Meet John Plageman, founder of Sober Green Bay & Section Yellow
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
Pro football games are probably the most popular events in American culture. They’re also notorious for alcohol, especially in Wisconsin, where the Green Bay Packers play and where drinking rates typically lead the nation. That could be a conundrum for someone like John Plageman, a huge Packers fan who is in recovery from substance use disorder. But rather than avoid games, the longtime season-ticket holder decided to create space for sober connections at Lambeau Field, borrowing an idea from sober fans of the band Phish, whose concerts are also infamous for substance use. The result — Section Yellow, which provides fellowship, support, and information to those who seek the comfort and camaraderie of other sober people at Packer games and Lambeau Field events, and Sober Green Bay, which promotes recovery resources and sober alternatives throughout the city. We enjoyed learning about John’s efforts so much, we invited him to bring Section Yellow to our Mobilize Recovery sober tailgate party at Hazelden Betty Ford in St. Paul this September 11th.
Q: What does recovery look like for you, and how has it empowered different aspects of your life?
For me, recovery is a path of personal growth tailored to my needs and strengths, and hopefully addressing my shortcomings. It’s my wellness plan.
I need support meetings. I need music (Phishy stuff, Dead, Motown, funky stuff, bluegrass, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, metal, grunge, and almost everything in between). I love my Amazon playlist (81 hours and 23 minutes — and growing). I need people to be around. I need to feel connected. I need time to myself too. I need to give empathy and feel empathy. I need support, and to give support. I need to listen more than I talk. I need to be present. I need to be with my family and get outdoors (backyard camping is fun!!!). I need to give back. I need my spirituality and my own relationship with GOD. I need to hear more than I ask. Recovery, for me, is a juggling act while balancing on one foot and trying to keep it simple. Sometimes I fall, and sometimes I make mistakes. BUT DO I GROW FROM THEM? I hope so.
This is all a daily journey. I think of myself as a leaf flowing down the river of life. If I let go, and do not have many expectations — my life is pretty good. If I take the control back and expect things, then I get mad and stressed. My leaf starts hitting rocks in the river. I TAKE IT ONE DAY AT A TIME. Try to only focus on 24 hours. I make amends when they are warranted in a timely fashion, and this keeps me humble. Oh, and I forgot, I also need concerts and THE GREEN BAY PACKERS in my life. I need that BIG connection of people. I love going to sporting and music events. I love spreading kindness and advocating for recovery. If stuff gets tough, I call my inner crew, hit up a meeting in person or online, go to my wellness toolbox and take out what I need to help, not fix, my situation. I can’t fix growth. Growth just happens. I started working out again. I appreciate God for giving me the willingness to take NEW action steps toward a better version of me. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Progress not perfection.
Q: What does it mean for you to share your recovery with others?
My attitude is: don’t sit in the back of a meeting and expect to absorb recovery and gain well-being through osmosis. Contribute. Share your feelings and thoughts. Get out in the community and change things up. I learn more in my recovery meetings than I ever did in a Catholic or Lutheran church. I gain more experience through volunteering than I did going to a weeklong conference. I need to ALWAYS find the balance between my family and the investments I need to make in my recovery. Sometimes they can cross each other, which is a blessing. But if I am in one area too much, then the other withers. This is not good for either, and both suffer. The best recovery I ever felt was on top of Alpine Valley amphitheater getting the Phellowship table ready for the show with another Phell (the name we sober fans of the band Phish have adopted). Just him and me chatting about life and recovery. This happened in July of 2022. I coordinated Phellowship gatherings for that entire weekend, too. My goal was to connect with Phells who are new to Alpine Valley and new to sobriety. I did a grill-out on Saturday at Whitewater Lake, and an early dinner meetup on Sunday. I met hundreds of sober Phish phans, and it recharged my recovery like lightning bolts.
Similarly special are those times when I meet another sober Packers fan three hours before kickoff to set up the Section Yellow table. EVERYTHING is quiet inside Lambeau Field. It’s a weird feeling. We set up the table and have at least one hour to talk before the gates open. I get to know that person better than I would in other circumstance because we are there to be of service. I learn so much from other volunteers, and it’s FREE!!! Car rides with another person is another great way to share, reflect and connect.
Q: How did Section Yellow come to be, where do yellow balloons fit into the picture, and what kind of response and engagement have you seen?
I ABSOLUTLEY LOVE telling this story. Yellow balloons are part of the logo or BRAND for sobriety music groups. Wharf Rats = sober fans of the Grateful Dead. Phellowship = Phish. Jellyfish = String Cheese Incident. The Yellow Balloon Group = JRAD. Much Obliged = Umphrey’s McGee. And there are many more. How do you find the table to connect with other sober fans at the concert? You look for the yellow balloons. What’s at the table’? Two sober volunteers there to support others who are in recovery or wanting to explore it. When I found sobriety on Feb. 15, 2009, my first thought was: HOW AM I GOING TO GO TO CONCERTS ANYMORE? Thankfully, I had heard of the Wharf Rats and was able to quickly discover the Phellowship.
