Packers at 100 | Tom Oates: Despite all that divides Wisconsin, Packers bring us together

From the Packers at 100 | Celebrating 100 seasons of Green Bay Packers football series
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Packers at 100 | Tom Oates: Despite all that divides Wisconsin, Packers bring us together
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When you grow up in Wisconsin, it’s not if you become a Green Bay Packers fan, it’s when.

For me, the when came the day after Christmas in 1960.

That was when the Packers, two seasons removed from a 1-10-1 record that was the low point in the franchise’s 100-year history, lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL championship game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. It was the only playoff game a Vince Lombardi-coached team ever lost and it was the very first football game I remember watching on television.

I was only 8 at the time and even though the Packers lost to the Eagles after Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last two-way regular, tackled Jim Taylor inside the 10-yard line on the final play, I still have vivid memories of the game.

Norm Van Brocklin hitting Tommy McDonald on a corner route to give the Eagles a 7-6 lead. Bednarik and Tom Brookshier hitting Paul Hornung and knocking the Packers star out of the game with a pinched nerve in his neck. Max McGee defying Lombardi’s orders and running 35 yards from punt formation, setting up his own go-ahead touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Ted Dean taking the ensuing kickoff back 58 yards, putting the Eagles in position for the game-winning touchdown. And finally, Bednarik dropping Taylor at the 8, preserving the Eagles’ 17-13 victory by sitting on the Packers fullback until time expired.

That’s all it took — one game — and I was hooked for life. An unbreakable bond with the Packers was formed that day.

Of course, my story is similar to millions of others who grew up in Wisconsin and fell in love with the most unique franchise in professional sports, a state treasure that has survived — and thrived — in the NFL’s smallest city. Only my story has a slight twist.

You see, I lived in the Chicago area until 1959, when my dad packed up the family and moved us to Appleton, some 30 miles from Lambeau Field (then known as City Stadium). Talk about serendipitous: We arrived in Packerland two months before Lombardi coached his first game for the franchise he would make famous by winning an unprecedented five NFL titles in seven years.

By the end of Lombardi’s second season, the Packers were in the NFL title game and I was captivated by their players, their coach, their winning ways. So, it seems, was everyone else in Wisconsin. And, thanks to the wisdom of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, football fans across the nation also adopted the small-town team with the rich history as their own.

It was Rozelle who married the NFL and network television in 1961, leading to six decades of wedded bliss in which the league became the colossus of American sports. With legends such as Lombardi, Hornung, Taylor, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Willie Davis helping the Packers win five NFL championships (and the first two Super Bowls) from 1961 through 1967, the Packers were the first dynasty of the television era and Green Bay became known, justifiably, as Titletown.

Almost 60 years later, with the tradition carried on by superstars such as Brett Favre, Reggie White and Aaron Rodgers, the Packers remain one of the NFL’s most-storied franchises and Lambeau Field one of its most-cherished shrines.

Indeed, the Packers are the universal language of Wisconsin. No matter what divides us socially, politically or geographically, residents of the state always have the Packers in common. From one end of Wisconsin to the other, the Packers are a sure-fire conversation starter, a source of great angst at times, great joy at other times and great pride forever.

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Other major sports entities in the state have had their days in the sun but the Packers are a clear-cut No. 1 in Wisconsin. The reason is simple. The Brewers, Bucks and Badgers have all had stretches where they garner national attention and sell out their stadiums and arenas, but the Packers are the only team in the state that commands our attention whether they go 12-4 or 4-12.

Proof of that lies in two of the most magical words in Wisconsin: season tickets.

Starting with Lombardi’s second season in 1960, the Packers have sold out every game they’ve played at Lambeau Field despite its capacity rising from 32,154 when it opened in 1957 to its present-day 81,441. Even during the dismal 24-season stretch from 1968 through 1991 when the Packers were a dysfunctional organization and their on-field fortunes predictably sagged, the fans kept showing up — at Lambeau and, until 1994, at Milwaukee County Stadium. Packers fans kept believing right on up to the time Favre, White, Mike Holmgren, Ron Wolf and Bob Harlan joined forces and showed the franchise how to win again.

Perhaps the most amazing sign of the fans’ devotion is the Packers’ season-ticket waiting list, which has kept growing even though the stadium and the ticket prices have, too. A year ago, there were more than 135,000 names on the list. With the stadium’s capacity essentially maxed out and season tickets being passed from generation to generation, someone at the bottom of that list might get tickets in, oh, 100 years or so.

Packers fans selfie

Greg Wolf and his father Steve, of Beloit, take a picture in front of the statue of Vince Lombardi outside Lambeau Field in 2017.

Another sign of the unmatched loyalty of Packers fans are the stock sales that have bailed out the franchise from various financial situations. There have been five sales of Packers stock over the years, the first in 1923, the most recent in 2011. Though Packers stock carries no monetary value and only extremely limited voting power, there were 361,169 proud stockholders as of 2018.

Therein lies the reason for the unwavering devotion of Packers fans all over Wisconsin. While billionaire owners in all professional sports treat their franchises like toys, the Packers are community-owned. Everyone has a stake. And there is an intimacy with the franchise that could never happen in major metropolitan areas. With only 105,000 people in Green Bay, fans often run into their heroes at the grocery store or the gas pump.

Like so many in Wisconsin, I learned this at a young age. The first expansion — an additional 6,519 seats — at then-City Stadium took place in 1961. My father drove to Green Bay and secured eight season tickets from the new supply, another example of good timing because the waiting list was started that same year. Thus began the Sunday football memories of my youth.

Watching 13 future Hall of Famers play for Lombardi. Getting autographs outside the locker rooms when both were at the south end of the stadium (a new home locker room on the north end opened in 1963). Tailgating with a large contingent of Appleton people in Don Terrien’s parking lot across Valley View Road from the stadium (the Packers bought the property in 2007 and it’s now part of Lot 9). The 13-10 playoff victory over the Baltimore Colts in 1965 when Don Chandler tied the game with a disputed late field goal (sorry, I didn’t have a good view of from Section 28, row 47) and won it with another field goal in overtime. The NFL title game a week later when the Packers beat the Cleveland Browns (Jim Brown’s last NFL game). The Ice Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys for the 1967 NFL title, the coldest and most-famous game in league history (OK, so I left at halftime).

Those remain some of the fondest memories of my youth. If you grew up in Wisconsin, you undoubtedly have your own. No matter how different our Packers experiences are, however, they all end up in the same place, a life-long love affair with the greatest franchise in sports.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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