I promised my dad last Christmas that I’d take him to Lambeau this year. He laughed it off a little, but I told him — once the schedule came out, he’d pick a game, and we’d make a weekend of it. You see, he’d never been, and neither had I. I felt it was time to remedy that. On April 20, the schedule came out, and by April 23, we had our tickets for the Bills game – section 125, row 35, seats 1-4. I bought the tickets for me and my dad, my dad bought a ticket for my grandpa (his 80th birthday was Saturday), and my cousin rounded out the group. Within a few days, Dad and I coordinated our flights into Milwaukee, and the calendar was set. And that’s how I began looking forward to this game 150 days before it was played.
Could we have gotten cheaper tickets if we’d waited? Of course. That’s not the point.
There were four (overt) Bills fans on our flight from DC, and they made a wry comment while we waited to board that this might be the only time during the whole weekend that they would outnumber Packer fans. They planned to drive straight to Green Bay to tour the Hall of Fame before it closed, and when they asked for a recommendation for dinner, I suggested Curly’s Pub. When I asked why they were coming to this particular game, they looked at me strangely and said, “Why not? It’s Lambeau.” That sounded about right to me.
[I found it curious that there was a single Vikings fan --- in full head-to-toe purple --- on each flight. Each looked miserable, as is only appropriate.]
We worked it out so Dad would stay in Burlington with his folks while I would stay in Milwaukee with my cousin. Him being him (an actuary) and me being me, we talked about healthcare and politics while watching college football. Mass, dinner downtown at Roots, a walk down by the lake…all very nice and pleasant.
I didn’t sleep well, and I can’t blame it on the deer mounted toward the bed in my cousin’s guest room. We met my dad and grandparents at Mayfair Mall at 7am (they’d arrived 20 minutes earlier, clearly excited for the day). Before we’d gone 15 miles, we started seeing other similarly-packed cars, loaded with green and gold passengers. We dropped grandma off in Appleton and continued on our way.
Once we turned onto Lombardi Avenue…well, what is there to say? I think of Lambeau as unapologetically majestic, proud, and unflinching. We drove around the block to get the full view, and it was as grand as I expected it to be. I loved the painted fences and the people singing karaoke in their backyard and the houses customized with Packers-centric decorating. I loved the people who’d added green and gold pompoms to their shoes and the kids with green wigs and face paint. It just made sense.
We did what any good Packer fan driving to the game would do – we parked in someone’s front yard, and set up camp. Grandma had made sandwiches and packed some homemade crock dill pickles (and Sprecher’s root beer!). Sure it was 10am, so what? I confess I might have been a little antsy, so after we’d had our fill, we decided to head inside.
It might take me a week to get through everything in the Atrium without rushing. Within 10 seconds of being inside, I decided this trip should be a yearly thing.
We stopped through the pro shop (to get my cousin a hat — he had to have some Packers gear), picked up the program and some pompoms, and went straight to our seats. I know there are dozens of things that I could have done instead, but I wanted to soak it in. You don’t get a do-over on “firsts.”
Our seats were right below Jim Taylor’s name in the Ring of Honor, along the 15-yard line. As soon as we sat down, an older couple near us turned around and expressed their relief that we were Packer fans. Our seats are usually bought by opposing fans, they said, and it’s wonderful to see some friendly green-and-gold instead.
After I tweeted a picture of my view of the field, I got a pleasant surprise – Jen Lada sent me a message that she was on my sideline and wanted to say hi. (Needless to say, I bounded down the stairs in fairly juvenile fashion.) She couldn’t have been nicer. We chatted about Andy Roddick bringing his dad to Lambeau (she was hoping for an interview), and how Jen had been at Caitlin Morrall’s wedding on Saturday (a childhood friend of mine). She paid me one of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten since Aaron and Corey asked me to start writing last year, and then climbed up on the fence so my dad could take a few pictures. I hope we get a chance to meet up again sometime.
