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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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Readers Blog

The Quest for Packer Pie: To Divinity and Beyond

3987-lambeau

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If Walt Disney and Jesus decided to purchase a NFL team and subsequently design and shape a city, they couldn’t have done much better than Green Bay.  Disney would obviously assume the roles of civil planner, brand manager, and merchandising expert.  Jesus would be in charge of developing the creeds of citizens to worship and idolize the organization and its players.  The truth is that the city of Green Bay and the Packers organization are one synonymous brand.   Green Bay’s commerce, culture, and most importantly its national relevancy are derived from the success of the Packers.  Without the organization, Green Bay would be less relevant than Gary Indiana.  The team is able to survive in such a small town because of the fans undying appreciation for their packers.  Football is not a hobby--it is a way of life. Packer fans in Green bay are like little kids at the Epcot Center in Disney World.  Kids (fans) wander around the confines of the park (Green Bay city limits) knowing that the Disney mascot cast is somewhere in the park.  They hope to catch Mickey Mouse signing autographs while waiting in line for Space Mountain (seeing Aaron Rodgers at the hottest club in town), but they get a sufficient level of satisfaction from catching a glimpse of Donald Duck exiting the men’s room (seeing Atari Bigby devour a basket of wings and bottomless margaritas at a Chili’s franchise).  I’ve been apart of this surreal theme park for nearly 23 years.  I worship.  I idolize. I am a Packer’s groupie.    

I grew up in the most unique football franchise city, during its return to glory–Green Bay. I became a Packer fan as soon as I was able to identify with the nationalistic colors of green and gold.  I don’t know exactly when I became aware of the Packers omnipresence in Green Bay, but it probably did not begin until sometime after I left my hometown for college. It was not until then that I realized just how ingrained the Packer fanship is in this town. 

          For three years, I went to Vincent T. Lombardi Middle School and earned a valuable education in a building dedicated to the greatest Packer coach of all time.  For years, I drove down the streets of Packerland and Lombardi to work at a local grocery store. En route, I would pass the stadium and homemade shrines located in residential backyards that lined the stadium’s perimeter.  The makeshift monuments included papermâché Lombardi trophies the size of full grown adults, Packer “G” spotlights, and what was famously known as “Steve's Fence.”  Steve was a hardworking resident of Green Bay who gained stardom in the local community by painting his fence directly across from Lambeau every summer with a slogan or team motto.  When I drove by this week it said "In McCarthy We Trust," which is all too telling of the way the Packers are viewed in my hometown. 

The divine presence of the Packers in Green Bay is not only evident with the homemade shrines, street names, and schools named in honor of the organization, but even in actual places of worship.  I distinctly recall my pastor wearing a green and gold robe every Packer Sunday.  He always commenced his sermons with a Packer related pun and asked the almighty to bless the team.  For instance, he once said, "Lord please allow the Packer’s defense to contain and bury (Barry) Sanders.” While he was preaching, he would simultaneously mimic Gilbert Brown’s signature "grave digger" post-tackle celebration.  My pastor may have been the biggest fan in all of Green Bay--yet I doubt he ever had the opportunity to attend a game or even enjoy a tailgate (the ministry is no place for any football fan).  He would hold a Sunday service knowing that the Packers were playing merely 2 blocks away from the chapel.

Being confined in a packed pew with anxious Packer fans while listening to meaningless scripture is the closest I’d like to come purgatory and I am sure my pastor felt the same way.
             It wasn't until he instituted a bit of "clever worshipping” that he was actually able to attend a game.  When the packers started to prosper in the mid- 90's he realized that Sunday worship service attendance was declining, so he enacted the "Saturday night Packer service".  Fans could henceforth spend mornings enjoying every minute of the Packer tailgating experience without evoking the wrath of the big man himself. Sunday services were still offered, but my pastor eventually pawned them all off on associate pastors while he was busy worshipping his new found idol. 

By now, the legend of the Green Bay Packers has been perpetuated into oblivion by the likes of John Madden, mainstream pundits, and big name sports writers passing through town.  Green Bay is known for its hard working people who played a pivotal role in the inception of NFL. Green Bay continues to be such a huge success because of its undying dedication to the organization.  As I’ve aged, I’ve begun to wonder what the consequences of the fan-team relationship really are.  Is it a parasitic or symbiotic relationship?  What do the Packers expect out of their local fans and what do the fans of Green Bay expect out of their Packers? 

