This is a suggestion.
Tired of living in NFL fear? Worried that some fat-boy owner in
a vicuna coat--Hello, there, Art Modell--is going to render a
lifetime of watching, praying and season-ticket buying
meaningless in a moment, taking the old hometown team to some
new megabucks stadium for some new megabucks deal? Worried that
your heart is going to be ripped from your body and dropkicked
to, say, St. Louis or Phoenix or Nashville or wherever? Stung
by the money trends of the '90s? Reduced to quivering under your
bed at the prospects the NFL future may hold?
Try the Green Bay Packers.
July 31, 1996
Sick of expansion nonsense? Can't root for some team with a name
that sticks in the throat like a half-swallowed piece of
popcorn? Refuse to adjust the television to a set of team colors
you can't even describe? Can't stand the AstroTurf playgrounds,
the antiseptic carpets spread over concrete? Can't stand the
corporate clients in the next seats, everyone talking business
instead of nickel defense? Can't stand the business influence
everywhere, the corporatization of sport? Can't stand the
megalomaniacs like Jerry Jones?
Fed up? Is that the final verdict? Not going to take it anymore?
Going to spend Sunday afternoons learning macrame and Cajun
cooking and how to get in touch with your inner self? Heading
for that NFL 12-step program? Quitting something that has been
so important in your life for so long?
One last try.
Put this hat shaped like a large piece of cheese on your head.
The point goes toward the front.
The Packers. They are what you have been seeking all along.
Maybe they are all that is left. The grass is still green and
perfect at Lambeau Field--not Prestone Antifreeze Lambeau
Stadium or the Prudential Life Insurance Lambeaudome--and the
team colors are still a deep forest green and stoplight yellow,
and each breath from each player on a cold day still makes a
healthy little cloud of steam. Football is still football. The
way it always was. The way it is supposed to be.
They're not going anywhere, these Packers, except maybe down to
Chicago to kick a little serious Bear butt on a Sunday
afternoon. They're legislated into the environment, their
existence protected as strongly as if they were the piping
plover or spotted owl. Their bloodlines are obvious--the team is
the sole same-city survivor from the long-ago origins of the
professional game, with an unbroken string of seasons from 1919
covering 11 championships and involving some of the greatest
names ever to touch this strangely shaped ball. Lombardi.
Hutson. Lambeau. Hornung. Starr. The future is pleasant, with
the team coming off an appearance in the NFC title game, with
Most Valuable Player Brett Favre throwing passes and with big
Reggie White dumping people onto the ground. The present is...
the present is football.
What more could you want?
"Anyone who comes here, I take 'em first down to City Stadium,
where the old teams played," Packers general manager Ron Wolf
says. "I tell 'em, 'This is where it all began.' I say that if
you want to play football--if that's what you really want to do,
play football--then there's no other place to be. If you want
Hollywood, this is not Hollywood. But if you want football...."
What more could you want?
The oft-done Titletown curiosity story of the '60s--the Lombardi
Years--the one about the small market (pop. 96,466) possessing a
big-time team, has evolved into a much deeper, much more
meaningful tale of the '90s. Green Bay has become the island of
normalcy, of reason, in a high sea of moneygrubbing madness. As
other familiar franchises depart from their faithful followers
in the second, fourth and 24th largest cities in the country,
leaving piles of dog bones and faded pom-poms in their wakes,
the small-town team chugs along nicely with familiar small-town
"I feel I'm involved with the preservation of a national
treasure," team president and chief executive officer Bob Harlan
says. "This is a nonprofit organization devoted to football. We
make our money from football, and we spend our money for
football. That's why we exist."
The concept that is a charade in all other places--that "our
team" is part of "our town" and deserves "our
allegiance"--exists in reality only here. Nonprofit football.
While other owners cast themselves as grand civic humanitarians,
at the same time heading toward the safe-deposit box, this is
the one place where the game actually is a civic venture. The
owners actually are the people who root for the team.
