Dallas, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants.
In Titletown, he met players in the locker room, tailgated with superfans and attempted his first Lambeau Leap (not as easy at it looks).
“Well, I did learn from the master, LeRoy Butler,” he said. “Interestingly, I think he’s in his late 50s now, and he still got up there a lot easier than I did on the first time.”
Food also figures into each episode. In Green Bay that meant cheese. McMullen got to see firsthand how cheese is made and was delighted to finally solve one of the great mysteries of his childhood. He never knew what the line meant in Mother Goose’s “Little Miss Muffet” nursery rhyme — the one about “eating her curds and whey” — until the cheesemaker showed him.
“My whole childhood just came flooding back,” he said. “So Miss Muffet was from Green Bay probably.”
After getting wind of how The Pancake Place is a longtime institution for both players and fans, McMullen made sure to visit there, too. He was struck by how unique Green Bay is in that players are very much part of daily life for residents, easily spotted at local restaurants and grocery stores.
“In Green Bay, they’re shopping where you’re shopping. They’re getting their gas where you’re getting your gas. That would be really cool to be a fan there in Green Bay,” McMullen said. “And the tailgating! The tailgating is amazing there … You get there and then like, wait, they’re not doing it in the car park. Everyone’s house is the tailgate. It’s just rows and rows of streets with people in their homes welcoming in strangers and feeding them and giving them drink. It’s such a cool town to be in when there’s a Packers game on. It really is. I had a ball.”
He went home with several Cheeseheads, including a pencil eraser version, a Packers bowtie and an old-school Christmas cardigan. He even signed up to be on the season ticket waiting list. His postcard arrived just before Christmas to let him know he was something like 134,000th on a list that only sees only a handful of names come off each year.
“So maybe my great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandkids …” McMullen said.
Something else that stuck with him from the Green Bay experience: the sheer stickiness of it. It happened to be that September weekend of unseasonably hot, humid weather — a far cry from any visions of frozen tundra he may have had.
“It just didn’t feel right being in Green Bay watching football at Lambeau Field when it was 90 degrees,” he said. “I think I probably sweated off about 25 pounds that day.”
A ‘love letter to America’
The inspiration for the show stemmed from inviting his girlfriend back to Scotland with him for the first time. She was in awe of things he hadn’t given a second thought to growing up there, like living next to a castle and attending a school surrounded by rolling green hills and water. He fell in love with the country all over again after seeing it through her eyes.
He hopes his journey from city to city in “NFL Football Fanatic” does the same for fans.
“Sometimes we don’t know how special things are when we have them, because we take them for granted, and the best way to kind of reacquaint ourselves with that and how lucky we are is to see it through a foreigner’s eyes,” he said. “So that’s very much what ‘Football Fanatic’ is for me. It’s my love letter to America.”
It’s also a reminder that in divisive times there’s nothing like the shared experience of 80,000 strangers in a football stadium to bring people together, McMullen said.
“All that matters is that you’re wearing the right shirt. You’re wearing a Packers shirt, that’s fine. That’s all that matters. Nothing else matters. I don’t care what you do. Who you are. Who you’re with.”
He would ultimately like to visit all 32 teams and jokes he would drag out the show for 10 years if he could, but he’s tight-lipped about who the front-runner is so far in his quest to find a team to pledge his allegiance to.
It’s Green Bay, right? It has to be. He can tell us.
“Couldn’t do it,” he says, laughing. “They would kill me.”
But he is happy to confess this about his time in Green Bay:
“It really set the benchmark for what the show was going to become though, the Green Bay episode. There’s a real humanity to it that we tried to replicate moving forward after Green Bay and hearing the stories from the locals there and just how passionate they are for this team and how much it means to that community,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we captured that in the episode that’s going to air on Monday. … It’s a really heartfelt, community-driven episode, and that was my takeaway from Green Bay.”
The Green Bay episode of “NFL Football Fanatic” airs at 10:05 p.m. Monday on USA Network.