Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why you should root for the Packers on Sunday

As an out of town cheesehead in a passionate sports city, my green and gold sporting attire frequently draws scowls, mockery, and jeers from the locals. Neighbors, work partners, fellow students, even teachers partake in the harassment. With the way everyone treats it, one might think being a Packers fan was something to be ashamed of. Well, I’m here to set the record straight. My goal is not to tell Eagles or Steelers fans they’re wrong or gloat about how much better we are than everyone else. I merely wish to explain to you all why I love this team, and hopefully get you to support them in the Super Bowl.

I never made, in my recollection, a conscious decision to become a Packers fan. I just found myself rooting for them one day, at an early age, compelled by some sense of righteousness I could not then identify. There is some reason, some “it factor”, which just drove me to pull for them. What is it that draws me to this team? That’s tough to say concisely.

Maybe it’s the ownership, AKA the fans. The Packers are the only non-profit, community owned pro-sports team in the United States. The fans themselves own the team through stock, with over 112,000 shareholders, ensuring that the team can never relocate like other small market teams did and allowing the fans to truly call the Pack “their team”. Also, it’s 100% non-profit, meaning nobody (except the players of course) is making money off of any of it. All the sponsorships and ticket sales get poured directly into the team, and not into some owner’s pocket. The club even has volunteers staff its concession stands, with proceeds ($750,000 in 2009) going to local charity groups. Can you believe that? It gives me shivers just thinking about it (and not the kind from the Green Bay cold). As money-oriented as the NFL has become, with 25 million dollar contracts and with this very Super Bowl being played in the billion dollar palace of excess that is the new Cowboys stadium, the Packers just give their concessions proceeds to charity. Unadvertised. Maybe that’s why the Packers have the lowest price of beer in any NFL stadium ($5.20) and are below the league average in all other concessions. More than any other team, it’s not about the money. It’s about football purely for the love of football. Who doesn’t love that?

Maybe it’s the traditions. Unlike so many NFL teams today, Packers traditions represent innocent family fun. No scantily clad, professional cheerleaders grace the field at halftime for the Pack; only the excited local high school cheerleaders getting a once in a lifetime experience cheer the team on from the field. No blaring pop music echoes from the speakers at every break in play, and no annoying mascot tries to distract bored fans from the action. Game day attire is the most recognizable, signature symbol of fan-hood in sports: the cheesehead. Even the celebration, the legendary Lambeau Leap, is done with class and sportsmanship. No stomping or bravado or props are needed; only a signature way to fire up the crowd, and make the day of a few lucky fans sitting behind the end zone. And they’re likely shareholders; what better way for the boss to give his employee a pat on the back for a job well done? Another tradition that gives back to the fans takes place during summer training camp. The Packers move from the weight rooms and indoor facilities of the Don Hutson Center to Lambeau Field each August afternoon on the bike of a middle school volunteer! They chat with the kids about school, the team, and life in general as if they were one of the gang. Each player has had his own designated bike buddy for each years training camp since 1957. And not just kids get to see their heroes out and about. In a town of 100,000, it’s common to see Packers at the supermarket or local bar. Aaron Rodgers and long snapper Bret Goode play guitar, and occasionally perform in the local pub.

Maybe it’s the atmosphere. A survey of all NFL players was taken about their favorite place to play a road game, and Green Bay was ranked number one by far. The fans were also rated the most respectful and showed the best sportsmanship. Opposing players can eat for free in many Green Bay restaurants the night before the game; hospitality is just a way of life in the Midwest, even to arch rivals. The fans don’t scream obscenities or throw things at the opposing players, they are knowledgeable and classy. The Packers play the way football is supposed to be played and the fans cheer the way football is supposed to be cheered.

Maybe it’s the Bears rivalry. That NFC Championship game two weeks ago meant more to Packers fans than most fans can imagine. The two teams have met over 170 times, more than any two other NFL teams. It is the fiercest, longest standing rivalry in pro-sports. But seriously, who names their team the “Bears”? Ooh, real tough guys. That’s like naming your team the “Monsters” or the “Killers” or “The Big Mean Scary Bad Guys”, or something, trying to pretend you’re intimidating. They try to be tough, but nobody can take them seriously. They’re a wannabe Packers. They are a lot like us, only with less history, less cold, less championships, less small town charm, and less awesomeness.

