We Went There: A Bears Fan’s First Trip to LambeauAP Photo/Mike Roemer
The sun was down by five o’clock last night in Green Bay, but really it hadn’t bothered to come up at all. Daylight savings on Sunday was one of the annual harbingers that the Midwest’s long, sustained winter was near, and the Wisconsin weather was happy to help with the transition. Those crowded outside Lambeau Field in the late afternoon didn’t seem to mind. Leaving work early is easier when it’s already dark.
Driving near the stadium, I noticed the cars filling the driveways and lawns of the homes lining the street. A sign reading “Parking $15” hung on a fence, but I pulled into a hotel lot just across Lombardi Avenue instead. In a Dan Hampton jersey and Bears cap, I wasn’t being shy about my allegiance, and I figured the few extra dollars might mean a couple fewer dings in my car door.
There was actually no reason to be worried. Maybe a minute after starting the half-mile walk toward the stadium, I saw a man wearing a Cheesehead stop another wearing a cheese grater hat and ask for a picture. This being my first trip to Lambeau, I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t surprised to learn that congeniality was the norm.
A few minutes later, as I stood next to the Vince Lombardi statue on the east end of the stadium, a pair of women in blue and orange came up to me. “Can you take our picture?” the woman asked, reaching for her phone. “You can’t trust just anyone, ya know?” The “o” was long enough to give her away.
“Are you from Wisconsin?” I asked.
“Milwaukee, but she’s from Chicago,” she replied, gesturing toward her mother.
“Bensonville,” the older woman said, referring to a town about 20 miles northwest of the city, one where my parents bought their first house. She’d moved to Milwaukee years ago, but like me, yesterday was her inaugural trip here.
“Has anyone said anything nasty to you yet?” she asked. I told her no one had, and that I was a bit surprised. “Us neither,” she said. “Well, someone said they were sorry about Jay Cutler.”
“Knowing these people, he probably meant it,” I said, only half-kidding.
She laughed. “I’ll tell you somethin’ — these people live and breathe …” I smiled and nodded.
By then, her daughter was handing over the camera. I snapped two photos of them with Lombardi in the background, and as they left, another pair of Bears fans replaced them to get their own shot. In the 15 or so minutes I spent in that plaza, I saw as many Bears fans as Packers supporters snap photos with Lombardi, and I was happy to see that others had come for the same reason I did. I don’t know if any outsider could come to Lambeau merely as an opposing fan. I know I didn’t.
Maybe 50 feet from Lombardi is another statue, one whose admirers were almost all dressed in green. Lombardi may be the messiah in the Packers’ religion, but Curly Lambeau is the creator. A star at Green Bay East High during World War I, Lambeau played for Knute Rockne and Notre Dame as a freshman in 1918 but returned home before Christmas because of a nasty bout with tonsillitis. Lambeau never went back to Notre Dame, electing instead to take a job at the Indian Packing Company while also coaching high school football.
That August, while walking through town, Lambeau ran into George Calhoun, a writer and editor who had once covered Lambeau for the Green Bay Press Gazette. What started as an off-hand remark about starting a football team turned into a small meeting of local athletes at the paper’s office on Cherry Street, and after taking a $500 donation from his boss at the Indian Packing Company to purchase uniforms, the Green Bay Packers were born.
Much of the Packers’ history is concentrated in what is now downtown Green Bay. The Press Gazette building is just down the street from the Northern Building, where Lambeau kept his offices, and around the corner from that was Hagemeister Park, the sandlot where the Packers played their first few seasons. Today, that patch of land is a small shopping commons, complete with a sushi bar called KoKo and a collection of other businesses, but on the corner are two brick walls filled with the best of Packers history. That point is the start of the Packers’ Heritage Trail, of which many of the buildings around town are a part. From Lambeau’s old office to the church where Lombardi went to Mass every week, green commemorative plaques dot downtown Green Bay. Packers history is their history.
It would be difficult to imagine a starker contrast to the dirt field and makeshift pavilion seating of Hagemeister Park than the current version of Lambeau Field. Behind Lombardi and Lambeau is a massive atrium that serves as the stadium’s entryway, complete with a five-story glass façade more fit for a church than a football stadium. The area inside is separate from the actual stadium, and year-round, it serves as something of a Packers museum. Downstairs is the Packers Hall of Fame, and upstairs is a massive bar called Curly’s Pub. Fans are allowed to come and go up until kickoff, giving visitors a chance to spend all day inside if they are so inclined.
