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Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Lambeau Field

Sports in Real Life

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I've lived in Wisconsin since 1975 (a transplant from the Chicago area) and Green Bay sill mystifies me. How can a town with virtually nothing else going for it-besides Bay Beach-hold on to a thriving NFL franchise? Lambeau Field is a frozen oasis in the midst of a chilly abyss.

In high school at Whitefish Bay, I can recall watching Packer games on a small black and white television in my room. Lynn Dickey and James Lofton provided the background noise while I feigned an interest in my chemistry homework.

Wisconsin's collective support for the team was something I wasn't used to. The Bears were a peripheral part of my life in Chicago. Like many, I watched and cried during Brian's Song, and I even remember some of the old coaches and players…but nothing has ever seemed to match the hyperbole and life-and-death devotion Packer fans have bestowed upon their team.

To this day, I know people who have never had the chance to see a game at Lambeau Field. My wife grew up in DePere (a mere Aaron Rodgers pass from the stadium) and she has never watched a game in the stadium. My father-in-law just went to his first game this year, and he's friggin' old.

When I began working in Milwaukee radio in the early 90s, I was sent a set of season tickets, along with locker room credentials, courtesy of Lee Remmel, the PR director for the team at the time. Remmel, the namesake of the Packers current press box, is one of the finest men I've ever had the pleasure to meet. My point, I never really appreciated what I had in the tickets. If I mentioned it to a friend in passing, their jaw would drop, as though I was handed the keys to the chastity belt of a vestal virgin. There are fans who would give a right arm, still twitching, to watch this teem on a regular basis.

Last week, I attended my first game at Lambeau in several years. To begin, I think it's a fine venue. I've been to just a few NFL stadiums, but I can't imagine another stadium designed for football with better sight lines and pure football ambience. This game was between the Packers and the Houston Texans. Both teams were 5-7 going into the game and the Texans won on a last minute field goal.

The parking lots were rocking by 9:30 a.m., with truck stereos blasting, brats sizzling and beer guzzled. After a quick strip search and baggage inspection, I was allowed into the stadium. It was 3-degrees outside, with a game time wind-chill of 3-below zero. I was happy to be inside.

On the elevator I stood next to a reporter for a Texas newspaper.

"I don't love any NFL team to sit out in these conditions," he says.

"Hell, I'd probably do it if my kids' lives were at stake," I replied- stressing the word probably.

I'm in the press box fifteen minutes before the game, snug, warm, with a large coffee. Outside, I have a clear view for miles. I see thousands of people walking by the Don Hutson center, like a hillbilly parade. Most in blaze orange, sporting ear muffs and huge mittens…lots of them were also wearing cheesheads.

On the field, some kids were involved in a type of punt, pass and kick competition. Local cheerleading squads were warming up on the sidelines. Fifteen minutes before the game, about half of the seating bowl is occupied. The parade continues, unabated, and this starts to feel like it must be the only gig in town.

Thirteen minutes before the game I see a bunch of old guys in gold jackets lining up across from each other in a makeshift welcome wagon for the players soon to be running onto the field. Heaters the size of Pratt and Whitney jet engines grace the sidelines by nets for the kickers to practice. The Texans are already on the field, freezing, looking like they'd rather be anywhere but here. The cover of the Packer media guide shows teams blanketed in a snowstorm. Perhaps the vestige of an intimidation factor for opposing teams-one which lost its teeth years ago.

Outside by the Hutson center, the parade is starting to dwindle and fewer people in the street. The city is slowly coming to a crawl, and it looks like most of the residents are in the stadium.

Ten minutes before the game, the scratched players are announced, a few starting lineup changes. I felt a bit guilty sitting in a chair, warm, free from the wind-chill. At the same time, but it occurred to me the fans in the bowl wouldn't have it any other way.

The referees and down marker guys are jumping on the sidelines, keeping warm. Four cheerleaders run around the field holding large Packer flags. The Packers run out of the tunnel.

As I mentioned, the Texans ended up winning the game-bummer-but I enjoyed most of the experience. To all the folks who sit in these stands, cheering on their team with regularity, I salute you. It's not something I would do, but I can respect the dedication.

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