x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Green Bay Packers represent a slice of Middle America

Green Bay may be a small city, but their publicly-owned American Football team, into this season's Super Bowl, are steeped in history and have an unparalleled fan support.

The most rabid Green Bay fans are known as Cheeseheads, for their unique headgear.
The most rabid Green Bay fans are known as Cheeseheads, for their unique headgear.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the only city in America whose name is synonymous with its professional sports team, the Packers players are greeted at the grocery store while buying bratwurst, at the gas pump while filling up and at the ubiquitous bowling alleys while trying to salvage a spare.

"This really happens," said Bill Curry, who saw it in his five seasons as a player and assistant coach there. "They say 'We love you' and tell [the players] how much they appreciate them."

"Fans actually feel like the team belongs to them," said lawyer Avi Berk, a lifelong Green Bay resident.

In fact, it does belong to many of them. "[Almost] everybody, literally, takes ownership," Curry said.

The team are publicly owned, their shares spread among 112,000 stockholders - none of whom bought in strictly as an investment, since the shares can only be sold back to the club at a fraction of the cost.

Among the 122 franchises in the continent's four major sports leagues, the Packers stand alone with ownership hailing not just from the upper tax bracket, but from your neighbourhood or church or parent-teacher association.

The owners include Berk, who purchased a single share and saw his stake tripled when two clients gifted him with one each. "Do I really own anything? No," Berk said. "It's essentially worthless stock."

As a keepsake, however, it is priceless. Berk's original share is framed. And he considers himself a sane Packers fan - distinct from those who wear wedges of cheddar on their heads, proud to be considered a Cheesehead, as the especially fervent followers are known.

Given their ownership structure and legions of devotees with no shares of stock in their portfolios or on their walls, Green Bay, not the Dallas Cowboys or anyone else, should carry the tag of America's Team.

After all, the Packers represent Middle America, based in a city of barely 100,000, the 268th most populous in the United States, with a metropolitan area about three times as large. About one-fourth of them could fit into Lambeau Field, with its 72,000 seats.

Every game since 1960 has been sold out, and there will never be a need to open the ticket booths again. The waiting list for season tickets has grown to 86,000. Because an average of only 90 tickets are turned over each year, those at the rear of the figurative line must bide their time for several centuries before hearing their name called.

Berk, 60, remembers his first game, at age seven, confined to what was then a children's section while his parents, season-ticket holders, watched with the grown-ups.

When the Berks became too elderly to attend, their seats were transferred to Avi, who has since acquired more. More contentious redistribution of tickets plays out in Green Bay divorce courts between parting spouses.

Curry remembers children such as the juvenile Berk flocking to Packers training camp practices, offering their bicycles to weary players to spare them a walk after workouts.

"And they would carry your helmet," Curry said.

Their education in all things Packers commenced early. Curry beamed when his first autograph solicitation as a professional came from a youngster, who examined the unfamiliar name on the piece of paper, tossed it to the ground and went off in search of a veteran whose signature meant something.

The locals wear Green Bay garb as if it were mandatory, like a school uniform. They name their streets after Packers past, recent and distant - Lombardi Way, Reggie White Boulevard, Brett Favre Pass.

The drive-by namesakes represent three phases of Packer lore, Lambeau a fourth.

The franchise birthplace took place 92 years ago at a meeting in a newspaper office. The team was owned by a packing company; hence, the nickname. In those nascent days of professional football, most teams were situated in small to mid-sized towns.

Three years later, Curly Lambeau, employed by the company, collected US$200 (Dh734), pitched in $50 of his own and purchased the team. Soon after, nearing bankruptcy, the club went public, operated since by a board of directors. The stadium bearing Lambeau's name recently was ranked by Sports Illustrated and ESPN as the best in American professional sports for game-day experience.

The Packers did not become a cultural phenomenon until after the hiring of Vince Lombardi as their coach in 1959.

Within a decade, he amassed five of the franchise's dozen NFL championships, earning Green Bay the tag of Titletown USA. The yellow pages list 31 businesses known by the designation.

Long after his death, Lombardi's legend grows still. The popular Broadway play Lombardi examines his virtues and vices. A movie is in the works, with Robert De Niro in the featured character's role.

His impact "will resonate for a thousand years," Curry said. "It's likely to live way beyond football."

