Monday, January 18, 2010

The Frozen Tundra

Originally written January 2, 2010

The Peters are a tall family.

To a person modest in stature such as myself, this is the most readily apparent fact about them. Kyle stands somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’4”, his father is in a similar range and his brother, whom I didn’t meet during my stay at their home in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, is apparently somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’7”.

Just to make things clear about how much larger they are than you, their television is a 73-inch HD flat screen which took up the entire wall of their den.

Their distinct height advantage is somewhat intimidating. Ironically, Kyle is anything but. He is confident and sure of himself, but also one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. I first met Kyle during an ill-fated flirtation with Northwestern’s club Ultimate Frisbee team my freshman year of college. I wouldn’t get to know him well until the next year when we took multiple German courses together.

By the time senior year came around, Kyle lived down the block from me on Foster street between Maple and Ridge, and we would occasionally get together to watch football. That said, Kyle and I ran in different social circles, so outside of German classes we didn’t socialize all too often on a regular basis, which left me somewhat surprised at the beginning of senior year, when he called me to let me know that he was going home to Wisconsin to see the Packers-Saints game on September 17, 2006 and would I like his extra ticket.

This was the Packers. This was Lambeau. The Frozen Tundra. The Oldest Football only facility in the NFL. Home of the Ice Bowl. Home of Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Max McGee, Vincent Lombardi. This was it. This was Lombardi in his fedora stalking the sidelines and Starr diving over Jerry Kramer to land the Packers in Super Bowl II. This was the deep baritone voice of John Facenda as the camera pans up on those high green walls on NFL Films Presents. Lambeau Field, the cathedral of the modern National Football League, and a place legendary for its fans, its tailgating, its atmosphere and, perhaps most notably, its championship be-decked tenants.

“Yes, Kyle. I will go.”

This journey wouldn’t be so far, however. Milwaukee is a mere 90-minute drive from the north side of Chicago, so our trip to Kyle’s home in Elm Grove, Wisconsin would be a breeze. Until, that is, I arrived and realized how much shorter I was than everyone else. Not that the intimidation lasted very long. The Peters’ height was outstripped by their hospitality. Not more than five minutes after I walked through the door I had been made aware of the television, my bed for the night, and the stocked fridge to which I was more than entitled.

To say I was overwhelmed by the homespun-ness of the Badger state in my first real excursion outside Madison or Milwaukee was to put it lightly. My first real sign of this was the Sunday morning talk radio decrying the Packers’ signing that week of Koren Robinson. In fact, one talking head called it “the bottom of the barrel”.

Why?

Robinson was not terribly far removed from several productive seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, but, you see, he was a drug addict. I, personally, am as straight as an arrow. Perhaps too straight. But I tend to fall on the side of drug users deserving understanding and aid rather than ostracism. However, what shocked me was less the ostracism than the actual offense. Robinson had not been addicted to heroin or cocaine. He had been using marijuana.

It’s not my thing, but I never considered it a particularly dramatic concern either. It had always been my experience that pot smoking happened among a large sector of high school and collegiate America, and I never believed it to be a serious problem.

My cohorts in the car to Green Bay seemed to feel differently.

They also considered Robinson’s pot use to be a significant offense and to chalk it up to Midwest na├»vete would be insulting to them. They were all intelligent people. But it was clearly a dramatically different cultural line than I was used to, and a surprising one considering Brett Favre’s own struggle with pain killer addiction, an issue I considered little better.

Perhaps the most telling part of the experience however, came along I-43 when Kyle’s mother was pulled over by a highway trooper for breaking the speed limit. If there ever was a sign of how dedicated the state of Wisconsin is to the Green Bay Packers there is none more obvious than when a representative of the law bends their rules for the Green and Gold. The trooper was a female officer in her mid 30s with short blond hair and a soft Wisconsin accent. Upon staring into the car and noticing the preponderance of Packers jerseys she asked the only question she could, and perhaps the most unnecessary.

“Are you going to the game today?”

After informing her that, yes, we were she did not skirt her responsibilities. She wrote the ticket, but rather than explaining all the complexities, she made quick work of it, telling Kyle’s mother when the ticket was due to be paid by before apologizing to us pulling us over and then wishing the Packers the best of luck and sending us on our way. Surely, there were responsibilities for her to attend to, but on Sundays in the Dairy State the Pack reigns supreme.

