James Madison wanted for his teenage son, Mark, only what most Wisconsin fathers want for their boys: the chance to see their beloved Green Bay Packers live at Lambeau Field. So when the Madisons moved 156 miles north from Kenosha, Wis., to Green Bay, James put their names on a season-ticket application in the late 1960s. Sure, the waiting list was notoriously long, but they had a lifetime ahead of them, and with any luck, they'd get to watch a game together in those seats someday.
"It makes me happy and a little sad to think about it," says Mark, now 53 and a social worker living in Oshkosh. "My dad was such a huge fan. He died 31 years ago. Looking back, I'm sure he thought I'd have those tickets by now."
More than three decades later he almost does. Though 11,625 seats were added to the stadium during the $295 million renovation completed in late August—raising Lambeau's capacity to 72,515—Madison found out in mid-September that he'd climbed to only No. 13 on the waiting list. No matter: Waiting year after year for the right to sit on an aluminum bench and nearly freeze to death during Green Bay's arctic Sundays is what you do if you're a Packers fan. That's what makes them the heartiest breed in American pro sports.
We give you the Cheeseheads, a devoutly worshipful bunch who prefer their seats without backrests and their home-game temperatures below zero. To them, football with a frigid windchill factor and a beer before noon isn't just a pastime—it's like going to church. Consider, for example, the Packers' season-opening game against the Minnesota Vikings, on Sept. 7 By Friday night die parking lot at Lambeau Field has the feeling of a revival meeting, as it teems with RVs full of fans who have driven hours from towns like Pembine and Kaukauna, Eau Claire and River Falls.
By Saturday, getting a hotel room within a 50-mile radius of Green Bay is impossible. At die stadium thousands of fans make their way to the newly erected, 14-foot-tall bronze statues of the franchise's twin titans, team cofounder and longtime coach E.L. (Curly) Lambeau and the team's—and perhaps the game's—greatest coach, Vince Lombardi. (It's a pairing the two men probably would not have appreciated since they detested each other; die prudish Lombardi disapproved of the rakish Lambeau's extracurricular activities.) After the requisite pictures are snapped, most fans head to the souvenir shop to buy curios. (Refurbished during the renovation, the shop exceeded its first-year sales projections in its first month.) By Sunday the two car-choked interstates leading to Green Bay resemble the twinkling, proselyte-filled highways in Field of Dreams.
Fasting is not part of keeping the faith. Grilled meats and spirits of every variety can be found in abundance hours before game time. For longtime tailgater "Super" Rob Sigler, a 45-year-old banker, this is "as close to heaven as most people will ever get." Says David Burns, 37, the manager of a local radio station who joined the congregation when he moved to Green Bay from Minnesota 17 years ago, "Look at these people. They're like a cult."
Indeed, as Burns's two-year-old daughter, Samantha, played under the massive Lombardi statue, her antics were enjoyed by a couple in their 50s wearing...those hats. The Cheeseheads handle, of course, derives from the triangular foam crowns worn in homage to the best-known export of America's Dairyland. According to the Packers' executive director of public relations (and unofficial team historian), Lee Remmel, it's not clear when the first unsightly wedge appeared, though it's believed the tradition dates back to at least the mid-1970s. While some lament the small-town-rube image evoked by the headgear—"The cheesehead," says Remmel with a weary smile, "is an abomination"—Cheesehead Nation's fierce pride in its roots is unquestioned and contagious. Such obsessive devotion, along with the team's long record of success (including 12 league championships since its 1919 inception), have made the Pack nothing less than a state treasure and support of the team a civic duty.
For thousands of fans, part of that support is financial. The team has been a publicly owned nonprofit corporation—the only American pro sports team so held—since 1923, when the first of four stock sales was held to keep the fledgling club in business. The second was held in 1935; the third, in 1950, essentially saved football in Green Bay, keeping the near-bankrupt team solvent long enough for the building of Lambeau Field (known as City Stadium when it opened in '57) and for Lombardi to arrive in '59. The most recent offering, in 1997, swelled the total number of shareholders (who receive no dividend payments) to 111,507. Bruce Barrette, a dentist in Peshtigo, displays the stock certificate for his lone share on his office wall, "where no one can miss it," he says. "Most team owners are arrogant or pompous, but here, we own the team. It means everything to us."
Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle agrees. Doyle grew up in Madison and vividly remembers the Sundays of his youth, hustling home from church to watch the Pack (and the Hamm's beer commercials) on TV with his father. "The Packers are more than just a state team," says Doyle. "They determine the state's mood. They throw this state into a depression if they lose. Productivity is affected. It's been like that forever." (Statewide anxiety levels, which were running high after Green Bay got off to a 1-2 start, came down a bit after the Packers beat the Chicago Bears 38-23 on Monday night.)
Certainly part of the team's appeal is the notion of Green Bay (pop. 102,726) as the Little Burg That Could, holding its own and even outperforming teams from much larger cities. When the Packers first began playing 84 years ago, their schedule included teams from similarly small Wisconsin towns such as Menominee and Sheboygan and Racine. By the early '30s, however, most area teams had folded. The football-mad state had only the Packers, who by then were playing a portion of their games in Milwaukee, further expanding their fan base. Thus began the mythology, and statewide worship, of the Green Bay Packers. "We've been the best thing going for a long, long time," says team president Bob Harlan. "In Wisconsin this is ingrained in you from birth. We're talking generations here. It's a way Wisconsin families have marked the passage of time."