For instance, during the early 2000's, the Packers “held Green Bay hostage” by demanding an increase in sales tax in order to pay for a larger, more aesthetically pleasing stadium.  The Packers’ organizations pulled on the emotional strings of their dedicated fan base and were able to get the deal passed because we knew that the team was our ticket to relevancy.  The stadium now looks more like a Vatican fortress; which would probably allow my pastor to easily justify Saturday services (to everyone’s mutual benefit).   The organization holds a great deal of power over the citizens of Green Bay so who benefits from this relationship—the city? The people? The wealthy? Or perhaps everyone?  On the surface the Packers and the city of Green Bay seems like an organic underdog story however, underneath the façade of the legend lays the surreal underbelly of how the Packers function in this town.   

 

Celebrity Status 

             I began to idolize athletes at a young age. That passion only strengthened as I grew older and became more exposed to them and their lifestyles on a daily basis.  My parents purchased a house in a developing suburb on the skirts of Green Bay during the early 90’s.  My dad, like most citizens, moved here to earn a paycheck from the city’s main economic provider: paper mills.  After the Packers won the Superbowl in 96’, our neighborhood became a hotspot for players and coaches alike to call home.  Brett Favre, Robert Brooks, and Reggie White were the first three players to move into the neighborhood (and were arguably the most threatening QB-WR-DE trio in the league).             

 A group of neighborhood kids and I would crowd onto my front yard at 5:30 pm everyday just to get a glimpse of Favre and Brooks driving home after practice.  I made sure to always have a football in my hands when they passed (just in case they wanted to oblige us with a game of tackle football).   Favre drove a massive truck and always had a piece of hefty chaw in his mouth after a presumably stressful practice.  He would usually acknowledge our group with a grin.  Although Favre was quickly becoming the city’s golden boy, Brooks was definitely the envy of the younger generation.  He would always drive by in what seemed like a brand new car every week.  If it was not his black Prowler, or original Hummer, it was his drop top Lamborghini (useable about 6 weeks of the year in GB’s wicked winters).  Brooks collected cars like Jay Leno. He actually ended up selling his house to Gilbert Brown after a couple of years because his garage was not large enough to harness his insatiable car fetish.

            Reggie White (RIP), on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as accessible as the other two Packer players in my neighborhood.  He lived in a house near my grade school, Martin Luther King Elementary (the school board must have run out of Packer names and decided to defer to a civil rights activist).  A wooden fence separated his backyard and my school’s kickball courts.  Everyday during recess the kids on the playground were more interested in peering through the slits in the fence in hopes of seeing Reggie and his children playing in the backyard than they were with their own recreation.  I did calf raises like crazy those couple of years in hopes of building an adequate level of leg strength so I could kick a ball over White’s fence and get a chance to ring his door bell and see him in person. 

 It wasn’t until Tyrone Williams (my boyhood idol after his one-handed interception during the NFC championship game in 96’) moved his family into town that I had an opportunity to be exposed to the Packers from the inside rather than from Favre’s rearview mirror or the fence slits on my grade school playground.  Tyrone had two sons that were about my age, and they instantly became the center of adoration within the neighborhood.  To no surprise, they loved football and were always trying to get a backyard game together.  These two guys became good friends of mine during grade school and because of them, I was exposed to a bunch of players/coaches and their families. 

            One specific football game I can remember (a truly “holy shit moment”) happened while we were in the Williams’ front yard.  The game included a bunch of neighborhood kids like me but also the likes of Brittany Favre, Ray Sherman Jr., Tommy Donatell, (soon to be the nastiest safety the Big Ten has ever seen), Mike Sherman’s two sons, and Tyrone Williams as the full-time quarterback (Favre apparently was not available).  At the time this occurrence seemed so normal to me but I now realize the bizarre nature of it all.   

            The Packer’s kin were troubled with an awkward situation where they wondered if they were liked, whether it was because of their dads or was truly based on the merits of their personalities.  The Packers themselves were on an untouchable level in the small city of Green Bay, but their children essentially became a tangible branch of their parent’s celebrity that everyone my age wanted to be around.  A friend of mine dated Favre’s daughter during grade school and has told me how she once handed him a note that said, “do you like me because of me, or because of Brett?”

