Maybe the only truly romantic thing left in American sports: The Green Bay Packers
Seriously, America, what’s not to like about the Green Bay Packers? What’s not to like about a small-town team that is not only surviving, but thriving in the billion-dollar business of professional football?
There is nothing like them in professional sports. Think about what an oddity they are. Teams have come and gone in the NFL in a continuous game of musical chairs — the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis, the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, the Oakland Raiders to L.A. and back to Oakland, the Cardinals from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix, the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis.
But the Packers have stayed in tiny Green Bay, Wis., since their birth in 1919. America’s second biggest city, Los Angeles, with a population of 4 million, doesn’t even have a franchise, but Green Bay, with a population of 101,000, does. It’s like plunking down a team in the middle of Sandy, Utah.
They are the smallest market in pro sports. Green Bay’s metro area — if you stretch the definition of “metro” — is 283,000. Buffalo, the next smallest in sports, has 1.1 million. New York City has 8.5 million in the city limits alone, 19 million in the metro area.
What’s not to like about a team that was dreamed up during a street-corner conversation one day?
Curly Lambeau, a former Green Bay prep star and Notre Dame football player, hatched the idea and convinced his employer, the Indian Packing Company, to buy uniforms and provide a practice field. In turn, the team called itself the Packers. Lambeau was the team’s first star player (for 11 years) and its first coach (for 30 years) and — you’ve got to like this — he pioneered the forward pass in the NFL.
What’s not to like about the last small-town survivor of the National Football League? In the early ’20s, the fledgling NFL consisted almost entirely of small-town teams like Green Bay — the Decatur Staleys, Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Muncie Flyers, Rochester Jeffersons, Rock Island Independents. But as the league turned fully to professionalism, those teams either folded or moved to big cities for bigger profits. Green Bay found a way to keep the Packers — the community bought them.
What’s not to like about a team that is owned by its fans? The Packers are the only publicly owned team in professional sports.. There’s no Jerry Jones, George Steinbrenner or Daniel Snyder in Green Bay. The other teams have one very rich, often reviled, owner; the Packers have 112,000 shareholders — or 112,000 Monday-morning quarterbacks who are legally entitled to kibbitz. They’ve rescued the team from financial hardship four times — in 1923, ’35, ’50 and ’97. Without them, the team simply would not exist.
What’s not to like about this team? Apparently, not much. Despite their small-town roots — or perhaps because of it — they have courted a world-wide following. According to a 2010 Harris poll, the Packers are still the third most popular team in the country, 40 years after their glory years. Someone once asked the late former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to name the best football city in America. “Green Bay,” he replied. “A small town. People owning their own football team. Rabid supporters.”
The Packers have one of the longest waiting lists for season tickets in pro sports, some 80,000 deep (Lambeau Field seats only 78,000). The average wait for season tickets is estimated to be 30 years, but if you added your name to the list now you probably wouldn’t get tickets in your lifetime. Packer fans are known to leave season tickets in their wills or to place newborn babies on the waiting list. Packer games have been sold out since 1960.
“I’m a ‘green and gold’ season ticket holder and have some voting stock in the team,” explains Walt Mehr, a Utah resident who grew up in Eagle River, Wis., just north of Green Bay. “It took me 23 years to get season tickets. We have a big shareholders meeting in July and vote. We were involved with remodeling of the stadium. As season-ticket holders we had to put up money for that — $5,000. My tickets are in my will.”
It’s every fan’s dream — they get to help run the team. You’ve got to like that.
What’s not to like about a team that has been an almost mythical force since joining the NFL in 1921? They’ve won 13 championships — nine NFL titles in the pre-Super Bowl era, and four Super Bowls — and no one else is close to matching them. They won the first two Super Bowls. They won five championships in seven years during the ’60s. They’re the only team that’s ever won three in a row. The city’s nickname is “Titletown.” Their coach’s name is on the Super Bowl Trophy. They have 21 Hall of Famers, second only to the Chicago Bears. They are a team of legends — Starr, Nitschke, Taylor, Lombardi, Davis, Hornung, Kramer, Gregg, Hutson, Lambeau, Favre.
What’s not to like about a team that is so entrenched in the community in such a personal way? It’s big-time football in a small-town way that has been lost as the NFL has grown. This is the town that spawned the Lambeau Leap — players leaping into the arms of fans behind the end zone after a touchdown, a routine that has since been adopted throughout the league. It symbolizes the close connection between the team and the fans, like so many other things. Green Bay’s stadium is bordered by the back yards of middle-class neighborhoods. The players live in regular neighborhoods, with the fans.
