Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Dec. 29, 2016 issue of eCV, the Medical Center's electronic newsletter. Packer was the runner-up contestant on the Big Fan program that aired on Jan. 9, 2017.
John Clark Packer is a Big Fan, indeed.
Closest to the UMMC Children's Miracle Network coordinator's heart are the Mississippi State Bulldogs: He traveled back and forth to Omaha, Nebraska - twice - to watch the baseball team make it to the championship game of the College World Series in 2013; he's been to several of the football team's school-record seven consecutive bowl games; and he even rented an apartment across the street from the MSU campus so he could have a place to stay after night and weekend games.
Packer has a special affinity for the old Dukes of Hazzard television show: He befriended and remains close to actor and CMNHospitals cofounder John Schneider, who played Bo Duke on the series, and he has a myriad of items and other authentic memorabilia from the franchise - Packer even named his beloved dog after Schneider's character.
And depending on which team might have a better shot at copping a World Series crown, in any given season, Packer is passionate about the New York Yankees and/or the Boston Red Sox: While attending a game during the last season at old Yankee Stadium, he wore a Yankees T-shirt - and donned a Red Sox cap as well.
But what Packer really is a Big Fan of is life itself.
Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and other related maladies at birth, he continues to wring the most out of each and every one of his 35 years . . . and counting. What has allowed him to overcome - nay, obliterate - the overwhelming odds of survival he was given as a child; to withstand the grueling regimen of daily medication, exercises and treatments; and to maintain a positive attitude throughout countless hospital stays and doctor visits; are his unshakable faith in his lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and his personal mantra, “Just Keep Livin.”
That slogan was made famous by the object of another of Packer's fandoms, Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey. The actor's “just keep livin” foundation provides high school students tools to lead active lives and make healthy choices. It also has served as a wellspring of hope for Packer, whose personal wardrobe is punctuated with shirts and hats bearing the “jkl” insignia.
“I've always liked McConaughey as an actor, but that motto hit home with me personally,” Packer said. “To me, it means no matter what you're going through, everyone has a choice in life - they can choose to give in to whatever they're battling with, or not. And I choose to keep fighting.
“It can apply to anyone in general - everybody has something they deal with in life that can knock them down. It's just a way to look at the brighter side of life - to push forward and keep moving. You can either give up or keep fighting.”
McConaughey has had memorable roles in movies and television series, such as Steven Spielberg's Amistad, The Wedding Planner, We Are Marshall, The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street and True Detective. He has been to Mississippi more than once - as part of location shoots for the movies A Time to Kill, a film adaptation of John Grisham's legal drama, and The Free State of Jones, a cinematic take on the Civil War-era activities of Newton Knight. And he won the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in 2014 for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof, an HIV/AIDS activist, in The Dallas Buyers Club.
Packer said the name of the actor's foundation - and thus, his own life's motto - sprang from one of McConaughey's earliest roles.
“His father passed away while he was filming Dazed and Confused, and he was struggling with it,” Packer said. “His character has a line that went something like, 'Hey, man, you've got to keep livin' . . . L-I-V-I-N.'
“He said it was that line from the movie that kind of inspired him, so he created his foundation in 2008.”
Ultimately, Packer credits the line for helping him make his national network broadcast debut as well. What has given him the designation Big Fan - capital B, capital F - is his upcoming appearance on the prime time game show of the same name, scheduled to air at 9 CST Monday, Jan. 9 on ABC.
Packer will be matched against two other Big Fans of McConaughey to see who is the actor's, well, Biggest Fan. And that person will compete against McConaughey himself on the show to see who actually knows the most about the actor.
According to Packer, it's a concept that sprang from the imagination of late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.
“On one of the episodes of his talk show, he did a segment with (popular singer) Katy Perry and one of her biggest fans,” Packer said. “The goal of the 'game show' was to terrify the actual celebrity; the joke was the person knew more about the celebrity than the celebrity did.
“That segment took off on YouTube, and they came up with the whole (Big Fan) show from that.”
In fact, Packer stood only a few feet from Kimmel during the May 1 taping of the show in the Jimmy Kimmel Live studio.
“He was sitting on the front row, but I didn't know that until after they had taped it,” Packer said. “Someone asked me, 'Did you see him?' But I hadn't.
“I have done several interviews on camera locally and for CMNHospitals, but I had never done anything national before. This was a different ballgame. The cameras were all there, it was in front of a live studio audience, and your favorite celebrity is right there in front of you, too. So I never saw Jimmy Kimmel.”
Packer had to beat some pretty long odds just to be considered for the show; but of course, as a CF patient, that's what he does every day. The audition process took several weeks - from the initial application and a telephone interview to a Skyped trivia contest about McConaughey and, finally, to a video submission.
“They were wanting something unique and funny, so we went up to Canton where they had filmed A Time to Kill,” Packer said. “We did a really funny video, showing the different places where scenes from the movie were filmed, and we even had some people explain how they know me and why I should be on the show.”
“He really has this desire to let Matthew McConaughey know just how much that 'just keep livin'' mantra has meant to him in his life,” said Derrick Dyess, UMMC senior graphics designer, who shot the audition video, portions of which will be shown during the Big Fan broadcast. “In his emails, texts - anytime anything is going on - he'll always post 'jkl.' It's really something that's buried deep within his heart.
“To grow up knowing you have a disease that has a life expectancy attached to it, it's got to be tough. He loves to tell people that he's still kicking, that he's still living. So when they show him walking out on that game show, he's not only getting to tell Matthew McConaughey his slogan meant a lot, he's literally telling the whole world, 'just keep livin.'”
Packer described the experience as one big blur.
“They flew us out there (Hollywood, California) on a Saturday,” he said. “When we got there, we went through wardrobe all through Saturday night, we were shuttled to the studio Sunday morning, we filmed the show, they kicked us out and flew us back home.
“It was so fast, but it was awesome.”
It might have been quick, but Packer said the television appearance has resulted in several lasting relationships.
“We were stuck in a roomful of strangers all day long, but we ended up getting to be good friends,” he said. “We group-chat together and talk with each other every day.
“The day they announced the show would air on Jan. 9, my phone blew up.” His fellow contestants were “texting me all day long.”
And his experience on the national stage might not be over. Studio executives have told him they may invite Packer and other contestants from the first season to participate on the show again if it's renewed for a second season.
“The overall experience was absolutely amazing,” Packer said. “They said thousands of people worldwide had applied to be on the show, and they only took a handful. It was a huge honor to be selected.”
So how well did he do on the show? Even his closest friends and family will have to wait until the broadcast to find out.
On the night of Jan. 9, there will be countless parties across the country, as fans will gather to watch the college football championship. It's a contest that Packer hasn't missed in decades, but at the celebration he will be hosting that night, part of the game will have to be put on hold.
“We'll probably watch the championship game at the beginning,” the Big Fan said, “But we will definitely turn over to the game show when it comes on.
“I'm not a big Alabama fan,” he said of the presumptive participant in the national title game, “but I hope they blow 'em out so people can watch our show, too.”