There was a time when the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field
wasn't the quaint anomaly it is today. Everyone played football
on grass, and there were no Teflon roofs to shut out the midday
sun, no domes to block the late-autumn wind. When mud-spattered
linemen Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer hoisted coach Vince
Lombardi on their shoulders in 1961 for his first NFL title
ride, only God's gray sky hung overhead.
This is an article from the Jan. 13, 1997 issue
Franchise free agency didn't exist back then either. There was
no threat of the Packers' being wooed away by some Sun Belt city
offering a percentage of the revenue generated from the sale of
personal seat licenses. Why, the world hadn't even heard of turf
toe when Lombardi stalked Lambeau's frozen sidelines in his
trademark overcoat, shrieking, "Hey! Whaddaya doin' out there?"
in his best Brooklynese. "With Lombardi it was never cold here,"
says former All-Pro Fuzzy Thurston, who played guard for Green
Bay from 1959 to '67. "Before games he'd just say something
like, 'Men, it's a little blustery out there today.' Blustery,
see? Then he'd say, 'It's our kind of day. Now get out there and
strut around like it's the middle of July.'"
The Packers were a league power then, as they are now, and
Lambeau Field was the NFL's answer to Boston Garden or Yankee
Stadium--hallowed ground where dynasties were born. During
Lombardi's nine-year stay the Packers won five league
championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Twenty-nine
winters have passed since Green Bay last had a championship
team, yet within the magical space of Lambeau Field it still
seems to be 1967.
Once the ball is kicked off and pads start to clatter, the
Titletown past and the promising present almost become one on
the floor of the old stadium. The sight of defensive end Reggie
White barreling into an opponent's backfield conjures up
memories of Hall of Famer Willie Davis. Quarterback Brett
Favre's 1992 burst from anonymity--he led the Packers to an
electrifying, come-from-behind victory over the Cincinnati
Bengals in relief of starter Don Majkowski during coach Mike
Holmgren's first season--wasn't all that different from Bart
Starr's midseason ascension in 1959, Lombardi's first year.
Visitors from far and wide still stop by Lambeau and ask to be
shown the spot in the south end zone where, in the 1967 NFL
championship game, better known as the Ice Bowl, Starr made the
one-yard touchdown plunge that gave the Pack a 21-17 win over
the Dallas Cowboys. Grainy black-and-white photos show Starr
burrowing across the goal line with 13 seconds to play, his arms
hugging the football as if he were protecting a newborn from the
For four decades Lambeau Field has been a landmark moored on the
southwest edge of Green Bay, its underside sunk into a gently
sloping hill, making it look like a ship run aground, never to
leave. But, says Packers president and chief executive officer
Bob Harlan, "it's not so much what the stadium looks like; it's
what happened here that makes this place unique. A story like
this will never happen in professional sports again."
Football history isn't learned in Green Bay as much as it's
lived and touched and felt. Linebacker Ray Nitschke, who played
from 1958 to '72, isn't just one of the 19 members of the Pro
Football Hall of Fame whose names form a ring at skybox level
around the inside of Lambeau: Nitschke is in the Green Bay phone
book, and he still attends home games, often eschewing a skybox
for a seat in the stands. Call Nitschke at home and ask for an
audience, and he's likely to reply, "Let's talk over the phone.
I might scare ya in person."
Starr and Kramer still come back to Lambeau for the Packers'
annual fantasy camp, and numerous players return for alumni day
and the opportunity to walk along the hash marks one more time
as applause rains down, as it always has. Thurston, who has
survived throat cancer and two hip replacements, still owns and
operates Shenanigan's, a neighborhood bar on the southeast
fringe of town. On one wall he has begun a collection of mostly
out-of-state license plates given to him by patrons; all are
vanity plates bearing some expression of support for the Packers
(GO PACK, for example, or GBP FAN) "Forget Dallas," Thurston
says. "The Green Bay Packers are America's Team."
Martha's Coffee Club, a feisty group of 40 or so fans, some of
whom have been meeting since 1947, convenes in a diner near
Lambeau at 9 a.m. every weekday year-round to discuss the
Packers' fortunes. In accordance with a set of arcane rules the
club levies 25-cent fines for transgressions such as talking
about something other than football, and the members roll dice
to see who picks up the check--visitors not excepted.
When the Packers return from an important road game, win or
lose, townspeople leave their porch lights on as a show of
support. When a heavy snowfall hits the area in the days leading
up to a game, the front office puts an announcement in the Green
Bay Press-Gazette asking fans to show up at Lambeau, shovel in
hand. For six dollars an hour citizens come by the dozens to
clear the stands. (More than 150 people showed up the weekend
before Christmas after a storm dumped 10 inches of snow on Green
Bay.) "It's like a time warp here," says Packers wideout Robert
Brooks, who has been with the Packers since 1992. "There's an
aura, and you can feel it when you're in the stadium. It's
almost like you're still back when Lombardi was here. It's just
that the names on the jerseys have changed."
