The Picketts were sitting in the lower bowl of the stadium, five strong—five and a half, really—watching 6'2", 340-pound Ryan trying to win a Super Bowl in his 10th NFL season. There was his wife, Jennifer; daughters Esther, 6; Abigail, 5; and Lydia, 2; and son Ryan Jr., 3. Jennifer is also five months pregnant with the couple's fifth child. Ryan Sr. is not just a football player but also a husband, a father and the glue that binds his young family. "This pregnancy has been really hard on me," said Jennifer. "When Ryan comes home from work, he makes dinner, reads to the kids, puts them to bed. When he left for Dallas, I just cried, because even though he was going to the Super Bowl, it's hard to be apart."
They met in late 2001, when Ryan was a rookie with the Rams, fresh out of Ohio State, and Jennifer was working at the Gap in an Atlanta mall. Ryan's brother goaded him into asking her for a date, and not long after, she was in the stands when St. Louis lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. "Every year we were optimistic we would go back," Jennifer said. They found each other on the field on Sunday night, Ryan sweaty and exhausted, Jennifer in her number 79 jersey with MRS. PICKETT on the back. All the kids were there, too. "We hugged for so long," said Jennifer. "I just didn't think we were ever going to stop holding each other."
There are teams that evoke something beyond merely winning and losing. Celtics. Yankees. Notre Dame. The Packers are such a team. The aura began with Curly Lambeau, who founded the Pack in 1919, coached until 1949 and won six NFL titles, and grew stronger with Vince Lombardi, whose teams won five more championships and who is the only NFL coach to be the subject of a Broadway play. The Packers are also the only community-owned franchise in the NFL, a status that deepens the relationship between town and team. "It's something you can really feel," says Clifton, an 11-year veteran. "These are the greatest fans in the world."
Yet it was unremarkable for many years after the departure of Lombardi; from 1968 to '91 the Packers had just five winning seasons. In 1992 the team's board hired Ron Wolf as general manager, and Wolf hired then 38-year-old Ted Thompson to join his staff. Wolf presided over the Super Bowl XXXI victory and the Super Bowl XXXII defeat before retiring in 2001. Thompson, who'd gone to Seattle in 2000 to join former Packers coach Mike Holmgren, returned to Green Bay in 2005 as Packers general manager.
"Ted has been a very steady guy," says retired Packers president Bob Harlan, who brought Thompson back and was in the middle of the celebration on Sunday night. "He left here and built a Super Bowl team for Mike Holmgren in Seattle. He's right for this franchise. He doesn't want to sign an expensive free agent in May and then have him sitting on the bench in October."
The most critical decision of Thompson's tenure came when he severed ties with Favre in 2008 by trading him to the Jets during training camp. It came three years after Thompson had drafted Rodgers, and it has led to what Hall of Famer Steve Young, who succeeded Joe Montana in San Francisco, says will be "the next back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks."
But in this championship season Thompson was tested in other ways. The Packers were primed for a title run but suffered an endless succession of injuries, with 15 players landing on injured reserve. Each day Thompson would pluck names from the eight-by-four-foot "emergency board" in the team complex. In mid-January, Thompson said, "It's a pretty sorry-looking emergency board right now." Among his most prescient moves was drafting University of Buffalo running back James Starks in the sixth round in 2010, even though Starks had missed his entire 2009 season with a shoulder injury. Starks didn't play an NFL game until December but led the Packers with 315 yards in four postseason games and rushed 11 times for 52 yards in the Super Bowl.
Sanquin Starks looked around the field when the Super Bowl ended, and good Lord, it almost wasn't real. The Packers had won, and there was his little brother in the middle of it all. They were two of seven siblings who grew up together in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and James was always a terrific football player. When he hurt his shoulder and couldn't play his senior year at Buffalo, Sanquin, who'd moved in with him, helped with the pain and the training. "To have football taken away in the most important season of your life," says Sanquin, "that's tough. But it was good for us. That's how we became so close. We're not just brothers. We're best friends."
Now the confetti was falling, and Sanquin was taking in the scene and trying to keep the moment in his heart. "To see something like that," he said, "you're never going to forget that. It's a life-changing thing. I get chills just thinking about it. It's unbelievable. It's the most unbelievable thing ever."
The locker room is nearly empty. Equipment managers pushing large green carts pick up discarded clothing. Workers rip Super Bowl XLV banners from the walls, exposing Cowboys logos. Woodson is the last to finish, dressing himself with one hand—pulling up a sock, contorting himself into an undershirt, grimacing. "I'm a man," he says. "I gotta do this all myself."