Illustration by Vidya Nagarajan.
You don’t just take your first trip to Lambeau Field. You prepare for it.
Not in the usual sense of Google-Mapping directions, gassing up the car and double-checking the double alarm clocks. This is mental preparation, a focusing of the mind for your commune with the cathedral. And just as you needn’t be Catholic to appreciate the Sistine Chapel, you needn’t be part of the Packers congregation to appreciate its lore.
|Howie Magner discusses the story further on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Jan. 4 at 10 a.m.|
Which is why, on the drive up, you still listen to an audio version of David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered. Think of it as a mood-setter with fringe benefits, because if you happen to meet Vince Lombardi’s ghost, you’ll have a few icebreakers.
And the night before, you flip through other books in search of tantalizing nuggets. Sure, you know all about the famed stock sales and public ownership. But William Povletich’s comprehensive tome, Green Bay Packers: Trials, Triumphs, and Tradition, recounts the lesser-known municipal referendum that originally funded this stadium. It passed by a vote of 11,575 to 4,893. Meaning this whole Green Bay Packers phenomenon, this global brand that engenders such reverence, owes its soul to a group that could fit inside Milwaukee’s U.S. Cellular Arena.
You let yourself imagine the scene for an early-November kickoff between the Packers and the Arizona Cardinals. You picture the flurry of action and crescendo of noise rising to meet the long-awaited moment.
You do not picture meeting this moment while inside an elevator.
But yes, as the curtain rises on one of the great theaters in sports, I’m enjoying it not from Lambeau’s stands nor its press box nor even at a late-breaking tailgate party. I’m between the mezzanine and the seventh floor.
Not because the elevator’s stuck. It faithfully rises and falls when called upon, and the doors work just fine. But if I walk through them, I’ll leave behind Harry Maier, and the gray-haired 85-year-old is not yet done with the history lesson.
Beginning in 1956, Harry worked at the Green Bay Press-Gazette for 37 years, including 20-plus as its business editor. Yes, he’s a Packers stockholder. And in 1958, he started as a statistician in Lambeau’s press box, eventually becoming press box chief.
“Now,” he says in a baritone voice that’s tinged with a north woods accent, “I consider myself press box emeritus.”
And he doesn’t mind running one of the elevators while its regular operator takes a break. So I don’t mind joining him, even if it means missing most of the first quarter. Because Harry can speak of this stadium with a perspective that few can match.
He just missed being one of the Packers’ 11,575 saviors, arriving seven months after the April 1956 referendum. But he got here before they broke ground, watching the progression from votes to bulldozed dirt to Lambeau Field.
OK, technically, the locals voted to build Green Bay’s “new” City Stadium, ponying up cash to replace the obsolete “old” City Stadium. If they didn’t, warned folks in the know, the Green Bay Packers were gone for greener pastures. Whether their field would be in Milwaukee, Minneapolis or some other far-off place, things would never be the same.
“At that time, this was all farmland out here,” Harry says. “And the contractor said we could do it at a very reasonable cost.”
Reasonable? With a price tag of $960,000, it was practically the sale of the century. These days, that money won’t even get you two seasons of Packers punter Tim Masthay.
So those vintage visionaries said yes, and the stadium’s 32,500 seats saw their first NFL game Sept. 29, 1957. Not until 1965 was the place rechristened Lambeau Field in honor of the recently and dearly departed Curly. By then, the stadium was expanding as if in its third trimester, up to 50,852 seats. Now, it’s past 73,000, and still growing.
Maier envisioned none of that rapid evolution. He never dreamed of the Packers becoming the international icon of today, and it’s hard to believe any of the 11,575 did either.
“At that time, no way. We were building a new stadium. That was it,” he says. “Then they kept jacking up the attendance possibilities. That’s when it started to sink in, the impact the stadium was having.”
With the force of Ray Nitschke’s blindside hits. In 2009, the team’s estimated economic impact on surrounding Brown County was $282 million, according to a 2010 study by AECOM. The same study estimated Packers media mentions reached an audience of 271 million during the ’09-10 NFL season (and that didn’t include online or print coverage).
But to really see the impact, simply take a pregame stroll through Lambeau’s parking lots and stands.
We rookies must be easy to spot, much like those New York tourists always staring up at the skyscrapers. Of course, walking around here without Packers gear doesn’t exactly help you blend in, nor does looking for poetry in every game of bags or beer pong.
