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Packed with tradition

NFL's tiniest outpost is in a league of its own for history and passion

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You are told there is a place where the heart of an American obsession beats with the greatest pride, the fiercest loyalty, the most passionate embrace. So you go in search of proof.

The trip takes you along backroads and highways framed by dairy farms and cornfields -- flat country, for the most part, but a multitude of warm and spirited people heighten the journey. At so many turns of the head, your view is dominated by green-and-gold billboards until, along Highway 41, you see an exit sign that is so daunting you nearly freeze.

Lombardi Avenue.

You are pulled by an aura that is hard to explain but impossible to deny. Evidence of a football passion permeates the air, and just a few blocks away, you come across a monument to American sports: the majestic Lambeau Field, home to the legendary Green Bay Packers.

It is a brilliant walk on this cool, clear October Sunday, the streets alive with a spirit that is as much a part of the culture as cheese. With a noon kickoff, the crowds have been stirring since breakfast, and as a breeze comes in off Green Bay, the aroma of bratwurst and the sound of music fill the air.

At a house that abuts the parking lot at Lambeau Field off Oneida Street, a banner draped over a fence proclaims: "Private Party, Invite Only." In the yard, food is cooking and so, too, is a three-man rock band.

"We're Dr. Fun and the Medicine Men," roars a young man, who wails on his guitar and rips into the Chuck Berry classic, "Maybelline," but not before he reminds those gathered that "you've got a Packer game today."

The crowd roars, and music floats in from another direction, so curiosity tugs. The walk toward Ridge Road produces a view of a landmark in these parts, Kroll's West, a restaurant that has turned its parking lot into one big outdoor dance room to accommodate the overflow. It is jammed from one side to the other, and as the music plays, an image captures the essence of this day, this experience, this historic franchise.

No lie, Santa Claus was dancing with Bart Starr.

Turn down memory lane
Truth be told, a search for the soul of this Packers mystique begins several miles from Lambeau Field. You get there by exiting Highway 41 at Mason Street, then proceeding to Madison, onto Walnut, and at the end you turn left onto Baird Street, where you arrive at a football stadium adjacent to Green Bay East High School. But it's not just any football stadium; a plaque proclaims that it is "City Stadium: Home of the Green Bay Packers From 1925-56."

It is eerily quiet on this side of town on this Sunday morning, but close your eyes and you swear you can hear the rumbling of legends who once graced this City Stadium turf. Men such as Don Hutson, Johnny "Blood" McNally, Cal Hubbard, Arnie Herber, Red Dunn, Jug Earp, Mike Michalske, and Bo Molenda formed the nucleus of a Packers team that won three consecutive NFL championships, starting in 1929. The Packers were 34-5-2 in that stretch, dominant players under Curly Lambeau, who had helped form the team in 1919 when he worked for the Indian Packing Company (hence the nickname).

Lambeau's is the first name on a plaque at City Stadium; he is a historical figure of massive proportions in these parts. If you grant that Vince Lombardi would come to define the Green Bay Packers, you must concede that Lambeau set in motion a phenomenon that has stood the test of 87 long, cold winters.

"It's a cliché to say it's unique, but it is," said Lee Remmel, the dean of NFL media relations executives, who has been with the Packers since the 1940s. "But if it hadn't been for Curly Lambeau, this wouldn't have existed."

If there exists a shred of purity in professional sports, it is here in blue-collar Green Bay, the oldest city in Wisconsin, about an hour and a half north of Milwaukee. Welcome signs include the line "pop. 102,313" and you shake your head. This is the ultimate "small-market" team, yet the passion for their Packers runs deeper than what cities 10 times larger extend to their pro teams. Debate that if you will, but ask yourself: What pro sports team is a publicly held corporation?

Only the Packers, with 111,967 stockholders owning 4,750,925 shares. Established as the Green Bay Football Corporation back in the early 1920s when the NFL was just getting formed, the team today is run by a seven-member executive committee under the direction of CEO Bob Harlan. It was his decision in 1997 to launch just the fourth stock sale in club history -- and the first since 1950. Stunningly, $24 million was generated to refurbish Lambeau Field, with fans buying 120,010 shares at $200 per.

It was a far cry from Curly Lambeau's first year "when they passed the hat and collected $565," said Remmel. "Each player got something like $15.65, or $1.50 a game."

He laughed at the mere thought of so little money, but then he turned serious and added: "They went 10-1 that first year."

Toast that nugget, then maintain your glass in the upright position, for the Packers have also won the most NFL championships (12) and they own the NFL's only three-peats (1929-31, 1965-67).

Taking a shine to shrine
Dr. Fun and the Medicine Men were on to another Berry song, "Too Much Monkey Business," but across the street from Lambeau Field, in the shadows of the Don Hutson Center (the team's indoor facility), which sits next to Ray Nitschke Field (its outdoor facility), there stands a bronze statue that acts like a magnet. It is of Bart Starr, the famed quarterback who led the Packer dynasty in the 1960s.