My first concert sober was at Alpine Valley for Phish in 2009. I was four months into my recovery and nervous until I got to the Phellowship table during the intermission between sets. During the break, a group of us gathered at the table held a 15–20-minute gratitude meeting. This, I learned, was routine: whoever holds the yellow balloon speaks. When I got back to my area for the second set, the band played a song I had been wanting to hear live since 1996 called Lizards. At the end of the song, I had a moment with God where I felt absolute peace. In that moment, I surrendered everything and committed myself to the path of sobriety one day at a time. Since that day, I have volunteered at the Phellowship table for every Phish show held at Alpine Valley.
Eventually, I asked myself: why can’t Packer fans have this?
I know sober Packer fans WHO WILL NOT go to a game due to the intense culture of drinking and the behavior that follows. If you ever want to see how bad it can get on game day, go to GREEN BAY CRIME REPORTS on Facebook and read its #DaggerReport (note: the name is a pun based on a Packer announcer’s tag line, “And there is your dagger,” when the Packers beat the Vikings 😊). The Dagger Report is a timeline of game day arrests and citations. It’s rather staggering.
I felt the innate need to do something for those who are uncomfortable attending a game at Lambeau.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2019. I am leaving the monthly meeting of a coalition that addresses alcohol and other drug use in the community, and speaking informally to our chairperson. I tell her about the Phellowship and tables at the shows, and I said we need this at Lambeau. “This could be the shift in perception we have always been talking about,” I said. (The coalition seeks to normalize sobriety and change public narratives and stereotypes around alcohol use).
The coalition chair likes the idea and gets me a meeting with the Packers. And then I got what felt like a pat on the head from them: “Great idea. We will get back to you.” Two months later: silence. At my workplace (the Aging and Disability Resource Center), the building is like a community center, and one day a priest from the coalition walks up to me and asks, “How’s that table thing going with the Packers?” I inform him that I have not heard from them and do not know what to do next. He says, “Let me talk to a few people.” He reached out to the spouse of a high-end administrator of the Packers. She and I met for 90 minutes and talked about the culture of drinking at Lambeau Field, and how the table could be a safe zone for those who are sober. The following week, I met with the director of Lambeau field, and she said you will be in the concourse, Section 112, by the Kwik Trip gate entrance. We did four games in 2019. 2020 — COVID, so zero tables. 2021 — Section Yellow had a table at every preseason and regular season home game, but not during the playoffs. It is very, very, very cold in the concourse in January, and that’s OK. (We don’t have the luxury of an indoor stadium, and we like it that way!!!)
To sum it up: Be in a coalition. Have a priest who knows everyone, and a wife/spouse/guardian angel who can move things very fast. We have grown to almost 1,200 members (on Facebook); not all are Packers fans, but we all have the same goal of sobriety and sobriety support.
Section Yellow also led to Market Yellow — a booth/tent set up at the Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays in Green Bay to plant “seeds” of sobriety awareness.
Q: Sober Green Bay, as I understand it, is a broader effort that includes Section Yellow. What other activities are you engaged in with Sober Green Bay, and what’s your ultimate goal?
I created a Sober Green Bay campaign where I go to community agencies and businesses to do a 15– to 30-minute presentation about normalizing sobriety in Green Bay. According to several surveys, roughly a third of the Green Bay population misuses alcohol. It’s not startling. It’s alarming. But I also remind them that a majority of residents don’t over-indulge, and many more than they think don’t drink at all.
Anyone who hears the presentation gets a Yellow Balloon Sober Green Bay decal to put in their door-front or window, and Sober Green Bay (SGB) cards that include information and a QR code to help people find and access support resources. Businesses leave the cards in places where anyone can take one. When people see the yellow balloon on the door, they know an SGB card is close by.
We have met with over 30 agencies and businesses including the Green Bay Police Department. And we are just getting started. Currently we are trying to raise funds to get “Sober Curious?” billboards all around Lambeau field.
The ultimate goal is to make Green Bay the nation’s most sober-friendly city. To my knowledge, the Green Bay Packers are already the first NFL team to have a sober support table in the concourse. We want to keep it going and lead the movement to normalize sobriety throughout America.
Q: What would you like more people to understand about recovery?
For those still struggling or finding their way:
YOU ARE NOT ALONE …
YOU CAN ALWAYS START TODAY …
YOU CAN DO THIS …
There are more of us in recovery than you think.
We get far more than we give up. Recovery doesn’t need to be a last resort. It’s actually a path to better health, more fun and more adventure. Keep an open mind. Be humble. And be willing to help each other, one day at a time.