Packers pride, deep in the heart of Texas
DALLAS -- There are about 6.5 million people living in North Texas, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country. Exactly how many of them are Green Bay Packers fans is unknown, but for the past two weeks they have been easy to spot.
That's because they can be seen at events, tourist destinations, selected drinking establishments and other businesses throughout the region, proudly wearing the Green and Gold in advance of Super Bowl XLV.
With most Wisconsin Packers fans flying down for the big game not arriving until Thursday or Friday, it's been up to the locals to do their best to match the large contingent of Pittsburgh Steelers fans who also call the Dallas-Fort Worth home.
"Long ago we were primarily for the Cowboys but when the Cowboys started not doing so well and with as many people whose jobs moved them here from the north, we've switched to other teams like the Packers and Steelers," said Jenny Seder, manager of Point After North bar/restaurant in Flower Mound, one of about 15 area establishments frequented by Packers fans on game days.
Another popular hangouts for fans of both teams is Mansfield's KG's Sports Grill owned by former Sheboygan residents. Among those who have watched games there are some employees of the United States Bowling Congress which moved to Texas from Greendale in 2008.
"We were there for the Packers-Steelers game last year," said Mansfield resident Mike Spridco, formerly of Mukwonago. "It was a cool atmosphere."
"I've been there several times," said Neil Stremmel, a former northern Illinois resident and Packers fan since his father served in the Air Force with former Packers quarterback Babe Parilli. "They sell Leinenkugel's there."
"They have cheese curds on the menu although they are not as great as Wisconsin's," said Wind Lake native and Muskego High School graduate Breanne Eoff. She and husband Derek will host a Super Bowl party for nearby residents like Stremmel, Spridco and others.
Another local Packers hangout is Vernon's in North Dallas. A neighborhood bar like Point After North, Vernon's annually flies in fish for an annual Wisconsin-style fish fry, a rite it will repeat Friday as part of an evening-long pep rally. Vernon's also will have a special tent in its parking lot on Sunday.
"We originally were a Bears bar," said Vernon's manager Chris Myrick, whose father Vernon is the owner. "We had a bartender from Wisconsin and after about three years, he came in and switched the TV's to the Packers and ran the Bears fans out of here. We've been a Packers bar ever since, about 22 years."
Three Packers bars are in the shadow of the big game venue including J. Gilligans near the University of Texas-Arlington. The Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau is hosting a pep rally there Saturday afternoon. So too is a new South Dallas bar/restaurant called Cedar Social owned by Brian Williams, a linebacker on the Packers' 1997 Super Bowl winning team. Williams and some of his teammates will be there.
Super Bowl XLV has brought many fans out of their homes and to the early special events. Opening weekend at the NFL Experience at the Dallas Convention Center featured plenty of local Packers fans wearing the uniforms of their favorite players or T-shirts bragging about the team being in the big game.
"This is a great time," said Justin's Bill Thornton, who lived in Chippewa Falls until moving to Texas 20 years ago. "When we knew the Packers would be here we told the kids we'd come down for one day."
"I told people if the Green Bay Packers are here, we'd have a Super Bowl watching party," said former Eau Claire resident Erik Johnson, who for past 25 years has lived in Coppell and whose sons Spencer and Garrett are Donald Driver fans. "So I guess their being here cost me a watching party."
The only thing tying 13-year-old Kris Olson of The Colony to the Packers is his birth in Madison. His family moved to Texas just two months later yet he was competing in his weekly youth bowling league wearing a Super Bowl XLV t-shirt.
"I'd like to get autographs. Hopefully my Dad will try," said Olson, whose favorite player also is Driver.
Some North Texans have no direct ties to Wisconsin yet have been longtime Packers fans.
Sal Caruso grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father knew legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Today, Caruso's son Derek and grandson Dylan follow in the tradition.
"I'm old school," said Bedford's Sal Caruso, sporting a Ray Nitschke jersey and getting ready for the family to have their picture taken with the Vince Lombardi Trophy which goes to the Super Bowl winner. "There's a lot of history and nostalgia. They have a winning tradition."
"I didn't have much choice but to be a Packer fan," Derek said.
Oak Cliff's Johnny Echavaria grew up a Cowboys' fan. But when his then 10-year-old son J.J. asked why they were supporting a team whose players got in trouble in the mid-1990s, he decided to change allegiances.
"We put the teams on a table and looked at the colors and I liked Green Bay's," Echavaria said. "I also like them because of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, they are owned by the fans, play in cold, snow and ice and when their players took their helmets off, you didn't see a lot of earrings."
The Dallas-Fort Worth Packers fans said they would try to attend as many events as possible to mingle with their fellow rooters. The ultimate, of course, would be to buy a ticket to the game which Stremmel did from eBay.
"I'm the only one in my family worth a mortgage payment," Stremmel said.
David Mielke, a Flower Mound resident who moved to Texas 30 years ago from West Allis, planned to check all sources for tickets, even if he had to pay scalpers' prices.
"It's the thrill of the hunt to see if I can get a good deal," Mielke said. "If I don't get in, I'll go to various Super Bowl parties."
While the North Texas Packers fans are excited to have their favorite team in their current hometown, they all realize how tough a game the team faces. But like true Packers fans, they are ready.
"I went to the Walmart across from Cowboys Stadium for lunch the other day and it was neat to see the streets blocked off and people in Packers gear taking pictures of the stadium with the big Clay Matthews photo on it," Eoff said.
"I'm trying to figure out where I will watch the game and what I'm going to do," Spridco said. "I'm trying to be a part of this. It's an exciting time to be down here."
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