The line to touch the stone figure had about a dozen people in it -- all of them adults, all of them on a sort of pilgrimage, even if they are truly from here, like Penny Forman. Born and raised in Appleton, she now lives in Atlanta, which is where the Falcons hold down an NFL spot, right? Forman scowled and said she returned home as often as she could to see her beloved Packers, though this was the most special trip, because her husband, Steve, had come along.

"Funny thing is, I used to hate the Packers," he said.

Steve Forman explained that he grew up in New York, a diehard Giants fan, and in 1961 he was poised to see his heroes win the NFL championship. "Green Bay killed us [37-0] and I cried for a week," he said. "After that, I rooted for whoever challenged Green Bay -- the Browns, the Cowboys, the 49ers, anyone."

Then he moved to Atlanta and met Penny. He understood that the relationship would only survive if a certain dynamic were changed. "She converted me," he said after waiting a few minutes to have his picture taken beside the statue honoring a man whose three touchdown passes had helped pin that crushing defeat on his boyhood heroes 45 years earlier. (The beating took place not 300 yards from where he stood, by the way.) He seemed oblivious to that trivia, smiling radiantly.

"My first trip to Lambeau," said Steve Forman. "I've been so excited for three months."

Lambeau Field is a shrine, even more so than Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, because unlike those destination points, there is a Packer Hall of Fame inside the facility that pays homage to 134 players and team officials. More than 100,000 visitors annually visit the Hall, which opened in 1957 and is part of the third-oldest continually active home field in pro sports, behind Fenway (1912) and Wrigley (1914).

A trio of Canadians -- Damion Orsi, Charles Ives, and Cameron Kenalty -- made the 14-hour ride from Ontario to see if what they've always heard is true. "It's a great sports experience," said Orsi, whose college friend lives in Wisconsin and helped set up the tailgate party, Cheeseheads not included.

Would they possibly buy one later? They all laughed and agreed that it would depend on how great a time they had.

Peering up from behind the grill, Suzette Mitchell offered that her money was on a Cheesehead by day's end. But for now, she was concerned with her brats and, yes, she confirmed a near-unanimous opinion out here: "If they're not soaked in beer, they're not brats."

Clouds of grill smoke are everywhere, tailgate parties going full force, and a crowd of 70,809 will squeeze into Lambeau Field. Packer faithful, so many of them adorned in green and gold, have come from points near and far within the proud state of Wisconsin: from Waupun and Wautoma, Kaukauna and Kewaunee, Menomonie and Marinette, Madison and Sheboygan, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, Appleton and Eau Claire, Two Rivers and Little Chute. There's a 30-year waiting list for a season ticket and if you want to get a room at the Road Star Inn across the street from Lambeau Field for any of the eight home games, you best call within a few hours of the NFL schedule's release.

The passionate following stretches back nearly 90 years -- no recent fad, this Packer fascination -- but Mitchell reminds that there were lean years.

"What lean years?" someone asked.

Mitchell checked on her food, shook her head, and said, "The Don Majkowski years."

That would be 1987-92, six seasons when Green Bay went 38-56-1 and failed to make the playoffs. Still, "the people, they keep coming, and always have," said a gentleman named Gerry who was helping to park cars at the Ridge Road entrance. He shook his head at a few of the stretch limos, looked befuddled by the Hummers, and nodded when asked if he'd been doing this for a while.

"Forty years," said Gerry, and then he noticed the visitor doing some mental math. Gerry smiled, then acknowledged he wasn't at the legendary "Ice Bowl" game, the epic battle against the Cowboys on New Year's Eve 1967. It was minus-13 degrees at kickoff, the windchill was reportedly minus-46 degrees, and from that day, "the frozen tundra" became part of American sports folklore.

The announced attendance was 50,861 that day, and while 500,861 people will tell you they were there, Gerry will not.

"Too cold," he said.

Always a home game
Remmel was certainly there for the "Ice Bowl," as he has been for more than 300 home games held at City Park and Lambeau Field. As team historian, he recalls a time when Green Bay was a quieter town, though he doesn't complain, especially since on game days, he cherishes how the citizens seem to magically contract into one common cause.

Traffic is heavy, but congestion is kept to a minimum by a ritual that would blow the minds of anyone who has ever tried to park at a game involving one of Boston's pro teams. For sure, there is on-site parking for VIPs, media, luxury suite patrons, and longtime season ticket-holders, but for the tens of thousands of others, there is that old-fashioned way: someone's driveway.