The oft-told story of the good old championship days when the
NFL's smallest city (current population: 96,466) boasted a team
good enough to tweak its big-city rivals is being replayed now
that the Packers, 8-0 in playoff games at Lambeau and winners of
27 of their last 28 there overall, are one home victory away
from finally getting back to the Super Bowl. And it's made all
the sweeter for Packers fans because the more things change in
the rest of pro sports, the more things remain blissfully the
same in Green Bay.
In this era of extortionist owners, Packers fans needn't worry
about getting jilted. "We're a nonprofit, public corporation
whose only business is football," Harlan says. The owners of the
team are 1,915 stockholders from all walks of life, most of whom
live in Wisconsin. (However, there are stockholders from all 50
states and three foreign countries.) When the team, which was
founded in 1919, was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1950, about
5,000 shares of stock were offered to the public at $25 apiece.
No dividends have ever been paid; all profits have been plowed
back into the franchise. According to the Packers' bylaws,
anyone wishing to sell shares must first turn them over to the
executive committee of the team's board of directors, who then
decide to either reissue the shares or buy them back. No
individual can own more than 200 shares, and if the shareholders
ever vote to sell their investment (the Packers' estimated worth
is $166 million), the profits will go to the Sullivan-Wallen
American Legion Post on Sal Street in Green Bay.
The Packers, who draw from all around Wisconsin and are sold out
on a season-ticket basis, have played before 175 consecutive
sellouts at Lambeau, dating back to 1960. A Lambeau-record crowd
of 60,787 witnessed last Saturday's 35-14 divisional playoff win
over the San Francisco 49ers. There were all of three no-shows.
This season a game-day scalping zone was established one block
from the stadium, and the action there has been fierce: A $28
end-zone seat goes for between $125 and $200, depending on the
opponent. The waiting list for season tickets stands at more
than 28,000, and only eight people from last year's list
received tickets for this season. In 1985, when the Pack
announced plans to construct 72 skyboxes, the suites were all
leased within 24 hours. Lambeau now has 198 skyboxes, and the
waiting list for them exceeds 230.
The easiest way to get season tickets is through the death of an
immediate family member who leaves the prized objects behind in
his or her will. Green Bay ticket manager Mark Wagner admits he
has heard every ruse in his 19 years on the job--sob stories,
bald-faced lies, even offers of bribes--from Packers fans
determined to get season seats. Inevitably, some impatient fans
suspect that others have come by their tickets by
less-than-ethical means, even though the transfer of the title
to tickets requires notarization. Some fans have even blown the
whistle on others who have renewed the tickets of a relative who
died without bequeathing the tickets to them. And then? "Well,"
Wagner says, "then we have to call them and, well, you know."
Ask them why they're not dead? "Yeah," he says with a laugh.
People go out of their way to stop at Lambeau, even when it's
empty. In 1996 more than 29,000 visitors took the 90-minute
tour of the place. President Clinton dropped in after a Labor
Day campaign speech in nearby De Pere. Harlan recalls leaving
work one day last August when a van bearing Kansas plates pulled
into a stadium parking lot. The driver jumped out, fell to his
knees and began bowing with his arms outstretched while his
passengers laughed and snapped pictures. "Pilgrimages, that's
what they are," says Char Sievert, a tour guide who has had
season tickets since 1956, the year she graduated from high
school. "Last year a man on one of my tours said, 'I saw the
Colosseum in Rome last year. Now this!'"
Many Packers say there's nowhere they'd rather play than in
Green Bay. When more than 4,000 fans showed up for a
training-camp workout last summer, awestruck rookie center Mike
Flanagan asked a teammate, "Doesn't anybody in Green Bay have a
job?" Wideout Don Beebe spent six years playing before the rabid
fans of the Buffalo Bills, yet he says, "I'd give a little edge
to the people here. I mean, we had 45,000 people in the stadium
for our first intrasquad scrimmage this year. It was
Brooks popularized the Lambeau Leap, the ritual in which a
Packer who scores a TD vaults into the end-zone stands like a
salmon swimming upstream. He says the idea came to him before
the 1995 season. Sterling Sharpe, Green Bay's career receptions
leader, had been forced into retirement with a neck injury, and
Brooks was entering his first year as Sharpe's replacement.
Rather than slink onto center stage, Brooks says he wanted to
ingratiate himself with the Lambeau crowd by doing something
"crazy, out of the ordinary, to get the fans' confidence." He
remembered how safety LeRoy Butler had tried to leap into the
seats after returning a fumble for a touchdown in a December '93
victory over the Los Angeles Raiders, which clinched a playoff
spot for Green Bay. "Except LeRoy didn't get all the way in,"
Brooks says with a chuckle. "He stuck to the wall like Velcro. I
said, When I score at Lambeau, I'm jumping all the way in."