Curry, now a college coach at Georgia State University, was a rookie centre under Lombardi in 1965. Like many teammates, he played out of fear, terrified of disappointing the ultra-demanding coach.

And while Curry's coaching approach is the polar opposite to Lombardi's, he has applied some of the man's attention to detail and personal responsibility.

Lombardi's trademark on offence was the Packer sweep, a running play that the defence knew was coming but was unable to consistently stop. The coaching staff drilled the play and its nuances so deeply into Curry that, he said, "I can't remember half the plays in my [Georgia State] playbook now, but I can remember every assignment for each player" in the sweep.

In his book Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle, Curry recalls a Lombardi pep talk that he regards brilliant in its brevity, as motivating as any seven words ever uttered in the locker room. "Men," he told his team, trailing 21-3 at half time, "we are the Green Bay Packers."

His men won 31-21.

Young teenagers in town attend Lombardi Junior High School, which is not located on Lombardi Way but Packerland Drive.

White, the late Hall of Fame defensive end, was a free agent near the apex of his career when he shocked the NFL establishment by signing with Green Bay. Despite the team's winning tradition, the city was hardly a destination for African-American players concerned about being able to blend into the overwhelmingly white populace.

An ordained minister, White opened the door wide for other black players who found appeal in the slower pace and friendlier ambience of the city.

None of the 21 Packer players in the Hall of Fame was as beloved as Favre, at least until his bitter departure. The quarterback epitomised the self-image that Packers fans held - fearless, team-orientated, never missing a day's work. His trade to the New York Jets prior to the 2008 season triggered emotions akin to a divorce.

When he bounced a year later to the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay's loathed rival, it was like the ex-spouse taking up with the best friend.

A Favre jersey, signed by him personally to Berk, is the lone souvenir item displayed in the lawyer's office. (His practice does not cover family law.) The roots of Berk's allegiance go back to the Ice Bowl, the 1967 league finale between Green Bay and Dallas when temperatures plummeted to -25°C.

Berk was a high-school student scheduled to perform at half time in a marching band. The musical presentation was called off after the instruments froze. Berk, rather than rush home to a fireplace, watched the game from the sidelines. As Berk has aged, he has found appreciation in the civility of Packers fans who resist harassing the rare follower of a visiting team fortunate to gain access to a game.

"You don't see that in places like Philadelphia," he said.

The pre-game tailgating is a spectacle unto itself. Parking areas, some created on the front lawns of homes, fill up hours before kick-off. The scent of various foods drift from grills, none more distinctive than from bratwursts, the artery-clogging football food of choice in these parts.

"There is a sense of reverence," Curry said of tailgating. In the naive youth of his early playing days, "it felt like, 'We're going to do something that's spiritually important. Like, going to church'."

Some businesses have bought houses near the stadium to entertain clients before games. The occasional sight of bands playing in the yards is remindful of fraternity row on the day of a college football game.

The inherent connection between the team and the locals is never more evident when a snowfall blankets parking areas. The Packers put out a call for volunteers and their shovels, who come to the rescue.

Some concession stands at the stadium are manned by unpaid workers, and 60 per cent of the profits are given to area charities.

Enhancing the experience is the Packers Hall of Fame, a museum with 80 exhibits and a replica of Lombardi's old office.

Pledging to the Packers means no compromise. John Stone, a car salesman in Chicago, wore a green and yellow Green Bay tie to work the day after his team eliminated the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game. The boss of the dealership, which has a promotional deal with the Bears, pleaded with Stone to remove the tie. He refused and was fired.

The owner of a rival dealer hired Stone, and he reportedly has completed several sales to fellow Packer diehards. Another business is booming as the Packers gear up for their first Super Bowl in 13 seasons and fourth overall since the original Super Bowl game after the 1965 season, when Curry's centre snaps started each offensive play for the champions.

Foamation, a firm in nearby St Francis, has been overwhelmed with orders for Cheeseheads, the headgear some fans proudly wear, often to considerable ridicule. More than 500 orders were placed the day after the Bears game.

So, hats off to the Cheeseheads and their team, a unique presence in American sports whose Super Bowl victory parade might last only eight blocks. Is there room in Green Bay for more?

 

sports@thenational.ae