Or someone's front yard, back yard, or side yard, too, because residents are allowed to turn their homes into parking lots on game day. It is all part of the Green Bay charm, and as you stroll the nearby streets, you soak in an ambience that is extinct in so many larger metropolitan areas. On Ridge Road, for example, the spots are $10 close to Lombardi Avenue, but four or five blocks down they are just $5, though on this day a shrewd businessman has slashed his driveway spots to $4.99. Cross over Lombardi Avenue and you'll find friendly price wars on Morris Avenue, too -- $10 at some of the houses, $7 at others, and more than one homeowner reminds parkers that "toilets are available."

How's that for a Norman Rockwell setting? Park your car three blocks from the stadium for $10, and feel free to use the homeowner's bathroom.

"It's a big part of it," said Bob, who helps park cars at the Valley View Road gate at Lambeau Field. "A lot of these people pay their taxes with the parking money."

This is part of the scene that separates the Lambeau Field experience from almost every other one in the NFL -- the frozen-in-time environment, the NFL championships, the public ownership, the "game-day apartments" that you can rent on Oneida Street, even down to the Packer-green 1971 Volkswagen camper that belongs to Gary White, the man tossing a football to his son Blake, 10.

"I bought it six years ago. Just had to have it," said White, Green Bay born and raised and a regular at Packers game for more than 20 years. It's the original color on the camper, he said, but it looks so much like an official Packer vehicle that he proudly pulls out the coffee-table book "Green, Gold, and Proud," and turns to Page 63. There's a bright color photograph of White leaning against his camper, which is adorned with the famous Packer "G" logos, and he is thrilled to be part of such an authoritative account of this storied franchise.

He is asked about his favorite memories of those glory years, but White laughs.

"I was born in '63, so I missed those championship teams," he said. "I knew the team as losers -- but I loved them."

They all do out here, particularly after a victory like the one on this day, an easier-than-it-sounds 31-14 triumph over the hapless Arizona Cardinals. The game featured Brett Favre's first-ever "Lambeau Leap," a combined 207 yards rushing for Ahman Green and Vernand Morency, and pulsating sunshine that only made the postgame parties as joyous as the pregame parties.

But by 5 o'clock the sun was going down, the chill was settling in, and most of the backyard parking lots were empty. A few touch football games were still going on and one final swing by the tailgate party over by the Don Hutson Center showed that the day had to have been a success. One of the Canadian guests was wearing a smile -- not to mention a fabled Cheesehead.

As for the man dressed as Santa and the woman wearing her Bart Starr No. 15 jersey, the music at Kroll's still played, so onward they danced.

Warm and Fuzzy
If there is a perfect way to complete a game-day visit to Green Bay, it is to stop in and shake hands with the owner of Fuzzy's 63, a small barroom on West Mason Street, not 10 miles from Lambeau Field. The owner, of course, is the incomparable Fuzzy Thurston, an offensive lineman on Lombardi's epic teams of the 1960s.

"He is the very essence of the Packers," said Remmel, and indeed, every inch of the man's place of business is a testament to the unmatched romanticism of this franchise. The walls contain license plates from throughout the United States that advertise green and golf loyalty ("PACKRS" is the Massachusetts plate) and anyone who's anyone in team history has autographed a photo that hangs proudly. ("It was an honor being your teammate," wrote Hall of Famer Herb Adderley.)

There are video games in one corner, and a small and cozy dining area in which you are free to dance in between tables. Down a few steps, the pool room doubles as the store area, where T-shirts, sweat shirts, and hats are sold, not to mention, of course, Fuzzy's just-published book, "What a Wonderful World: The Fuzzy Thurston Story."

Sales are brisk on this night -- of cold beer, T-shirts, and the book -- and as the karaoke fun goes from one song to another, a steady line of well-wishers files past the man who wore No. 63 and teamed with the famous No. 64, Jerry Kramer, to form arguably the greatest guard tandem in NFL history.

Throat cancer has robbed Thurston of his power of speech, but it hasn't dented his spirit. With the same passion that defined his gridiron toughness, Thurston signs autograph after autograph, shakes hand after hand, and is even quicker with the warm embrace when someone tells him how special this trip to Green Bay and Fuzzy's 63 has meant.

"God bless you," he says, then a smile lights up the room and the memory of another time comes to mind, one courtesy of Remmel, of course. It was the 1966 NFL Championship, the year before the epic "Ice Bowl," this one in Dallas, and as they always seemed to do back then, the Packers won, 34-27.

"We got fogged in and couldn't fly out," said Remmel, "so the team went back to the hotel and we had a big party in the main ballroom. Everyone was there except Vince and his wife, Marie, but when Vince finally walked into the room, Fuzzy jumped up on a table and started singing, 'He's got the whole world, in his hand, he's got the whole world, in his hand.' Then everybody started singing it."

Forty years later, Thurston's voice is nearly gone, but not his love for all things Green Bay and Packers.

In that, he's not alone.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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