"The way our ownership is established, you couldn't do it now,"
Harlan says. "The league rules wouldn't allow it. You can't have
a public corporation owning a team anymore. We are one of a kind."
The owners of the team are 1,915 stockholders. None of them have
more than 200 shares. Most have only one or two, usually framed
and placed on a rec-room wall. The price of the stock when it
was issued in 1950 as the team faced financial failure was $25 a
share. The price today is $25 a share. No dividends have ever
been distributed. None will be. No stock is available. None is
expected to be available soon. Nonprofit football.
"I have one share that I bought in 1950," team public relations
man Lee Remmel says with a nice smile. "It probably wasn't the
greatest financial investment I ever made, but I could still get
my 25 bucks back if I wanted."
The team will never move. It could possibly die--60% of its
revenue comes from the shared television money of the NFL--but
the fortune that would come from a forced fire sale (the current
estimated worth of the franchise is $166 million) would make no
one rich. The money would be given to the Sullivan-Wallen
American Legion Post. That is the bylaw in the corporation's
charter. The Sullivan-Wallen American Legion Post would have the
finest shuffleboard machines in creation.
"I didn't know this situation like I should have known it when I
came here," says Wolf, whose arrival in 1991 after assorted NFL
stops marked the beginning of the Packers' recent success. "You
come in with other teams on a Saturday night, stay at a hotel,
then play a game on Sunday and leave, and what do you learn? One
city is the same as another. You come in here and live, though,
and you see how unique this place really is."
The absence of an extrovert owner makes Wolf's job easier. No
extra opinion is brought to the draft table requesting a
star-quality running back for marketing purposes when the team
really needs a no-nonsense strong safety. No yammering is heard
when the strong safety--or the running back--turns out to be
prone to falling down or fumbling at inopportune times; the No.
1 draft pick can be benched without repercussion. Football
people can make the football decisions. It is an amazing concept.
In five years Wolf has been able to rebuild the Packers into the
most intriguing team in the league. They are the new kids,
trying to push into that trading off of the Super Bowl
championship (which comes with the Lombardi Trophy, for heaven's
sake) that the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers have
executed for the past four years. Each season since the arrivals
of Wolf and coach Mike Holmgren (in '92) has been a step
forward. After last season's 27-17 upset over the 49ers and the
spirited 38-27 loss to Dallas in the NFC title game, the Super
Bowl is the one step remaining. The Packers have become a bona
fide threat to the Dallas-San Francisco stranglehold.
Favre, already one of the most intriguing players in the league
with a tough-guy style that's a throwback to Detroit's Bobby
Layne, now faces the added challenge of throwing off a publicly
acknowledged addiction to painkillers. While the Cowboys and the
49ers seem to extract each play from a computer readout, Favre
still seems to draw the plays in the dirt with a Popsicle stick.
White, the defensive leader, has become the elder statesman
embarked on a grand crusade to win a title, playing in pain and
speaking with a preacher's eloquence about his quest. His
crusade to rebuild burned-out black churches--begun after his
own church in Knoxville, Tenn., burned the week before the NFC
Championship Game--has brought him a broader eminence as a
spokesman for calm.
The entire Packers package is irresistible, an outfit on the
rise minus the modern collection of egomaniacs and fatheads. A
"The chemistry on this team is as good as any I've ever been
around," White says. "Everybody kids each other, and the ego
thing is low."
The facilities are simply the best in the NFL. The stadium,
where the team has an 18-2 record over the past three seasons,
is an intimate green bowl, 60,790 seats pressed as close to the
field as possible, with a ring of 198 recently installed luxury
boxes at the top as a corporate halo. ("You're even close to the
action in the luxury boxes," Harlan says. "A man last year told
me it was amazing that we had made the windows with some sort of
magnifying glass. I told him, 'No, that's just the view.'") The
Don Hutson Center, the two-year-old indoor practice facility
across the street from the stadium, has all of the requisite
modern football workout toys. The Packer Hall of Fame, on
Lombardi Avenue, complete with interactive exhibits and slide
shows, is a perpetual reminder of past glories.