“Unlike the other NFL cities, where players can live in mansions away from the masses, Green Bay has no real ‘affluent’ suburbs,” says Vai Sikahema, a former Packer and BYU player. “And because of the frigid weather, everyone had second homes in warmer places. So the players lived in modest homes in regular neighborhoods.
“Playing for the Packers and living in Green Bay is generally the way it was in the ’60’s when Vince Lombardi lived there. The house we rented was rented by a host of former Packers, dating back to the great running back Jim Taylor.
“Another player rented a home once lived in by Bart Starr. That creates this extra unique bond with the fan base. On Tuesdays, our day off, we’d walk our children to the bus stop and all the dads would go in late so they could walk their own kids and talk football with us at the bus stop. My wife had play dates with regular moms on our street, as opposed to the closed, elitist ‘wives club’ on other teams.”
There is a tradition in Green Bay that has received considerable publicity over the years. Kids wait for Packer players outside the locker room and often use their bikes to ride to the practice field. The kids hold the players’ helmets and jog alongside the players as they ride the kids’ bikes to practice. Who couldn’t like that?
“I was one of those kids who ran next to a player while he rode my bike to the practice field from the locker room,” says Mark Stimpson, a Salt Lake resident who grew up in Green Bay. “We did it every day during the summer. I had a metallic green stingray bike. I’d wait by the locker room. The player would hand me his helmet. The players wouldn’t pedal the bikes. They were too big. They’d just stick their legs out and coast because it’s a down-hill walk to the field. We’d talk to them while we walked beside them. Then, during practice we’d watch the guy who rode our bike. It was a fun time. The players were great to us.”
Sikahema remembers the bike routine, as well. “The bikes are one of those unique things in Green Bay that allow fans, especially kids, to get to know the players in a personal way,” he says. “I stayed in touch with the kid whose bike I used through his college years and his wedding. He’s now in his mid-30s. His name is Aaron Smet. When I was there, a bunch of poor kids didn’t have bikes to lend to the players and (teammate) Sterling Sharpe had Wal-Mart deliver to the complex a tractor trailer full of bikes that he gave away to less fortunate kids.”
Stimpson recalls seeing Willie Wood, Ray Nitschke, Elijah Pitts and Bart Starr around town when he was a kid. The Packers were one of them. His sister, Mary Nelson, babysat for reserve quarterback Zeke Bratkowski.
“Zeke lived around the corner from us,” says Nelson. “After the games some of the players would come over to Zeke’s house. I got to meet Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer and Max McGee and their wives. Every time I babysat Zeke’s kids he would walk me home.”
What’s not to like about a town that is all about its team? Green Bay businesses are Packer themed. The streets are named after Packers — Lombardi, Ray Nitschke, Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren, Don Hutson, Reggie White, Bart Starr, Tony Canadeo. Even the official Green Bay website is all about the local football team.
The town shuts down during games; churches schedule around the Packers, then open their parking lots for Packer fans. “The streets are empty during the games,” says Stimpson. “When I was a boy I could ride my bike down the middle of the street because there was no traffic.”
What’s not to like about a team that won the Ice Bowl, one of the greatest games ever played? It was the 1967 NFL Championship game in Green Bay, and the temperature was minus-13 degrees, with a windchill hovering around 50 below.
Rick Delacenserie, who grew up in the Green Bay area and now lives in Park City, watched the Packer practices as a boy and witnessed the Ice Bowl from the same end zone where Starr scored the game-winning touchdown.
“I spent most of the third quarter in the bathroom,” he recalls. “It was packed in there. Everyone was trying to get warm. Someone brought a hacksaw and cut up the goal posts. All I got was some of the foam they wrapped around the post.”
You’ve got to love a team that inspires fans to brave sub-zero weather.
After the Super Bowl victory that followed the Ice Bowl, the Packers went into decline for 25 years until the Favre years arrived in the early ’90s, but the Packers still inspired fierce loyalty and love.
“The only thing you can see on the horizon is Lambeau Field,” says Mehr, who pauses to choke back tears before continuing. “I get chills when I see it. On a beautiful clear day, omigosh.”
For his part, Stimpson left home decades ago to attend BYU and settle in Utah. He doesn’t follow sports as he once did, and the game has changed, and yet he still says this: “The Packers are so much a part of you. The Packers still have a certain pull. They always will.”
You’ve got to like that.