              How is an 11 year old citizen of Green Bay supposed to answer that question candidly when the culture of this city raised him to idolize Brett Favre? The relationship didn’t last long, but my friend’s proudest moment (and the closest he ever got to exchanging words with Brett), was when he emerged from playing basketball in Favre’s basement at about 10:30 at night only to catch Favre himself enjoying a bowl of fruity pebbles in nothing but his underwear.  To this day, my friend will work into conversation the fact that he dated Favre’s daughter and witnessed him doing something so pedestrian.  To no surprise, armed with this story, he continues to reel constant residual ass from female Packer fans, like a B-list 90’s sitcom star, all because of how close he came to becoming an immortal part of Green Bay’s elite. 

            The relationships that I developed with these kids over the years exposed me to see how idolized and worshipped their dads were within this town.  It would be hypocritical of me to say that I did not buy right into it. I wanted to feel like I belonged.  I wanted a piece of the Packer pie.

 

Tangible/Intangible Paradox

         Ingrained in the mystique of Green Bay is the idea of how the city owns the team.  Walk into any dedicated packers fan’s living room and sure enough, there will be a “Packer Stock Certificate” proudly framed and hung on the wall to be showcased like a Master’s degree.  This idea of team “ownership” is a recurring theme in Green Bay.  I have a friend who (like many) paid twenty dollars for a piece of Lambeau’s destroyed turf when the organization replaced the field during the late 90’s (known as ”the frozen tundra”).  This friend is in college now, and every time he moves to a new apartment, he makes sure his turf is the first thing he grabs from the freezer.  He has literally held on to a piece of decaying sod for 13+ years to prove his fanship and proverbial “ownership” of the Packer pie.   The truth is, my friend is not an outlier by any means--this is the norm in Green Bay. 

            Since Green Bay is such a small town and the people of the Midwest historically come from a collective society, we feel as if we are more than just fans. Rather we think we are actually part of the Packer’s organization.  This perceived closeness causes some awkward situations between players and fans. 

There are only a finite number of outlets where players can dine, indulge in culture, and live in the city.  This limited domain often enables fans to know where players hangout and live.  I can’t even recall the amount of times I have been playing in my front yard as a child and a car would pull-up at suspiciously slow speed into my driveway.  The drivers were decked out in Packer gear and they always wanted the same thing -- “where does Brett Favre live?”   At the time, I thought nothing of it, but now I fully understand the ridiculousness of such a request and the violation of privacy. However, I think it exemplifies just how close fans feel to the players.  Favre eventually hired a full time security guard who parked at the end of the cul-de-sac he lived on to prevent people from pulling into his driveway and taking photos of his house. 

            On the surface, the Packer players seem so accessible because they can be seen in public and fans feel that they have a level of ownership over them, but often, they cross a line of reasonableness.  The paradox is that players seem so accessible because they are everywhere yet they are intangible because they operate in a social class way above the rest of the Green Bay citizens.  (It’s not like Favre accepted invites to happy hour from his middle class neighbors.)               

When Tyrone Williams first moved into town I asked my parents if it would be appropriate to wear my Williams jersey over to their house to play football with his kids.  My parents, being tax payers of the new stadium, encouraged me to wear the jersey over to his house and said he would probably be flattered and give me an autograph. I never received an autograph, and I hate myself to the day for believing that I ever deserved one while coming off like a fan boy. 

I’m not trying to argue that some Packer players can be are pricks. But I do feel that there is this unreal expectation of them because the fans feel like the players and organization owes them something.   I once witnessed my friend’s dad stick his coaching resume in Mike Sherman’s mailbox after an abysmal special teams performance vs. the Vikings (as if getting chosen for a Packers coaching gig would be a viable option).  I’m sure he could have coached that team better (hell anyone could have) but that type of expectation is only something that could happen in this town. 

            

Cultural Shift           

 Green Bay is a predominately white Catholic town that lacks a level of cultural diversity that is surely evident in all other NFL towns.  Honestly, one positive thing that the presence of Packers in this town has done over the last 20 years is provide a unique level of cultural exposure which leads to cultural tolerance.

