It was 1984 or ’85 or ’86. My dad scored tickets to a Green Bay Packers game. But this was no ordinary game on the schedule! It was Tampa Bay week – The Battle of the Bays. Two less-than-mediocre teams would play at Milwaukee County Stadium in the only NFL stadium where the teams shared the same sideline.
The game promised the hope of a win, one of only a few for either team that season. While the division rival Bears boasted of a roster with Richard Dent and Walter Payton, the Packers had the most ordinary of men with a guy named John Anderson starting at middle linebacker.
While my dad scarfed brats and beer with his buddies at the obligatory tailgate party, which started around 7:00 a.m., I watched people walk by wearing heavy jackets, blaze orange, and work boots. A loud chorus of boos erupted nearby and two men wearing Walter Payton jerseys were being serenaded with “Bears Still Suck” chants. Welcome to Packerland.
Inside the stadium designed for baseball, we sat behind third base or on this day in the back of the end zone. After watching both teams battle to a 10-10 tie, the Packers drove inside the 5-yard line, on our side! Some quarterback, Randy or Blair or somebody, handed the ball off three times to see each game-clinching attempt thwarted well before the ball carrier crossed the goal line.
A kicker trotted out and promptly kicked the ball wide left into the seats where booing fans threw the ball back at the kicker with more velocity than the Packers quarterback mustered all day. Later, Tampa kicked a field goal and won. Green Bay lost 13-10. That was life as a Packer fan.
Things have brightened since that bygone era. From Don Majkowski’s quarterback sneak that sunk Joe Montana’s 49ers in Candlestick to Brett Favre hitting Sterling Sharpe in Detroit on a last second, last ditch, last gap 60-yard bomb to sew the first playoff victory in forever, the Pack pulled itself out of the NFL doldrums and became a championship franchise.
But success only changes so much. The winters in Wisconsin are cold and dark. And long. And gray. Wisconsin may have deer season and the Birkebeiner, but for many, winter is a time to shut in and eat comfort food.
In Wisconsin parlance, “The winters are shorter when the Packers are in the Super Bowl.”
The Packers have become a zealous religion. The team is owned by thousands of fans including me. The team bylaws are from the Curly Lambeau era. Each shareholder votes for the board of directors annually. And if the Packers were to dissolve, the proceeds from the sale would go to the Green Bay VFW.
The team holds spring practice at a local college, biking distance from Lambeau field. And speaking of bikes, each year, kids arrive early to August practices to offer their dirt bikes to 300-pound, plus linemen to bike the 200 yards from Lambeau Field to the Don Hutson practice facility.
Lucky kids get to carry that Packer’s helmet! The team is sociable, and volunteers each Thanksgiving at local food banks. It’s the intimacy between team and fans that have forged such strong devotion, which makes Sunday home games on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field feel like a religious revival.
Their success this year is equal parts kitsch and karma. I love the Green Bay Packers as much as I love my Wisconsin roots. And while I moved away long ago to avoid the winters (like many others did to populate warm weather NFL cities), I still root for the team with the same fervor as I rooted for Majkowski in ’89.
So this weekend, I will beer-boil some brats and eat cheese and crackers like a true ‘Sconnie. I will put on my Packer socks, Packer flannel pants, Packer shirt, Packer sweatshirt, and Packer hat then top this off with a cheesehead. And I will cheer for the Pack louder than any suburban dad west of the Mississippi.
So, if you’re uncertain who to root for this coming game, why not drink the Leinie’s-flavored Kool-aid and root for the Pack? We’ll be glad to welcome you.
And, oh yeah! Did you see what happened last game? Yep, Bears Still Suck.