Almost before I could recover, I got another message from Wally Pingel, which said only, “Turn around look up.” So, up to the upper concourse I climbed, to meet yet another person that I felt I already knew. It was such a treat to chat with Wally and BigSnakeMan (also from PocketDoppler.com), both before the game and at halftime, where Wally’s first comment was, “Well, this game is boring.” One of my few regrets about the trip was not being able to meet up with Brian Carriveau who, despite multiple attempts, could not figure out where in the stadium we were (my inability to accurately describe our location might have been a factor). My sincere apologies, Brian. Next round’s on me.
There were so many things about the day that I loved. Watching Crosby warm up. Seeing in person how animated Kevin Greene is…all the time. The sign someone had posted in tape on the other side of the field: “More Packs, Less Bills.” Hearing Aaron Rodgers call the players together for a pre-game pep talk in the huddle. Watching him bounce around as though he were as excited to be on the field as we were to be there. How the announcer introduced the Bills and Chan Gailey as though they were an afterthought, without fanfare, inflection, or enthusiasm… ho hum. Hearing the crowd roar even before Charles Woodson’s name was announced. Feeling the stadium tremble when the four jets flew over during the national anthem. Dancing around after Driver’s touchdown. After Rodgers’ touchdown. After Jones’ touchdown. After each of Clay Matthews’ big plays. Hearing the chuckles and cheers from the crowd as the announcer showed each of Favre’s four turnovers. How every time I looked at my dad and grandpa, their eyes were fixed on the field, smiling.
[I should also note that my college didn't have football, so I never got used to being in a crowd of 50,000 people all cheering for the same team. The only feeling of shared jubilation that comes close was (pardon the politics) Election night in 2008, when all of DC erupted. But it's still not quite the same.]
There were also those things that I could have done without. Idiotic “Packer” fans behind me who, when they weren’t loudly criticizing Ted Thompson’s personnel moves andMcCarthy’s playcalling, spilled beer down my back, soaking our programs and sweatshirts. (As he went to get another beer, I noticed that he wore a #4 shirt…go figure.) The Packers’ inability to punch in either of their first two drives. The second quarter.
We had to leave pretty quickly after the game, heading back to Appleton for homemade chili and a few more hugs from family I don’t see near enough. All too quickly, we rejoined the mass of humanity driving south from Lambeau, heading back to their homes and lives after an afternoon spent celebrating a great team and a good win. Him being him and me being me, my cousin and I settled back on the couch to do a little work and watch a little football, respectively.
The flight on Monday came early. My cousin made sure I took some Sweetango apples with me on the plane (a honeycrisp-zestar hybrid only grown in three Minnesotan orchards). At the airport, a fellow Wisconsin transplant on his way back home to Seattle made sure I remembered to pick up some cheese curds. And on the flight back east, I was joined again by those same four Bills fans, who looked as exhilarated by the trip to Lambeau as I was, game outcome be damned. And then, shortly thereafter, I was back in my apartment, less than 48 hours after I’d left.
Within a few minutes, I’d already begun thinking about when, whether this season or next, I might get back.
But, really, what left the biggest impression during this trip wasn’t the game, or even Lambeau. And, while it was incredible to be among 70,000 people all going through the same emotional journey, that wasn’t what I’ll remember most. Frankly, what will stick with me the longest were all the comments and messages I received before, during, and after the game. As soon as I mentioned that I’d never been to Lambeau, people shared their stories about their first games. I couldn’t believe how many people said, “I’m so excited for you to go to this game.” The outpouring of encouragement, excitement, and general goodwill from Twitter and Cheesehead Nation was completely unexpected and overwhelming. I know I couldn’t reply to everyone who wrote, but I hope they realize how touched I was.
They said it would be life-altering, and yes, it’s true, being at Lambeau changed my expectations of what a football game should be. But with all the helpful tips (about which entrance to use and where the nearest bathrooms were), the shared memories and the good wishes, by the time I got to the stadium, I felt like I already knew the place. What a wonderful gift. What a wonderful weekend.