On the front of the elevator bank at the center of it all hang five banners featuring the faces of former Packers: Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, and Reggie White. Throughout the stadium and even the Packers Hall of Fame, references to and images of Brett Favre are minimal. It’s easy to forget, considering what Aaron Rodgers has been for Green Bay, but the vitriol and betrayal felt during Favre’s final few seasons is still fresh. There are several distinct eras in Packers history, and in identifying the resurgence that came in the early 1990s, White seems to be their central chosen figure. Favre was nothing short of a deity for those Packers teams, but in some ways, the affection for White is just as strong. Favre was brought to Green Bay; White chose it, and he did so at a time when the Packers struggled to lure big-name free agents. Without Reggie White, it’s possible there would never have been Charles Woodson.
An hour or so before kickoff, I ditched the greenhouse feel of the atrium for a walk around the surrounding tailgates. The scene in Green Bay really does resemble that of a college town on game day. Parking lots are filled with coolers and grills, and the houses nearest Lambeau — separated from the lots by an actual white picket fence — each seemed to be hosting a party. From one yard came the sounds of local band Muddy Udders, and after a song mentioning Jay Cutler, the lead singer noted how hot it was last night. I looked down at my phone to check the temperature. It was 47 degrees.
As I made my way into the actual stadium, a man in his twenties patted me on the shoulder. He was wearing an Aaron Rodgers jersey, and he asked if I’d take a picture with him. “I need at least one with a Bears fan,” he said. While the atrium makes Lambeau feel like a destination, the concourse resembled that of about any other stadium. I grabbed an obligatory brat and headed toward my seat.
When I got to Section 107, I was shocked. The seating was entirely made of bleachers. The surprise wasn’t that a place like Lambeau would shun seats in favor of something old-timey. It was that I hadn’t known before that moment. I took my seat in Row 37 and surveyed the rest of the stadium. The arrangement at Lambeau is unique in that there’s really no upper deck. About three-quarters of the seating is made up of maybe 70 rows of bleachers that run right up to the glass-windowed suites that comprise the upper reaches of the stadium. The only seats — and nose-bleed seats — I saw were in the south end, just below the video board, whose borders simply listed the years of Green Bay’s titles. Aside from the choice uses of technology, everything else was minimalist in the way you might expect.
A Ring of Honor lines the entire lower bowl, and above my section, in yellow lettering on a green background, read:
It’s fitting that my first trip to Lambeau came complete with Wolf’s name hovering above me. In my youth, there was a bogey man, and its name was Ron Wolf. As the Bears shuffled through quarterbacks and stumbled through seasons throughout the ’90s, Wolf built the Packers into an annual contender with an MVP-caliber quarterback. What makes the Ted Thompson–Aaron Rodgers pairing in Green Bay a nightmare isn’t what they’ve accomplished. It’s that they’re doing it all for the second time.
Even after kickoff, with a solid stretch of drinking behind everyone, I was left alone as the only blue-and-orange dot in the sea of green that was my section. When the Bears scored a touchdown on their first drive, I stood and gave a single clap, but the truth is I still didn’t have much hope. With Josh McCown at quarterback and Aaron Rodgers free to carve up the Chicago defense, I expected that somehow, this would still turn into a long night.
Then the Packers came back onto the field.
As the offense trotted out, a voice came over the PA. “Now in at quarterback, Seneca Wallace.” No one reacted at first. We all saw Rodgers go down hard on the last play of the Packers’ first series, but it didn’t look like he’d been injured. Initially, I thought this might be a special package, a play or two for Wallace before Rodgers returned, but as one play turned to three, it was obvious something was wrong. Soon, the people around me started checking their phones, searching for an answer, but the jammed signal kept most of us in the dark.
With the Bears moving the ball on offense and Wallace struggling, Chicago took a 17-10 lead into the half, and in the concourse during halftime, concern had turned to panic. “I don’t care about this week,” a man said to me in line for the bathroom. “I care about what the hell is happening with our quarterback.” Others in line shared the sentiment, but only part of it. They did care about this week. Because if there was any way to find out just how many people had made the pilgrimage, it was to listen to a bathroom full of drunk men watching an Aaron Rodgers–less Packers game. “I came all the way from Phoenix,” a man in front of me said. “It’s my wife and I’s 10-year anniversary.” “I came from New York,” the one behind him added. “And this sucks.”
Rodgers eventually did return to the sideline, but in a sweatsuit. The crowd cheered, but it was one of the last moments of excitement they’d get all night. Up four in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-1 in his own territory, Marc Trestman elected to go for it. Matt Forte’s short gain gave the Bears a new set of downs, and they melted more than eight minutes from the clock before kicking a field goal to push the lead to seven.
The moment the ball sailed through the uprights, I made my way toward the exit — partially to beat the rush, and partially to convince myself there was no way the Bears could lose. Plenty of others, in both colors, joined. I took a roundabout way out of the stadium, just for one more excuse to walk past the two giant men who’d built the world I’d just walked into for a night. As I walked past, there were still groups of people snapping photos. It was dark, and the wind was swirling, but I suspected those statues would have company late into the night.