            Robert Brooks and Leroy Butler did a good job of introducing this community to aspects of black culture.  They were flashy dressers, they drove exotic cars, and they listened to rap music.  Traditionally, all of these attributes are foreign to the citizens of Green Bay, but Brooks and Butler introduced their culture by being our “ambassadors of swag.”  Together, Butler and Brooks developed the Lambeau leap and raised the bar for touchdown celebrations forever.  Screw the Ickey shuffle.  This celebration led to the much underrated rap career of Brooks with his debut (and only) single “Jump Into the Stands.”  The citizens of Green Bay will defend that song to death and will question the authenticity of a fan based on the amount of words they know.  Robert used to drive through my neighborhood blasting his one-hit wonder, and on rare occasions, he would stop to pass out signed CDs to kids.            

I perhaps assign the pioneering of Green Bay’s cultural shift to Robert and Leroy because they were the dominant black Packer players when I was growing up and beginning to realize the absence of my own cultural awareness.  I remember being invited to a Packer game with the Williams brothers when I was 12 and I got the unique chance to go to the post-Packer game party.  The party was like nothing I had ever seen before; Packer wives could put any plain Jane in Green Bay to shame.  As players filed out of the locker room, the Williams brothers would make comments about each player’s style and clothing.  At one point, Bill Schroeder walked out wearing a pair of fitted jeans and a polo. 

The Williams brothers instantly started laying into him for his lack of style, but one brother redeemed him by saying, “but he is straight with those Air Force Ones.”  I responded without really thinking, “what? You thought he was gay?”

  They both laughed hysterically for the remainder of the party at my cultural ignorance.  I now know that “straight” is a synonym for cool and I will never forget how I limped into figuring this out. 

            Now the traditional “cheese and white bread culture” of Green Bay and its transition into a more culturally aware and diverse town have not come without failure.  Nick Barnett tried to open an upscale bar called “Club 5-6” sometime in the early 2000’s.  The club attempted to raise the level of culture in this town by requiring a dress code and a general big-city-club-feel.  Barnett pleaded with the city of Green Bay for months to grant him a liquor license.  Within a couple of months after opening, the club closed down.  The marquee from the bar remains on the corner of Dousman and Broadway st., almost acting as a monument of a failed cultural experience.  Barnett needs to be given credit for trying to advance the culture. It is no surprise that establishments like Brett Favre’s Streak House and Fuzzy Thurston’s bar continue to thrive.

            But it’s not to say that the city hasn’t made steps towards cultural improvement during my lifetime.  For instance, after the Packers won their first Superbowl in 96’ a bevy of dedicated Packer fans released parody songs.  Most of these songs involved crass drinking humor and over exaggerated “wisconnnnnson” accents, none of which gained much national attention (except for maybe the CWA, Cheeseheads-with-Attitude or God forbid—The Packer-rena). 

However, this past year when the Packers won the Superbowl, Lil’ Wayne released his hit “Green ‘n Yellow,” which was a tribute song about being a self-proclaimed Packer fan for a life.  Weezy’s song provided this city with a new tier of national publicity because it illustrated this famous black man’s validation of our culture.  I thought maybe this obsession would only manifest itself in my generation, but I recently asked my elementary school teacher mother if she had heard “Green ‘n Yellow” and she responded, “Heard of it? My entire school sung it during an assembly dedicated to the Pack after they won!”  I’ll assume it was the edited version, but regardless, that’s a scene that never would have been embraced 15 years ago. Green Bay has the Packers to thank for that.

 

Community Protection
           
For Packer players there is no such thing as anonymity in Green Bay.  As I talked with friends about writing a reflection on the Packers everyone had a unique story about past/present players partaking in scandalous activities (more than I could ever write about or back with empirical evidence).  I found this phenomenon unique because the wrap on every Packer player is essentially known--not publicly, but within the fabric of the locals.  When a story about one of our players gains national attention, it is not “shocking” but rather an embarrassment to our city and our brand.  The media, the police, and the community as whole make an effort (be it conscious or unconscious) to protect the Packer player’s images because it reflects on the integrity of our city.