Maybe it’s the history. Green Bay has had a local football team since 1896, and the Packers were formed in 1919 by Curly Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. The team was named after Calhoun’s employer - The Indian Packing Company - in exchange for the 500 dollars the company lent them to start the team. In the early years, Lambeau served as the team’s owner, head coach, quarterback, and star defensive player. Green Bay has 26 Hall of Famers with one pending (Favre) and two snubs (Jerry Kramer and Sterling Sharpe). Once Favre is inaugurated it will tie the Pack with the Giants as the team with the second most Hall of Famer’s in the entire NFL. And yes, the Steelers have 6 Super Bowls…which gives them half as many championships as the Packers! It’s silly to discredit the 9 championships the Packers won before 1966 simply because the game hadn’t been given a catchy moniker yet. They call Green Bay “Title Town USA” for a reason.

Maybe it’s Lambeau Field. The second oldest field in the NFL lacks the luxuries of modern stadiums, but I’d take it over any other venue in a heartbeat. The whole place exudes rustic charm and old fashioned football. There are no towering upper decks, just the original seating bowl surrounded by the red-brick veneer of a renovated exterior. The interior offers few of the amenities adorning the stands of other stadiums: forget cup holders, some sections of the stadium don’t even have SEATS! Fans sit on the traditional, ice cold bleachers, increasing the capacity and allowing the stadium to hold 72,000 people. A few years ago, two sports-fan brothers decided travel all across the country to see a game at every NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL stadium. When they finally completed their adventure, they both said that their hands down favorite was Lambeau Field.

Maybe it’s the players. From local Shippensburg grad John Kuhn to undrafted free agent rookies Sam Shields and Frank Zombo, the Packers roster features some inspirational stories of persistence and hard work. My favorite is that of Donald Driver. His father in jail, he lived for years in an abandoned U-Haul truck as his mother worked odd jobs to support he and his siblings. In high school he quit selling drugs to try out for the football team, met his future wife in the weight room, and switched to WR in order to get a scholarship to a no-name college called Alcorn State. As a 7th round draft pick, he barely made the practice squad. Today he is the Packers all-time leading receiver. He has made over 500 charity appearances during his time with the Packers. He turned 36 on Wednesday, and this is his first super bowl. In fact, only 2 other players on the Packers (CB Charles Woodson and DE Ryan Pickett) have ever been to the Super Bowl, while nearly everyone on the Steelers was a part of their last two winning campaigns.

Maybe it’s the weather. Packers home games, especially late in the season or in the postseason, are known league wide as the coldest and fiercest. Temperatures reach the negatives on a weekly basis. During the 1967 NFC Championship game, today known as the Ice Bowl, the temperature at kickoff was -13 degrees. With the wind chill it was -48 degrees. For just such occurrences, the Packers had installed a heating system to keep the ground from freezing up, but legend has it that Vince Lombardi, knowing his team would have the advantage in extreme conditions, snuck in the night before and turned the system off. The ground was as hard as concrete. One elderly fan literally died of exposure at halftime. After the first play, the referee brought the whistle to his lips to blow the play dead; unfortunately, he was unable to bring it down again. When he pulled it free, it tore his lips and he bled all over his shirt. The refs were forced to yell out “stop!” or “git’ off ‘em!” for the rest of the game. Yes, it was that cold. And Vince Lombardi, just to intimidate the Cowboys, had his lineman go out in short sleeves and no gloves. Cold? What cold? Oh this? Nah, this is balmy. Packers style football is played on a frigid December afternoon, on a torn up field, with mud and blood all over the players, no footing to make a sharp cut or do anything except plow forward, grind it out, and hit somebody. I love it.

