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Frozen in Time
Johnette Howard
January 13, 1997
The Packers are reborn, but their hallowed home remains as it was when vince Lombardi stalked the sidelines
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January 13, 1997

Frozen In Time

The Packers are reborn, but their hallowed home remains as it was when vince Lombardi stalked the sidelines

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When the Packers return from an important road game, win or lose, townspeople leave their porch lights on as a show of support. When a heavy snowfall hits the area in the days leading up to a game, the front office puts an announcement in the Green Bay Press-Gazette asking fans to show up at Lam-beau, shovel in hand. For six dollars an hour citizens come by the dozens to clear the stands. (More than 150 people showed up the weekend before Christmas after a storm dumped 10 inches of snow on Green Bay.) "It's like a time warp here," says Packers wideout Robert Brooks, who has been with the Packers since 1992. "There's an aura, and you can feel it when you're in the stadium. It's almost like you're still back when Lombardi was here. It's just that the names on the jerseys have changed."

The oft-told story of the good old championship days when the NFL's smallest city (current population: 96,466) boasted a team good enough to tweak its big-city rivals is being replayed now that the Packers, 8-0 in playoff games at Lambeau and winners of 27 of their last 28 there overall, are one home victory away from finally getting back to the Super Bowl. And it's made all the sweeter for Packers fans because the more things change in the rest of pro sports, the more things remain blissfully the same in Green Bay.

In this era of extortionist owners, Packers fans needn't worry about getting jilted. "We're a nonprofit, public corporation whose only business is football," Harlan says. The owners of the team are 1,915 stockholders from all walks of life, most of whom live in Wisconsin. (However, there are stockholders from all 50 states and three foreign countries.) When the team, which was founded in 1919, was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1950, about 5,000 shares of stock were offered to the public at $25 apiece. No dividends have ever been paid; all profits have been plowed back into the franchise. According to the Packers' bylaws, anyone wishing to sell shares must first turn them over to the executive committee of the team's board of directors, who then decide to either reissue the shares or buy them back. No individual can own more than 200 shares, and if the share-holders ever vote to sell their investment (the Packers' estimated worth is $166 million), the profits will go to the Sullivan-Wallen American Legion Post on Sal Street in Green Bay.

The Packers, who draw from all around Wisconsin and are sold out on a season-ticket basis, have played before 175 consecutive sellouts at Lambeau, dating back to 1960. A Lambeau-record crowd of 60,787 witnessed last Saturday's 35-14 divisional playoff win over the San Francisco 49ers. There were all of three no-shows. This season a game-day scalping zone was established one block from the stadium, and the action there has been fierce: A $28 end-zone seat goes for between $125 and $200, depending on the opponent. The waiting list for season tickets stands at more than 28,000, and only eight people from last year's list received tickets for this season. In 1985, when the Pack announced plans to construct 72 skyboxes, the suites were all leased within 24 hours. Lambeau now has 198 skyboxes, and the waiting list for them exceeds 230.

The easiest way to get season tickets is through the death of an immediate family member who leaves the prized objects behind in his or her will. Green Bay ticket manager Mark Wagner admits he has heard every ruse in his 19 years on the job—sob stories, bald-faced lies, even offers of bribes—from Packers fans determined to get season seats. Inevitably, some impatient fans suspect that others have come by their tickets by less-than-ethical means, even though the transfer of the title to tickets requires notarization. Some fans have even blown the whistle on others who have renewed the tickets of a relative who died without bequeathing the tickets to them. And then? "Well," Wagner says, "then we have to call them and, well, you know." Ask them why they're not dead? "Yeah," he says with a laugh.

People go out of their way to stop at Lambeau, even when, it's empty. In 1996 more than 29,000 visitors took the 90-minute tour of the place. President Clinton dropped in after a Labor Day campaign speech in nearby De Pere. Harlan recalls leaving work one day last August when a van bearing Kansas plates pulled into a stadium parking lot. The driver jumped out, fell to his knees and began bowing with his arms outstretched while his passengers laughed and snapped pictures. "Pilgrimages, that's what they are," says Char Sievert, a tour guide who has had season tickets since 1956, the year she graduated from high school. "Last year a man on one of my tours said, 'I saw the Colosseum in Rome last year. Now this!' "

Many Packers say there's nowhere they'd rather play than in Green Bay. When more than 4,000 fans showed up for a training-camp workout last summer, awestruck rookie center Mike Flanagan asked a teammate, "Doesn't anybody in Green Bay have a job?" Wideout Don Beebe spent six years playing before the rabid fans of the Buffalo Bills, yet he says, "I'd give a little edge to the people here. I mean, we had 45,000 people in the stadium for our first intrasquad scrimmage this year. It was unbelievable."

Brooks popularized the Lambeau Leap, the ritual in which a Packer who scores a TD vaults into the end-zone stands like a salmon swimming upstream. He says the idea came to him before the 1995 season. Sterling Sharpe, Green Bay's career receptions leader, had been forced into retirement with a neck injury, and Brooks was entering his first year as Sharpe's replacement. Rather than slink onto center stage, Brooks says he wanted to ingratiate himself with the Lambeau crowd by doing something "crazy, out of the ordinary, to get the fans' confidence." He remembered how safety LeRoy Butler had tried to leap into the seats after returning a fumble for a touchdown in a December '93 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders, which clinched a playoff spot for Green Bay. "Except LeRoy didn't get all the way in," Brooks says with a chuckle. "He stuck to the wall like Velcro. I said, When I score at Lambeau, I'm jumping all the way in."

Which is exactly what Brooks did on Sept. 17, 1995, after catching a 19-yard touchdown pass from Favre during the second quarter of a 14-6 win over the New York Giants. The fans loved it. By the end of last season most of the Packers' scorers were jubilantly mimicking him. "The first time I did it and saw the TV highlights, I thought, Man, that is so much fun! It's just the best," Brooks says. "You can dance and do all that other stuff in the end zone. But this, it's like you're a rock star, and you're trusting your fans completely, and you dive off the stage, and they throw you back on. It's the best feeling in the world. And I don't think you could do it anywhere but here."

The irony? For all the memories that Lambeau has provided, it's not much to look at. Its beauty is in its throwback simplicity. There are no flourishes, certainly nothing like the grand pillars that adorn Chicago's 73-year-old Soldier Field. Lambeau's exterior is a serviceable skin of steel sheeting painted in the Packers' colors of forest green and stoplight yellow.

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