Green Bay is a remarkable town. At a population just over 100,000 people, it is by far the smallest city to have an NFL franchise. Compared to the likes of New York, Chicago or even St. Louis it is fairly small and sleepy. When the Packers play just about all of downtown is completely barren with the exception of the stadium and the sports bars surrounding it.

What is most wonderful about Green Bay is that it is the last remaining link to the NFL in its purest foundations. I’m not one of those obnoxious antiquated scribes who refuses to believe anything can match the magic of yesteryear. That is a total fallacy. The NFL today is better than it ever has been in my life.

Still, Green Bay harkens back to when the NFL was a rag-tag group of traveling teams based in smaller Midwest cities. The Frankfort Yellow Jackets, Canton Bulldogs, Duluth Eskimos or Pottsville Maroons would never survive in the modern NFL. The fact that the Packers have managed to stick is a testament to a time when the League was a far less rigidly – and far less financially solvent – version of its current self. Smaller teams had a way into the fledgling League but with the increase in travel costs and the onset of the depression most went the way of the dodo.

And yet the Packers live. Green Bay might have joined them were it not for the efforts of Bears owner George Halas, who heavily campaigned for the city to help fund the construction of Lambeau Field, or City Stadium as it was known when it opened in 1957. While Halas was in one of the biggest cities in America, he felt it was important to have the NFL maintain connections to its small town roots, and with other NFL owners threatening to force the Packers to move to Milwaukee if their stadium conditions weren’t improved in the mid-1950s, Lambeau Field saved the only connection the league has left.

You certainly feel this as you pull into the area around the stadium. While we parked in the Stadium lots, people far and wide were offering their lawns as parking space for a mere $10 a car, a situation you almost never see in professional sports now. As I would find throughout the course of the day, a Packers home game feels like a college game with the rowdiness and single-minded dedication of its fan-base and the tightly packed-in nature of its seating configuration. It is intimate while feeling huge and huge while feeling intimate. It is intense, and crazy from early morning tailgating to the final seconds of the fourth quarter.

It is, in short, the most fun atmosphere I have ever experienced at a sporting event. And the home team didn’t even win.

Who knew watching a team named after a meat packing factory could be so fun?

Of course, this was surprising considering I was disappointed when we pulled into our parking spot and I got my first glimpses of the stadium. Unbeknownst to me, Lambeau had undergone an extensive renovation a few years earlier. The affect on the building was actually fairly minor – much of the construction revolved around the addition of luxury boxes and a large atrium outside the walls of the bowl – but that, right there, is what was missing. The new atrium looks nice, but at its expense was the iconic green walls I had always seen on TV.

No matter. This was Wisconsin and I was still going to get my fill of brats, cheese and beer before entering the stadium regardless of what it looked like. And damnit I was going to like it. It was about two beers and several servings of cheddar cheese and crackers in that I noticed Kyle’s friend Casey had a ring on his finger. Casey, you see, was hitched. This really threw me. Casey was my age and happily married, but he certainly didn’t look much older than, well, a youthful college student.

While this was hardly a significant, or perhaps even unusual development to everyone else there, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for most of the day.

But if Casey had a curveball he had thrown me, I had one to throw him. That came about when a man in the parking lot was trumpeting his tuba to the strains of “Roll Out the Barrel”. For the uninitiated, “Roll Out the Barrel” is a drinking song very popular in the upper Midwest. That is, I must assume, the only place it is popular. In fact, while I have heard it a number of times, I have never heard it anywhere but within the borders of the state of Wisconsin.

According to Wikipedia the song, officially called the “Beer Barrel Polka” is actually a Czech song popular during World War II and that it has popped up in various bits of culture ever since, including Marx Brothers movies, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and the regular set lists of Liberace. Of course, I don’t believe any of that for one second. Until I attended a Milwaukee Brewers game in 2001, I had never heard of it before, and after I attended a Wisconsin-Northwestern football game in 2005 I hadn’t heard it since. Perhaps it is actually a Czech song and a huge influx of immigrants from former Soviet Republics to the Midwest following World War II brought their beloved polka with them, popularizing it across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

More likely, I think, is that people in Wisconsin just really love beer. Well, they do. That much is irrefutable. After all, their baseball team is called the Brewers and they play the song during the seventh inning stretch of every game.