Maybe that’s why “Packer Dave” Tausend stops me in midstride and greets me with a beefy handshake. One finger wears a replica Super Bowl ring, and after announcing himself as a Packers owner, the offensive lineman of a man introduces me to his fellow tailgating owners. This includes “Packer Jimmy” Stallard, whose leather jacket gives him the air of a biker, and who can’t get a Maplewood brat in my hand fast enough. The gang’s up from Florida, where they normally watch games in Clearwater at the Varsity Club. Often with a certain Mrs. Murphy, who happens to be the mother of a guy named Mark, who happens to be CEO of the Packers.
While Jimmy tells this tale, Dave spots a Boy Scout wandering the parking lot selling candy. Dave turns into a megaphone, bellowing an impromptu advertisement for the kid that’s easily heard above the din and probably doubles his sales. The youngster thanks him, and Dave sends him on his way, but not before another one of those handshakes, feigning pain from the boy’s “hard” squeeze.
I could stay here all morning, but there’s too much to see. So I thank them for their hospitality, and Dave hands me his Packer Backers business card as I leave. Some 50 yards away, I end up in front of a black Ford F-150 (Aaron Rodgers would approve) owned by Jim and Kathy Murphy. “No relation,” Jim says – meaning Mark, not Kathy.
Stockholders from St. Louis, they’re here on the day before their 35th wedding anniversary. “I can’t think of a better place to be,” he says. “His idea of a romantic vacation,” she adds. He’s got plenty of company.
Loud music blares from every direction, mixing with grill smoke and smells. There are all manner of green and gold outfits, crazy rock-star wigs included, and the ever-present Cheeseheads. In one parking lot, I see a Cardinals fan dressed up like Chewbacca. In another, I see a Packers fan in Darth Vader’s helmet. I secretly hope they’ll meet.
Taken as a whole, this panorama of Packers tailgating may be the closest Wisconsin gets to the Las Vegas Strip, albeit a far more wholesome and focused version. But it’s all just preamble to the main event.
Inside the stadium, as kickoff approaches, fans filter down to their seats. Tom Reger and his son, Tom III, sit four rows behind the Packers bench in section 120. They’re practically on the field, and there’s a reason dad didn’t mind splurging.
A former Army brat who had no natural football allegiance, Tom the elder heard his Packers calling as a youngster, drawn by its tenets of tradition. Now he lives down in Texas – Cowboys country – but is passing along the Packers loyalty. He bought two shares of Packers stock – one for him, one for Tom III – and, “Once a year,” he says, “I bring my son up from Dallas for his birthday.” It’s their third such trip. Young Tom is only 7. The memories they’ll make.
This day, those recollections might include a pregame salute to military veterans, highlighted by a flyover of two Navy F-18s. And maybe, during lulls in the game, they glanced up at the south end zone’s expansion project. Now only gray concrete and dull wooden railings, in future years, it will be some 7,000 new seats. That’ll take Lambeau’s capacity to around 80,000, giving the NFL’s smallest city one of the league’s five largest stadiums.
The Regers and some 70,000 friends end up seeing a 31-17 Packers win over the Cardinals, one that features four Rodgers touchdown passes. None of them went to Donald Driver, but afterward, I still seek out the locker room’s oldest Packer.
He’s in the sunset of the unlikeliest Packers career, one that began as an unknown seventh-round draft pick and will end with the most receptions and receiving yards in team history. He still remembers how it started in 1999, standing in Lambeau’s tunnel, awaiting the inaugural Family Night scrimmage, some guy named Favre asking him a question.
“Brett said, ‘You ready for this?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’” Then he went out and practiced – just practiced, mind you – as 46,000 fans watched. “That’s when I realized this place is very special.”
Now, Driver is part of what makes it special, a Packers legend whose exploits are passed on from Tom the father to Tom the third, and perhaps someday, to Tom the fourth. The distinction is not lost on Driver, and he sounds like a man cherishing his final scenes on the stage. “Every time I walk out to that stadium or I look in this locker room, I think about what I’ve helped build,” Driver says. “Everywhere you go, someone tells you that they own a part of it.”
I think back to how easily it could’ve disappeared, how one small referendum was the difference between legacy and loss. Sure, the team might have survived elsewhere, but only as just another team. And I recall Harry Maier trying to picture Green Bay without its Packers.
“If it had gone the other way,” he says, “we’d just be pretty common. A typical small town.”
Now, it is anything but. All because those 11,575 thought they were casting votes for a humble stadium.
They ended up casting their monument.