The entire town, in fact, is an expanded football shrine. You
can buy a house at Packer Realty and a truck at Packer City
Isuzu and gas at Packerland Shell and a table at Packer City
Antiques and a spinal adjustment at Packerland Chiropractic and
some whey at Packerland Whey Product. The names of former
players and coaches and executives can be found on street signs
and monuments and local buildings. A beer can be bought at Fuzzy
Thurston's Shenanigan's bar, a classic neighborhood spot, not
one of those modern temples of sport with 87 televisions. Fuzzy,
an All-Pro guard in the early '60s, might be there himself. Or
at least his son.
Ray Nitschke, the fearsome All-Pro middle linebacker of
yesterday, is still listed in the phone book. Curly Lambeau's
widow, Marguerite, is still a resident. Football is everywhere,
every day. Just the name, Green Bay, makes you think football.
Just seeing it on a public-works truck.
"It's a different place," says Larry McCarren, a Packers center
for 12 years in the '70s and '80s and now the city's leading
sportscaster. "As a player, you're a lot closer to the people
here than you are in other cities. I think that helps. Guys
don't travel around here with entourages or limousines, because
where would you go? Guys here still do you a favor. Do you know
what I mean? I think it helps players to be here. If you're
around a lot of regular folks most of the time, you tend to be
Kids still wait for the players after practice. It is a
tradition. The kids ride their bikes to the practice field on
the first day of training camp and wait. Each player comes out
and adopts a kid for the season. The kid supplies the bike every
day. The player rides it from practice back to the locker
facility every day. Friendships are made.
"I always rode this one girl's bike," McCarren says. "I saw her
just the other day. Now she's a county sheriff."
The football still matters. The past still matters. The fans
still matter. The players--some of them, at least--throw
themselves into the stands after each touchdown. There is a
waiting list of 24,000 names for season tickets to a stadium
that has been sold out for every game since 1960. The estimated
waiting time is more than 30 years. Newborn children are
routinely put on the list in the hope that they will have
tickets as they approach middle age.
A year ago, the team did make a major change. For the first time
since 1932, it played all of its home games in Green Bay.
Previously the home schedule had been split with Milwaukee.
Strangely, economics forced the move. The team is now able to
make an extra $2.5 million per year with games in Green Bay
because of the added luxury boxes. Green Bay, in the end, has
turned out to be a more profitable place to play than the bigger
city, the reverse of all conventional thinking.
The worry the Packers' executive board had was what it would do
with all of the people who had watched the games in Milwaukee.
Could the team desert those fans, people who had paid for
tickets for a long, long time? No. A compromise was reached. The
Green Bay home schedule was split into two packages. Green Bay
people could have one set of games. Milwaukee people could take
the other set, commuting the two hours to the tiny city for two
regular-season games and an exhibition. Ninety-six percent of
the Milwaukee ticket holders took the deal.
"It took a lot of work to do, because a lot of these people had
never even been to Green Bay in their lives, but we did it,"
Harlan says. "It would be an awful p.r. blunder for us to pull
out of Milwaukee. There were times in our history we never would
have survived without Milwaukee. We owed something to these
people--so we just took 'em with us."
Took 'em with us?
Loyalty to the fans?
In the '90s?
"You know, we were the first team to go into Cleveland to play
after the Browns announced they were leaving," Wolf says. "It
was a drizzly day. Awful. It was like some kind of cloud had
descended over the stadium. It was very difficult to play that
day. It was like you were part of something terrible. You
couldn't even think about football, just that there was
something wrong about what's going on here."
The answer is obvious.
Tell the fat boy in the vicuna coat you hope he has an
absolutely terrible time in Baltimore with those Ravens. Tell
Billy Bidwill you don't care what he does, where he goes. Tell
Georgia Frontiere those Rams helmets look ridiculous next to an
arch and tell Al Davis that he doesn't deserve Oakland and tell
Jerry Jones and Bud Adams and Ed DeBartolo and all the rest of
Your heart has a new and final address.