19 September 2009

My visit to the balmy tundra

I started a quest a few years ago to see a game in every NFL stadium. It’s a very long-term goal – so far I have only been to six, including many games at the home field of my Dallas Cowboys.

I grew up in Wisconsin, but have never been to a Packers game, either at Lambeau Field or at the old Milwaukee County Stadium, back when the team played half its home games there. My brother, who met me in Green Bay, had been to a game in Milwaukee once, but was also visiting Lambeau for the first time.

I know my Cowboys will be going to Lambeau later this year, but I avoid Dallas road games because, as part of the stadium experience, I like to buy the home team’s hat, and I obviously could not do that if the Cowboys were in the house. I don't think I could have picked a better game to attend than Bears-Packers - the 177th meeting of these teams in the NFL's longest-running rivalry.

I had bought a parking pass ahead of time to save searching for a spot. It turned out I didn’t really need to. We met our niece for lunch in the afternoon, and we could have left the car right there for the same $25 I paid. The restaurant was only a couple blocks from the stadium. From what I observed, the many stores and restaurants nearby offer ample parking with a short walk to the stadium. Our spot was in a lot right next to the Packers practice field, on the east side of Lambeau. For those who may not know, the Packers are one of only a handful of teams that do not travel for training camp. They practice year-round on a practice field, and indoor facility directly across the street from the stadium. Forget about parking in the actual stadium lots – they are 100% season ticket holders.

Out in the lot, there was tailgating as far as the eye could see. There was a pretty high percentage of hardcore fans who arrived in RVs and other converted delivery vans, custom painted with Packers colors and logos, many with full, 25 foot flagpoles erected, waving the Green Bay flag. One had a funny poster displayed, showing a mock-up of “Madden 2012” with Bears QB Brett Favre on the cover; another had a sign declaring Ted Thompson, not Brett Favre to be a “traitor.” I particularly enjoyed the polka-like music, with several dozen fans singing along to “The Bears Still Suck.” A lot more people joined in the sing-along after the game. It all seemed to be in good cheer and good fun, though. Even the Bears fans just laughed and shook their heads. It’s hard to imagine a fight breaking out in this place.

The stadium itself still sits on the same spot where it has since its dedication in 1957, but if you remember the old green facade, that was replaced by a mostly brick exterior in a major renovation in 2003. Inside the stadium, the concourses are wide and roomy, and there are plenty of concessions. (One of my favorite offerings was “Brett Favre Waffle Fries.”) We entered through the main doors. Just outside are two massive statues – one of Curly Lambeau, and the other of the hallowed Vince Lombardi. People waited politely to the side for a turn taking pictures with Vince.

We went inside pretty early so we could get our hats at the Pro Shop, and then tour the Packer Hall of Fame Museum. The museum will cost you an extra ten bucks, and on game day it is only open to ticket-holders. On display are uniforms going back to the original “Acme Packers,” a recreation of Vince Lombardi’s office, where you can go in and even sit down at his desk, plenty of video running and even a full size sculpture of the two lines, and Bart Starr, lined up for that final play of the Ice Bowl. They are proud of their team history and tradition in Green Bay, and it really comes through. They don’t even gloss over the down years (the 70s and 80s.) There are sections for every decade.

On to our actual seats, and we found that one thing which was not altered in any of the renovations over the years is the classic stadium bench seating all the way around. In addition, all the luxury boxes are up top – three levels of them – but the lower bowl is all benches. There is no upper level overhang, although there are some rows at the top (behind a rail) with actual chair seating. The majority of the fans, though, sit on metal benches. They rent stadium seats with a cushion and back for six bucks, and many fans bring their own.

I have to say that Packer fans are some of the friendliest you’ll meet. There was some good-natured ribbing of the Bears fans (and there were pretty many of them) but not once did I think a fight, or even an argument, would break out. I have always noticed on TV that when they zoom in on the fans, no matter how the game is going, they always seem jolly and cheerful. I can report that the cameramen are not being selective. Even with the Packers trailing in the fourth quarter, in the home opener against a hated rival, these people are all smiles, dancing to the music during “TV time-outs,” and commenting to each other what “good ball game” it is.

In similar situations at Texas Stadium, the mood gets rather grim. Not at Lambeau.

Are they loud? You bet – and exactly when they are supposed to be. I found it very easy, though, to carry on conversations. I don’t know how they manage to sound off so loudly on each opponent down (especially third,) then stop and chat politely in between, but that’s what they do.

I don’t mean to be too over the top here – after all, as a native Wisconsinite, these are my people – but it really is just a very happy place to watch a football game.

The Packers do not have cheerleaders, but they bring in college cheerleading squads for games. We had the (co-ed) squad from UW Green Bay at our game. There is also a drum line which appears on the sideline, and in random spots around the stands. They are called the Tundra Line.

The grass looked like turf to me, which was surprising, because I could not believe they would switch from real grass. Turns out, they haven’t. It is still real, but now enhanced with something called DD Greenmaster fibers.

The weather was hot (for Green Bay); in the mid-80s, although it was more comfortable in the evening. The game, of course, was terrific. I love it when the home team wins, especially with a come from behind, last minute score.

Whether you try to tour them all, like me, or just want to check out a few NFL stadiums, put Green Bay high on your list!


Patty Barry said...

I think Dad must have been smiling from Heaven at his two boys at Lambeau, watching his favorite team. love this post.

Uncle Ray said...

I see little sister is a "lurker" also. What a honey.
Very good article, well-written, thought out and enjoyable to read.
I tried and watched Tony and gang today but couldn't get them a win for you. sorry. Love, unc