Which is exactly what Brooks did on Sept. 17, 1995, after
catching a 19-yard touchdown pass from Favre during the second
quarter of a 14-6 win over the New York Giants. The fans loved
it. By the end of last season most of the Packers' scorers were
jubilantly mimicking him. "The first time I did it and saw the
TV highlights, I thought, Man, that is so much fun! It's just
the best," Brooks says. "You can dance and do all that other
stuff in the end zone. But this, it's like you're a rock star,
and you're trusting your fans completely, and you dive off the
stage, and they throw you back on. It's the best feeling in the
world. And I don't think you could do it anywhere but here."
The irony? For all the memories that Lambeau has provided, it's
not much to look at. Its beauty is in its throwback simplicity.
There are no flourishes, certainly nothing like the grand
pillars that adorn Chicago's 73-year-old Soldier Field.
Lambeau's exterior is a serviceable skin of steel sheeting
painted in the Packers' colors of forest green and stoplight
Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, has been coming to Green
Bay for 30 years, or ever since he and his dad, Ed, used to
preview their work for Lombardi on a bedsheet hung on the
basement wall of Lombardi's house. While Sabol agrees that
Lambeau is the "holy ground of the NFL," he adds, "When I think
of NFL stadiums, there are so many other more eccentric places
that come to mind.
"At Giants Stadium you've got the Hawk--that terrible wind. And
Phil Simms can tell you how three fourths of his touchdown
passes there came in the north end zone, where Jimmy Hoffa is
supposedly buried. Texas Stadium has its shadows. Al Davis used
to always complain that his Oakland Raiders could never beat
those great Pittsburgh Steelers teams at Three Rivers because
the sidelines freeze before the middle of the field, so Cliff
Branch could never get open deep. To me, those are the stadiums
that have a sense of mystery. Lambeau is just a nice, friendly,
intimate place to watch a game."
It was built on a shoestring budget of $960,000 and opened at
the start of the 1957 season. The Packers had outgrown their
previous home--City Stadium, a 25,000-seat bandbox so primitive
that it didn't have women's rest rooms and players used the
facilities at adjacent East High for locker rooms. At a rally
the weekend before the balloting on whether to build a stadium,
George Halas, the legendary owner and coach of the rival Chicago
Bears, told Green Bay voters that the only way the Packers could
continue to compete in the NFL was with a new facility. The bond
issue passed by a 2-to-1 margin.
A game-day walk around Lambeau's main concourse reveals
no-frills concession stands, cinder-block rest rooms and metal
framing that supports the grandstands. Over the past 15 years
Green Bay has poured $40 million into stadium updates such as
skyboxes, club seating and JumboTron replay boards. Seating has
been expanded seven times since 1961, increasing Lambeau's
capacity from the original 32,150 to 60,790. All of the outdoor
seats are backless aluminum bleachers. Lambeau's single-level,
bowl-shaped configuration assures that there are no obstructed
Inside the home locker room there's no cracking Naugahyde sofa
on which notorious playboy halfback Paul Hornung might've slept
off a hangover, no battered oak desk on which Lombardi could've
propped up his cleats. Instead there's the usual wall-to-wall
carpet, walk-in dressing cubicles and players-only lounge with a
mammoth TV. Action photos line the walls of the Green Bay
executive offices, and the Packers celebrate their 11 title
seasons by listing the years in the southeast corner of Lambeau,
at the same level as the names of the Hall of Famers.
And there aren't any claims of helpful gremlins blowing field
goal attempts wide right or ghosts haunting Lambeau--though it
has been pointed out that many fans have asked the Packers if
their ashes could be scattered on the field after they die. "We
always say no," says head groundskeeper Todd Edlebeck, "but, you
know, it could've happened. Some mornings you can just tell
someone's been on the field overnight. Carts that we left out
will be moved. Equipment has been handled."
Lambeau's most famous feature--the Frozen Tundra--isn't all that
it's cracked up to be. In the summer of 1967 Lombardi had the
field equipped with a then newfangled underground heating
system, which works something like an electric blanket. About 14
miles of plastic-covered cables, spaced one foot apart, run
sideline to sideline and are buried six inches beneath the
surface. A General Electric press release touting the system
promised "September-like playing conditions throughout the
season. Instead of a frozen field, the Wisconsin contests will
be played on a green, soft, frost-free turf."
Meaning the Frozen Tundra isn't really frozen? "Well, the system
doesn't do much good when the air temperature drops below 20,"
Edlebeck says. "But the field's not frozen nearly as often as
it's said to be. I guess it sounds cute to say frozen tundra.
And at least when ESPN's Chris Berman says it, he says it as a
joke. What bugs you is when TV announcers say it's a frozen
tundra and they haven't even been on the field. My mother used
to watch all the games on TV, and, you know, that really used to
burn her up."
