There was a time when the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field wasn't the Quaint anomaly it is today. Everyone played football on grass, and there were no Teflon roofs to shut out the midday sun, no domes to block the late-autumn wind. When mud-spattered linemen Forrest
Gregg and Jerry Kramer hoisted coach Vince Lombardi on their shoulders in 1961 for his first NFL title ride, only God's gray sky hung overhead.
Franchise free agency didn't exist back then either. There was no threat of the Packers' being wooed away by some Sun Belt city offering a percentage of the revenue generated from the sale of personal seat licenses. Why, the world hadn't even heard of turf toe when Lombardi stalked Lambeau's frozen sidelines in his trademark overcoat, shrieking, "Hey! Whaddaya doin' out there?" in his best Brooklynese. "With Lombardi it was never cold here," says former All-Pro Fuzzy Thurston, who played guard for Green Bay from 1959 to '67. "Before games he'd just say something like, 'Men, it's a little blustery out there today.' Blustery, see? Then he'd say, 'It's our kind of day. Now get out there and strut around like it's the middle of July.' "
The Packers were a league power then, as they are now, and Lambeau Field was the NFL's answer to Boston Garden or Yankee Stadium—hallowed ground where dynasties were born. During Lombardi's nine-year stay the Packers won five league championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Twenty-nine winters have passed since Green Bay last had a championship team, yet within the magical space of Lambeau Field it still seems to be 1967.
Once the ball is kicked off and pads start to clatter, the Titletown past and the promising present almost become one on the floor of the old stadium. The sight of defensive end Reggie White barreling into an opponent's backfield conjures up memories of Hall of Famer Willie Davis. Quarterback Brett Favre's 1992 burst from anonymity—he led the Packers to an electrifying, come-from-behind victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in relief of starter Don Majkowski during coach Mike Holmgren's first season—wasn't all that different from Bart Starr's mid-season ascension in 1959, Lombardi's first year.
Visitors from far and wide still stop by Lambeau and ask to be shown the spot in the south end zone where, in the 1967 NFL championship game, better known as the Ice Bowl, Starr made the one-yard touchdown plunge that gave the Pack a 21-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Grainy black-and-white photos show Starr burrowing across the goal line with 13 seconds to play, his arms hugging the football as if he were protecting a newborn from the-46° windchill.
For four decades Lambeau Field has been a landmark moored on the southwest edge of Green Bay, its underside sunk into a gently sloping hill, making it look like a ship run aground, never to leave. But, says Packers president and chief executive officer Bob Harlan, "it's not so much what the stadium looks like; it's what happened here that makes this place unique. A story like this will never happen in professional sports again."
Football history isn't learned in Green Bay as much as it's lived and touched and felt. Linebacker Ray Nitschke, who played from 1958 to '72, isn't just one of the 19 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose names form a ring at skybox level around the inside of Lambeau: Nitschke is in the Green Bay phone book, and he still attends home games, often eschewing a skybox for a seat in the stands. Call Nitschke at home and ask for an audience, and he's likely to reply, "Let's talk over the phone. I might scare ya in person."
Starr and Kramer still come back to Lambeau for the Packers' annual fantasy camp, and numerous players return for alumni day and the opportunity to walk along the hash marks one more time as applause rains down, as it always has. Thurston, who has survived throat cancer and two hip replacements, still owns and operates Shenanigan's, a neighborhood bar on the southeast fringe of town. On one wall he has begun a collection of mostly out-of-state license plates given to him by patrons; all are vanity plates bearing some expression of support for the Packers (GO PACK, for example, or GBP FAN) "Forget Dallas," Thurston says. "The Green Bay Packers are America's Team."
Martha's Coffee Club, a feisty group of 40 or so fans, some of whom have been meeting since 1947, convenes in a diner near Lambeau at 9 a.m. every weekday year-round to discuss the Packers' fortunes. In accordance with a set of arcane rules the club levies 25-cent fines for transgressions such as talking about something other than football, and the members roll dice to see who picks up the check—visitors not excepted.