When the strains of “Roll Out the Barrel” were wafting towards us I said to Casey, “You know that no one outside of Wisconsin knows this song, right?”

“What?”

“I had never heard it before I came here. No one sings it. Ever.”

“Not even at ball games?”

“No, that’s what we have ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ for.”

If Casey had given me something with which to ponder the stability of my reality, I felt sufficiently confident that I had returned the favor.
With kickoff nearing we made our way into Lambeau for the start of the game. The aforementioned addition ran up a $250 million-tab between 2000 and 2003, somewhat jarring when you consider the $960,000 price tag for the entire building in 1956. Still, the atrium is gorgeous, and reminds me very much of the main entrance of Miller Park, while the added luxury suites, restaurants and Packers Hall of Fame no doubt keep Green Bay a financially viable and competitive franchise among the big dogs of the NFL.

Walking in you can feel the history, as if you were at Wrigley or Fenway, and that is because when the Packers made their renovations, they avoided the mistake of the Yankees, who essentially rebuilt the original Yankee Stadium in the 1970s and robbed it of its antiquated mystique. While the Packers may have changed the external appearance of their home, the interior bowl remains relatively unaltered. It is a crowded, packed and thoroughly un-modern grandstand, with tight seating arrangements and poor traffic flow.

And that is what makes it great. Sitting in the stands now one feels as if sitting there during the heyday of Lombardi was no different. Watching Brett Favre and watching Bart Starr must have been markedly similar.
Kyle’s seats were in section 113, a mere 20 rows off the 20 yardline. We would see Favre up close early on, as he hit Greg Jennings for a touchdown in the first quarter. The Packers would jump out to a 13-0 lead. Jennings made the storied Lambeau Leap after scoring.

Of course, the joy would be short-lived. New Orleans overcame three early turnovers by Drew Brees to eventually pull out a 34-27 victory. The last seven of those Packer points came on a touchdown pass to recent Northwestern alum Noah Herron. If memory serves correctly, the three Wildcats among us broke out in a chorus of the Northwestern fight song when Herron broke the plane, but looking back, it’s entirely possible that it was just me.

I spent much of the day glancing at the scoreboard, a time-honored sports tradition these days. With the onset of nationally televised games and fantasy sports, keeping track of the league as a whole has become more important than ever before. And as a result I spend more time than I care to say staring at the out of town scoreboards.

I find few things more fun than the spontaneous, widespread reaction of a crowd watching a dreaded opponent win or lose on the out of town scoreboard. Of course in this particular instance, the entire section would not be cheering with me when I started screaming. This happened when the Giants, who had trailed 24-7, pulled out a remarkable 17-point fourth quarter to force overtime in Philadelphia. If you’ve ever cheered on your own team via the out of town scoreboard in another, entirely unrelated stadium – and I know that is a rather particular set of circumstances – it is a bizarre experience.

When Big Blue tied it, though by what means they had done it I had no idea, I was not silent. Of course, with the Packers trailing by 14 points at the time, much of the section was befuddled by my excitement, causing many confused looks from the crowd around me and one young boy to ask his grandmother why on earth I was so happy.

This theme would continue in the car ride as the Packers postgame announced on the radio that Eli Manning had thrown a 31-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in overtime to give the Giants the win. As I celebrated in the back of the car, Kyle, his mother, Alec and Casey were all extremely unamused.

For those of you who haven’t been to Lambeau, the one positive you can take from that is you’ve never had to leave it. This is not because it is such a wonderful monument to the gridiron that you want to stay forever – though that is true – but rather, Green Bay, geographically, is pretty far up there and for most fans there is only one way to leave. As a result, traffic stands still.
For a while.

It took more than three hours to make a return trip to Elm Grove that should have been only two.

But even with the traffic, Packers fans always have one trump card that the rest of us don’t. Every Sunday they get to watch a team so deeply connected in the veins of NFL history and the heart of their community. It’s a team that they, themselves in the city of Green Bay own. It is a situation unlike any other in the NFL.

And perhaps best of all, they get to watch them at Lambeau. That, too, is an experience unlike any other.

No comments:

Post a Comment