It has been 40 years since quarterback Babe Parilli and tight
end Gary Knafelc made opening day (Sept. 29, 1957) at Lambeau a
success for the Packers, combining on a fourth-quarter touchdown
pass that clinched a 21-17 win over the Bears. It has been 32
years since the name of the facility was changed from City
Stadium to honor team founder and longtime coach Curly Lambeau,
the bon vivant who won seven championships during his 31 seasons
in Green Bay, married three times and in 1922 paid the club's
$250 league entry fee with money he got from the sale of a
Just as the 1967 championship game is rarely called anything but
the Ice Bowl, some other games have been so compelling that
Packers fans have slapped titles on them, too. The Snow Bowl was
an '85 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; a 16-inch snowfall
blanketed the city, and many fans drove their snowmobiles to the
stadium, where, predictably, the Packers whipped their
warm-weather opponents 21-0. The Instant Replay Game? That was
the one in '89 during which Bears coach Mike Ditka went
ballistic after officials reversed themselves and announced that
Majkowski hadn't been over the line of scrimmage after all when
on the last play of the game he'd tossed a game-winning
touchdown pass to Sharpe. The hard feelings run so deep that the
Chicago media guide still carries an asterisk next to the result
of that game.
From 1973 through '92 the Packers languished, qualifying for the
playoffs only in the 1982 strike-shortened season. But Green Bay
fans still laugh about the 1980 season opener at Lambeau in
which the Bears blocked Chester Marcol's overtime field goal
attempt, only to see Marcol catch the ricochet and scoot 25
yards for the winning score. Marcol looked like an accountant in
his thick, black-frame glasses, and he ran as if he had pails on
Nitschke's finest Lambeau moment came in the 1965 NFL title game
against the Cleveland Browns. He was assigned to shadow the
great Jim Brown, who finished with just 50 yards rushing on 12
carries, and his diving, fingertip deflection of a sure
touchdown pass intended for Brown sealed the Packers' 23-12 win.
Hornung outdid Brown with a scintillating 105-yard performance.
After scoring a third-quarter touchdown, Hornung ran to the
sidelines shouting, "It's just like the good old days!" That led
Lombardi to crow, "Did you hear that? Just like the good old
When Harlan, a member of the Packers' front office since 1971,
looks at the sports world today, he notes that the Bears are
talking about abandoning Soldier Field, that Boston Garden is no
more and that if George Steinbrenner has his way, Yankee Stadium
may soon follow. "Every time I see another old ballpark bite the
dust, I think, That's too bad," Harlan says. "There will never
be another Yankee Stadium. Regardless of what you name the new
one, it will never be the Yankee Stadium. It's the same with
Lambeau Field. There have been just too many world championships
and glory times here. I think for the NFL to lose a story like
the Green Bay Packers would be a disaster."
But Harlan says it could happen--if the NFL ever changes some of
the fundamental ways it does business, especially revenue
sharing. No less than 86% of the Packers' revenue comes from
shared sources--63% from the league's television contract and
another 23% from ticket receipts, licensing agreements and other
income that the NFL divides among its teams. Right now, business
is booming. The Packers have a rainy-day fund of $21 million.
Beginning last year they picked up an additional $2.5 million in
annual skybox revenue by dropping an arrangement under which
they played three games a season at Milwaukee County Stadium.
For the first time since 1932 the Packers played all their home
games in Green Bay. There's talk of boosting revenue from
Lambeau by staging concerts there, increasing sales of stadium
advertising, opening concourse restaurants and raising by $5,000
the prices on the bargain-basement skyboxes, which go for
$19,000 to $25,000 per season.
However, Lambeau's structure won't support further expansion.
Green Bay has the second-lowest average ticket prices in the
league, and even with the long waiting list, Harlan doesn't
believe the market can bear an increase. And what if when the
collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2002 season,
there is no longer a salary cap and teams have no restraints in
pursuing free agents? "We know there could come a time when,
first, we just won't have the money to stay competitive," Harlan
says. "And, well, I can't sit here and say that for 10, 15 or 20
years this stadium is going to be fine. Because I'm not sure it
In the 1970s some businessmen approached the Packers' board of
directors with plans for a dome. Smiling bemusedly, Harlan says,
"The idea didn't go over very well." And he doubts it would now.
"When you go out in our stadium and sit in the stands for a
game, you just get the feeling this is football the way it's
supposed to be played," he says. "Somehow those voices just
sound louder in that terrible chill."
When Thurston is asked what Lombardi would think of playing in a
dome, his eyebrows arch like those of a startled cat. He smirks.
"Lombardi would say, 'No dome--no, no, no,'" he says, his chin
jutting out. "He'd say, 'Football is meant to be played
outdoors. Now and forever.'"