Maybe it’s Lombardi. The greatest coach of all time matches the Packers’ reputation perfectly. The year before he came to the Packers in 1959, the Packers had won just one game. In his ensuing eight years as head coach, they never had a losing season, won six division titles and five NFL Championships. Lombardi was the ultimate tough guy. In college, despite being only 170 pounds, he was a member of an offensive line nicknamed “The 7 Blocks of Granite”, and he took that mentality onto the coaching sideline with him. As a motivational speaker he was simply unmatched, and it is that allure which prompted the recent Broadway play about his life. He often worked 17 hours a day, expected equal dedication from his players, and strived for perfect execution of simple running plays. Unlike Lambeau, he distrusted the passing game; when asked what the result of his perfect play would be, Lombardi replied “Four yards and a cloud of dust”. That was Packers football under Lombardi, and that was what gave the man five championships in eight years as head coach. It’s called the Lombardi Trophy for a reason.

Maybe it’s the devotion of the entire town. Notice I say town, not city. Green Bay is the smallest residence of any pro sports team in the US, with a population of only 100,353. The entire place oozes with small town charm, and nearly all of it is devoted to Packers football. All the roads are named after Packers greats (Lambeau field is on Lombardi Avenue). Packers merchandise outlets and sports bars line the streets. Almost all local area stores and businesses close down on Sunday afternoons, because they know they will get no business, the workers would not show up for work, and the store owners want to watch too. The streets are literally empty during game time. This devotion is understandable, as the Packers are the sole international representation of Green Bay. When you think of New York, lots of things come to mind: Broadway, Times Square, the Rockefeller Center, traffic, shopping, Central Park, the Empire State Building, the UN Headquarters, the five boroughs, etc. Only after you think of these things do you think of sports, and even then there are two hockey teams, two baseball teams, two football teams, and two basketball teams to think about. The average New York sports fan has eight teams to root for; how can they possibly be all that devoted to any one of them? Besides, if New York sports teams fail, the world still knows who New York is. Same with Philly, DC, LA, Chicago, and all the other big cities. They have identities outside of the NFL. Not so with the Green Bay. Not only do they not have any other pro-sports teams, but most people cannot even point to Green Bay on a map. Nobody outside of Wisconsin would have any idea what or where Green Bay was were it not for the Packers. They are the only thing in the town that makes it recognizable, that keeps Green Bay important to people all across the country, and that thing is owned entirely by the residents themselves. This explains why the fans are the most devoted in the game.

The stats back up that claim. Green Bay has only 100,000 people, and the stadium holds 72,000, yet every home game has been sold out since 1960. The waiting list for season tickets has 74,000 people on it, meaning that even if the stadium’s capacity were doubled there would still be people unable to buy seasons tickets. The estimated waiting list is 35 years, and it is common for fans to pass their spot in the waiting list down in their wills, and also for them to be buried in Green Bay caskets. It is also common to see shirtless, green and gold painted fans wearing nothing but sausages strapped around their chests and cheese heads, braving temperatures well into the negatives. Girls can join the fun by in the “Bikini Girls” section at field level, or by sporting Cheese-bra’s, made of the same foam material as cheese-heads. Despite having one of the smallest TV markets due to their location, the Packers have the third most self-reported fans of any NFL team, behind only the Cowboys and the Steelers. So let’s get this straight: Green Bay, with its 100,000 people and limited television exposure, has drawn in more fans than the Giants, with eight million people living in New York.

Honestly, that doesn’t surprise me at all. There are reasons why so many people, all across the country, were drawn to the Pack just like I was. I have nothing against the Steelers, they’re just not the same. In a league dominated by big money, commercialization, selfish players, off the field incidents and greed, the Packers have none of that. What they do have is history, sportsmanship, pride, toughness, cold weather, tradition, and devoted fans. What’s not to love?

Due to the impending lockout, caused by greedy players butting heads with even greedier owners, the Super Bowl may be the last football game of 2011. So as you savor it, isn’t it fitting to root for the only non-profit sports franchise in the country. Root for the team that represents football for the sake of football. Join the fans of the team owned by the fans, the team with history and tradition and class and cold weather and Donald Driver and Vince Lombardi and straight-up, unadulterated lovableness. Join the PACK!!!

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