            Last summer Deadspin broke the “Favre Dick Shot” story.  The national media was outraged and infatuated with the fact that the NFL’s Gun Sling’n Golden Boy was really just a pubescent pervert deep down.  Green Bay’s local media covered the story only briefly because it was an embarrassment to our brand.  Also, the story didn’t have the same lurid appeal that it did on a national level because we all knew that Favre was a derivative of his contrived ESPN persona.  
            The local media covers the hell out the Packers—year round.  Stories are usually canned products that run like advertisements for the upcoming season rather than hard journalistic news.  Reporters and journalists alike know that they must respect the Packers and the access that they are granted or they run the risk of becoming alienated by the city.  The lead anchor for the top local news channel in Green Bay is also known as the “voice of the Packers”.  He is the one who is paid to sit in a box during games and say “first and ten for GB from their own 34 yard line” over the loud speaker.  It all comes back to this concept that everyone wants a piece of the Packer Pie and the Packer’s organization is more than willing to give it to people who can best protect their image.  The news station would be hard pressed to report on anything that portrays the Packers negatively because their lead anchor is on the Packer’s payroll.  These types of conflicting interests for the sake of protection are evident throughout this town. 

In my lifetime, no Packer player that I can recall has ever faced any legal trouble that stemmed out of an arrest in Green Bay.  The most high profile players being busted for illegal activities in my years as a fan include Mark Churma’s arrest in Milwaukee for lusting after an underage girl (do yourself a favor and google “you call this a prom party”), Favre’s Dick story, and Johnny Jolly sipping on purple drank in Texas. 
              The Green Bay Police force was recently issued the option to wear badges that have the Packer “G” logo and “Superbowl XLV Champions” inscribed on them (the Packer’s brand initiatives are about as shameless as Donald Trump’s).  I can look over the fact that a private company is branding a taxpayers service but what about the identity crisis that police officers in Green Bay must face.  On one hand, they are paid to “protect and serve” but they are also HUGE Packer fans just like the rest of us.  I’m not saying it is mandated by the city that they protect players from legal trouble but rather it comes from the internal fear of the being the officer who arrests Favre for a DUI (hypothetically).  That officer would not be able show his face at work, at a bar, or hell even a Packer game ever again.  

             The protection of players goes far beyond those who are employed by the police or the media because the community as a whole aims to protect its players.  We know that what is good for the team is good for the city.  It is one brand.  I’ve been in countless conversations with friends and fans about a player’s scandalous exploits but the conversation always ends the same—“Ehh screw it. He’s a hell of a football player”, and how can anyone argue with that? 


Conclusion

When the Packers won Superbowl 45 I was 3.5 hours away from Green Bay at college.  I don’t remember much about the night besides a city in a complete state of happiness.  At one point I stumbled into a bar reeking of a good time only to see my old neighbor Gilbert Brown (he coaches the arena football team in town) pouring a pitcher of beer from the bar’s 2nd floor balcony into a sea of sexy college girl’s mouths.  Gilbert was sporting his massive 96’ Superbowl ring--and he was celebrating like he had just won another.  I knew at that moment that I needed to get back to GB to welcome home the Packers.

            The next morning I woke up with zero intention of going to class and started the pilgrimage back to Green Bay.    The city was in a state of euphoric ecstasy.  Businesses and schools closed down for days so that citizens could participate in the never ending Packer celebration.  Tickets for the “Welcome Home Ceremony” sold out before I could get my hands on them so I paid 30 dollars (25 above face value) to sit in sub-zero temperatures with all the other diehard fans hoping to get a glimpse of our boys. 50,000 Fans young and old emerged from the bowels of Wisconsin to show their appreciation for their Packers.  The energy and vibe glowing from the stadium was poetically beautiful and pathetic all at the same time.

Like any religious following or cult, we are aware of the faults that this dependency creates but we are willing to overlook them because somehow it validates and provides meaning to our lives.  There is something special about this town because it is an outlier.  Fanship really isn’t an option--we need extreme fanaticism from nearly all 102,000 citizens of Green Bay in order for this thing to work.  We pour so much effort into eight Sundays every year because the money finances the whole show.  The revenue keeps bars, hotels, and the restaurants running at capacity and more importantly it keeps the citizens of Green Bay motivated and willing to work.  The Packer-Fan relationship has several conflicting parasitic/symbiotic functions but I don’t regret growing up in this town because of the existential value I obtained by being here.  Fuckit—thank god there is a season, this town needs it more than any.  Cheers football fans. 

 

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