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Pats’ dream over, but Steelers, Packers fans have reason to cheer

Loyalty pays off for pals of the Pack

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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It did not have the makings of a great night for Green Bay.

Heading into Gillette Stadium for the Pats-Packers matchup Dec. 19, Packers fans had reason to feel disheartened. We had waited eight years for our team to come back to Foxborough, and now our star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, was out with a concussion. Our backup, Matt Flynn, was making his first NFL start. As Packers fans living in Massachusetts, we were intimately acquainted with Patriots’ (alleged) greatness. And now our chance to put them in their place seemed lost.

It was hard to be discouraged, though, with all the bonding going on. There are Packers fans everywhere — the team inspires love that simply can’t be contained by geography — and Foxborough on this frigid Sunday night was thick with them, bundled into their green-and-gold overcoats and cheeseheads and Viking helmets. I was at the game with my 20-year-old niece, my 67-year-old mother, and my sister. We had our flask engraved with a “G’’, our Packers blanket, our flag, and there on the field, we had our beloved team. Maybe we would freeze. Maybe we would lose. We wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

When people want to know why I’m a Packers fan, I give the short answer: because of my dad. He wasn’t from Wisconsin — he lived his entire life in the same house in Marblehead, and he never made it to Green Bay — but he loved the Packers like he was born there. His passion began in the golden era of the 1960s, when the Packers won the first two Super Bowls. My father, a small-town butcher and one-time high school football player, was hooked. Together, we would endure two painful losing decades, spanning my childhood and adolescence, before the Pack’s 1990s resurgence taught me the rewards of loyalty and patience.

To love a team other than the home team, in a place as sports-obsessed as Boston, is to be an outsider in one’s own backyard, unmoved by the NFL obsessions of one’s friends, but equally obsessed with a parallel NFL universe. Pats fans take for granted that their games will be shown on TV. Packers fans assume that theirs will not, and start every week crafting a Plan B, calling bars or courting friends with fancy satellite channels. Pats fans don’t have to explain their dark moods when their team disappoints; I expect my gloomy spells to be misunderstood.

But loving the Pack in New England has never been lonely. In all the bars where I have watched my boys play ball, from Cape Cod to Bangor, I have rarely failed to find a fellow Packers fan to cheer with, and there is always something thrilling in that instant kinship. And Pats fans, for their part, are almost always tolerant — sometimes baffled or bemused, but generally unoffended — as long as you don’t bring up the teams’ only Super Bowl meeting, in 1997 (Green Bay 35, New England 21). The Pack has glorious history and heartland wholesomeness on its side — it’s not like telling people you root for the Jets.

My dad’s friends liked to tease him when the Packers lost, but they loved him for his football loyalty and passion. After he died, in 2003, they bought a memorial brick in his name on the walkway around Lambeau Field. The following year, my mother, sister and I made our first pilgrimage. We spent an idyllic October weekend in Green Bay, ogling the spotlit Lombardi Trophies in the museum, walking on the storied, sun-drenched Lambeau turf, and sitting at the 50-yard line for a game. The Packers lost badly to the Tennessee Titans, giving up the most points in Lambeau Field history, but it ranks as one of the best nights of my life: standing with my football family, in a place I had loved from a distance, and dreamed of seeing, since childhood.

The game in December in Foxborough was much closer — close enough to silence the crowd of 68,000 repeatedly, even close enough for giddy Packers fans to risk a bit of heckling. The simple but elegant “1997!’’ was my favorite.

At halftime, we led 17 to 14. At the end of the third quarter, we were still ahead. In the end, the Pats won, 31 to 27, but the home crowd had been shaken. They showered us with insults on the long walk out (who insults the visiting fans after a win?), but our thoughts were elsewhere: We had realized just how good our team might be.

My Packers haven’t lost a game since, and tonight, they will play in Super Bowl XLV. My family will gather in Marblehead — siblings, nieces and nephews, grandchildren — all inspired, still, by my dad’s passion. There will be traditions and superstitions (sausage must be served; my 8-month-old must wear her lucky Packers socks). If we win, everyone will take a turn carrying the flag on our victory lap around the block.

This postseason has felt like destiny, and I’m confident Green Bay will prevail, but I wish we were playing the Patriots instead. Partly because it would make my city and my region happy, but mainly because I want a rematch. Could we beat them now, with our starting QB back in action and our team riding a wave of momentum?

You know what I think, Pats fans.

Go Pack!

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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