How small is Green Bay? Well, the next smallest U.S. cities with major league franchises are Hartford and Salt Lake City, and their metropolitan areas are nearly six times larger than Green Bay's. But then, consider this from another perspective: Green Bay is larger than Tuscaloosa, College Station, Provo and Clemson, all of which are little out-of-the-way places with huge stadiums and nationally known football teams. It's just that Green Bay has draft choices; the other little towns recruit. At least in those towns recruits start off happy because they get to choose where they go to play.
Don Zuidmulder's father, who made 25 bucks a game playing for the Pack, found a job as a park policeman there during the Depression. He eventually became fire chief. "There was a real nexus then, players and community," Zuidmulder says. "The players stayed here year-round because where else was anybody going to hire a football player for six months a year? For a cocktail party, you'd bring a Packer—you know, here's my Packer. But it was mutually beneficial." Zuidmulder paused and smiled. "You know, it was sort of like the way it is now in college athletics. The whole town was just one big booster club."
Actually, the answer to Green Bay's dilemma is simple. It should sell the franchise to Milwaukee for $60 million or whatever, and then take that money and pour it all into the athletic department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. With that kind of financing, UWGB could bring in recruits from everywhere to play on Lambeau Field, plus build a 20,000-seat basketball arena. So, in one fell swoop, Green Bay could trade a lousy football franchise for a first-class basketball and football program.
But, probably, that is not going to happen. The hitch is that if ever the franchise should be sold, all monies must, by law, go to the local American Legion post (which would then become the first Legion post to be taken over by Carl Icahn or T. Boone Pickens). Besides all that, though, selling off the Packers would be, for Green Bay, akin to Esau peddling his birthright. Even the natives will volunteer that "without the Packers we're just Oshkosh with a few more people."
Green Bay is certainly a pretty place, though. Curiously, its worst face is to the lovely body of water that gives it its name—the bay that pierces down from Lake Michigan: La Baye Verte, the French settlers named it in the mid-1600s. But now, by the beautiful bay, there are paper mills and cargo ships and all the ugly effluences of maritime commerce.
It is an irony of the late 20th century that the larger cities, the huge metropolitan ports that were born of industry, have learned how to tuck their factories away, to cosmeticize downtown with rectangular offices and apartments, while a Green Bay remains more a throwback to the 19th century. Two monstrous smokestacks dominate the west side of town, belching the kind of antique gray-white emissions that the Pittsburgh or Cleveland chambers of commerce would not tolerate on their skylines anymore. The companion irony is that away from Green Bay's bay, on either side of the Fox River, which splits the town, the largest buildings are all churches. Steeples still count in Green Bay. Just like a century ago in the big places: God and smoke.
There are 90 churches in town, wonderfully clean streets, neat houses, tidy lawns, employed breadwinners. There are 11 paper mills; there are cheese and canning plants; there are still Polish songs on the radio, some strip joints, neighborhood bars, and a place where the young people who wear franchise clothes go named the Top Shelf. The hangout has plants holding those little white Christmas-tree-type lights, stools, darts, computer golf and the opposite sex. The streets in downtown Green Bay are, patriotically, named for early presidents—Quincy Street to differentiate it from Adams Street—and, of course, there are also Packer-land Drive and Lombardi Avenue, which the coach would call "my street." The stadium and the airport are both still "Field."
For someone like Randy Wright, the Packers' promising young quarterback, a young man whose family moved often while he was growing up, Green Bay is the hometown of fantasies. But only three other Packers choose to reside there year-round. By contrast, 44 Cowboys live in the Dallas area, 39 Browns in and around Cleveland and 38 Broncos have settled in the Denver environs. Players make so much money now that most don't need jobs in the off-season, so they often lift weights together, work out in mini-camps or just hang out with one another. Evidently, it makes a difference. To keep up with the competition, the Packers paid a bunch of veterans to come to Green Bay and work out in the spring.
What Wright and many people invariably cite about Green Bay—about all the Green Bays—is that it is a good place to raise children. People also say, reflexively, that big cities are a good place to get culture. Certainly, though, many professional athletes (especially football players whose careers average 3.6 years) are either bachelors or newly married and are at an age when they're not interested in the evident qualities and the traditional values of a hometown like Green Bay.
Titletown suffers not only because it is small and out of the way, but also because it is small and out of the way and far north. At a time when this country tilts to the Sun Belt, this is one more perceived negative. A few years ago, a first draft choice pointedly told the Packers that he was passing up Green Bay to go south and sign with Toronto of the Canadian League. "I really do get a little tired of people talking like we're Lower Siberia," Gregg says. "We've found if we can just get a player to come here and visit, we're fine. We've been very successful in signing free agents." Certainly, the vocational football facilities—weight room, indoor practice grounds, offices, etc.—are on a par with the best in the NFL.