By Mario Ziino   Published Nov 02, 2003 at 5:32 AM

{image1} Contrary to popular belief, autograph seeking is not a modern phenomenon. To some, the worth is measured in dollars and cents. To others, the sentimental value makes them priceless.

This is a story about the latter. It's about a time when, "the getting," meant something personal. It's about a youngster growing up in Milwaukee in the 1960s following the Green Bay Packers and the legends of those "Glory Days."

It's about me. OK, it's personal. It's about a chance encounter - truly a once in a lifetime experience - rarely experienced in today's tight-as-a-drum secure world of entertainers and sports athletes.

Like many Wisconsin baby boomers, the '60s, were defined by the Vietnam Conflict, free love and the Packers. I'd like to think my focus was on the Green and Gold - "America's Team" (except in Dallas, Los Angeles and Baltimore). It was a dynasty, before anyone ever associated the word with professional football greatness.

The Pack won five National Football League championships during my wonder years. Vincent T. Lombardi was simply known as the man, particularly in my Italian neighborhood. He was family. Heck, he even looked like my father. At least, I thought so.

Sunday's was the Lord's Day in my father's house. Thank God, the Coach was Catholic; otherwise, I'd doubt our black and white RCA would be tuned to the game after services.

I'd wear a white shirt and tie in the morning and a Packer helmet and jersey in the afternoon. It was drilled into my head during High Mass that our pastor was the voice of salvation. But by high noon, no one had to tell me that Ray Scott was the voice of the Packers. "Starr ... Dowler ... touchdown." Gosh, that still sends chills down my spine!

For a kid living on the Lower East Side, having the Packers play four times (including pre-season) at County Stadium meant having four opportunities to get up close to my heroes.

Don't get me wrong, I knew the Packers were from Titletown (wherever that was), but when they came to Milwaukee, they were my team.

Going to games wasn't really an option to kids from my block, so we'd count on the Pack coming to us. Well, sort of. You see, the Pack's home-away-from-home at that time was either the old Milwaukee Inn (now Park East Hotel) or the Pfister Hotel. To a bunch of 11-year-olds, that was right in our neighborhood. So, we felt a kinship. We had to visit them.

Unlike today, we didn't swarm, push or prod. We didn't jam sharpies (they we're invented yet), trading cards or albums in their faces. There was no shoving. No life-size posters. No footballs to get autographed. We were polite. Cute kids on a mission.

Our ritual began the night before the game. We'd buy a ream of lined paper , a little cardboard and string, and make our own booklets. Okay, it was the '60s.

Sunday morning couldn't come quick enough. We'd get up at six in the morning for service (much earlier than on school days). No problem. We'd meet up in the back of church and sit in the very last pew. When the priest gave the final blessing, we went into motion, like a wide receiver. Genuflecting on Amen, we'd back out the front doors.

Now, the downtown hotel was a good eight-block sprint, but we'd get to the lobby well before 8:30 a.m. We knew their schedule - breakfast followed by a bus ride to the stadium. We had it down to a science.

The Milwaukee Inn wasn't as classy as the Pfister. However, there was the time when Elvis Presley's car was on display in the lobby. It was a Caddy convertible. Very nice.

On this particular Sunday in October of 1967, the Packers were playing the Minnesota Vikings. The Pack, the defending Super Bowl Champs (though it wasn't called that at the time), opened the regular season with a 3-0-1 record. They had completed a perfect 6-0 (yes, count'em, six games) exhibition schedule, and adding the nine wins to end the previous season, we thought they were unbeatable. It wasn't until later we found out that the Vikes were the last to hang an "L" on our team.

We camped out in the lobby of the Pfister when my best friend and I decided to try something new. We thought, "Let's wait by the elevators." Mind you, we were polite but not always obedient. Leaving the lobby and the watchful eye of the front desk was frowned upon. But we were kids and we loved to be adventurous.

There we were minding our own business when suddenly the elevator doors opened. No one exited. We peaked in and there, in the center of the elevator, stood my father... the flesh. I could have sworn there was a glow about him.

My buddy and I looked at each other and nodded. The next thing we knew, we were starring up at the Coach as the doors closed.

I got a nudge in the ribs and I blurted out, "So, Coach, are we going to win today?" Real profound.

The larger than life legend looked down at us and said, "What do you think?" The words seemed to flow from his lips in slow motion as my mouth hung open. He actually spoke to us!

Just then, the doors opened and he stepped out. We watched as he turned and smiled, with that familiar gap-tooth smile, gesturing and saying, "Well, are you coming?" We gulped. And before the doors could close, we leaped to Lombardi's side.

We looked around in wonderment. We followed him, like sheep, into a huge banquet hall. There seated were our heroes. It was a candy store of football players and we had the stockroom to ourselves. Bart Starr. Max McGee. Donny Anderson. Carroll Dale. Ray Nitschke. Many looked up as Lombardi walked in.

I don't remember if Lombardi said anything to us, though later, my buddy said he did. My mind went blank but my body was drawn like a magnet to Fuzzy Thurston, Jerry Kramer, Forrest Gregg, Willie Wood and Bob Jeter.

We went from player to player, each signing our homemade albums. Gale Gillingham. Willie Davis. Dave Robinson. Jim Weatherwax. Every one of them.

I overheard one of the player's whisper, "They must be Vince's nephews," which gave me the courage to continue. I thought to myself, "Yeah, that's right, sign here."

I remembered to save my last sheet for the Coach, who signed it as I repeated for the 40th time, "Thank you."

Later in the afternoon, we shared stories about each autograph as the game played out on a transistor radio in the background.

I don't think we realized at the time that the Packers winning streak was about to end at 18 games. Nor did it dawn on us that the lowly Vikings were about to hand the Packers a 10-7 loss at County Stadium, of all places. They hardly ever lose in Milwaukee. Nope. Not a care in the world about the game. Nothing was going to spoil the day our uncle came through for us.