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Some Thoughts on the Home Team

04 Feb

All this week the dome of the Capitol building downtown has been lit up in Packers green and gold.  (See below.)  It’s pretty cool actually.  Inside that rotunda dome earlier this week the new governor interrupted his own State of the State speech before the entire Legislature to speak to someone in Packers management via live feed from Dallas to wish the team good luck.  It’s what would be done if an astronaut from a go-nowhere podunk of the state were orbiting the planet in outer space; what would be done if a phenom teenage gymnast from the same town were overseas on the U.S. team for the Olympics.  While this was for professional sports, the feeling of hometown pride for the little guy was just the same.  The adulation for the Packers this state has is infectious — it’s closer to a religious feeling in all actuality.  (They don’t still call him St. Vince for nothing!  Neither is the actual trek to the stadium or the hall of fame next to it accidental that for many it’s a rite of passage like going to Mecca.)  It’s one of the reasons I actually care about watching and what happens in the game for the first time in my adult life since I was a kid.

Nearly all team/tribal identity for fans comes from inheritance — either from one’s parents or peers or mere geography.  (For some fanatics, it’s genetic.)  Barring the aberrations of out-of-state transplants (mainly Chicagoland and Minnesota), everyone in Wisconsin all but worships the Packers.  You could be on the icy banks of Lake Superior or the southwestern-most nook of the state on the Mississippi River, or even the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Green Bay and, frankly, considerably closer to another metro area’s sports franchise, but somehow none of that matters.  Anywhere and everywhere in Wisconsin is Packers country.  Wherever you are, they are the home team.  It’s a feeling and fidelity that easily slips past state lines, for as real and tangible as the Packers are — and lord knows they are: bedrock solid, no BS, tough as nails — they’re an idea, too, an idea of something more basic and indeed more admirable about professional sports than you’re likely to find anywhere else.

It’s this idea that anyone can appreciate without having to live here.  You don’t even have to like football.  I personally don’t.  Most of the folks with whom I’ll be watching the game on Sunday don’t either.  It’s not that we’re fair weather fans or fickle bandwagon posers.  We won’t be decked out in green and gold or wearing team jerseys.  I myself wouldn’t last one minute in a lightning round of Packers trivia pursuit — for that matter, I can’t even name five players (at least current).  But we’ll be rooting for the home team because that too is where the heart is.  Because the Packers represent something better and beyond salaried gladiators on the gridiron and millionaire shareholders snug and smug in their booths; they’re the proletariat Union member in a world of robber barons and capitalists.  They represent something that due to the region’s relative smallness is bigger than a major city’s cosmopolitan splurge and sprawl; here municipality matters more than metropolis.  And they represent something that harkens back to the roots and true grit of the game before domes or ESPN, when side burns were the norm and titans like Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath – and indeed, Vince Lombardi – roamed like dinosaurs of a bygone era; the Packers are the sports version of hipsters in flannel and ‘70s fare, right down to the can of PBR and the trucker hat.  (It’s just that in Green Bay the look is real and not ironic.)

Borne of a dynasty made up in part by Super Bowl rings — certainly the mythos and nostalgia of the NFL’s origins and a man named Lombardi, the venerable coach’s coach, after whom the Super Bowl trophy itself is named — but mainly the undying love, bordering on fervor, of its fans, with whom the franchise remains publicly owned and not for profit — the only such entity of any professional sport team anywhere in the country — the Green Bay Packers are an anomaly the stuff of legend, fairy tale of the frozen tundra.  The affinity for the team is closer akin to a college team in this sense.  And this is why you don’t have to be from Green Bay or Wisconsin or the Upper Midwest to get it; the Packers can be anyone’s alma mater.

It’s one of the many hallmarks of Packers lore, and it all lures you in — even me!  ‘Cause they’re the scrappy kid who puts together his soapbox racer with his Dad in a garage and, despite being the odds-against underdog, beats out the rest with more money and tech support – the indie film against the Hollywood blockbuster.  They’re the Disney movie of haggard ragamuffins out of whom you’d never in a million years think a professional team could be made, much less a successful one.  The thing about the Packers is that they’re always pretty good but never a foregone conclusion as predictable as say the Yankees in the playoffs.  So when they do make it to the postseason, let alone the Conference championship, and to say nothing of the actual Super Bowl itself, it’s a big deal and not an actuarial calculation as sure of a bet as fallen leaves in autumn.  How they consistently do this is pretty mesmerizing.  They shouldn’t be good — in all honesty they should be pitiful, a sore spot of embarrassment, the football equivalent of the Chicago Cubs or the Mighty Ducks.  But they’re not cute; they kick ass.  Kinda shockingly.  You gotta want them to win ’cause it’s just the right thing to do!

Consider this: there’s more people in Lowell, MA than in Green Bay; but unlike Lowell, there are no real suburbs or metropolitan areas nearby.  Imagine if Toledo, Ohio, another Great Lakes city, had a sports team comparable to the Packers.  Or Duluth, Minnesota.  Except that Toledo’s three times bigger than Green Bay, and Duluth at least has the port enterprise and is linked with the Saint Lawrence Seaway.  Nationally or internationally, Green Bay, Wisconsin is known for nothing – except football.

The little city of Green Bay can be described as where time and care forgot.  Like most of the Midwest, it’s flat, unflattering, dated a couple decades back, with no tall buildings or even pretense to grandeur.  In fact, it’s pretty much unpretentious in every sense.  As the saying goes, It is what it is — and what it is, isn’t much.  Actually, it resembles more a suburb than a city.  It’s not a 9 to 5 job; it wakes up much earlier than that, and is in bed by ten the latest.  It’s a Catholic town, where Sundays find the streets deserted in intervals: in church or the supermarket or at a tavern during the game.  (It’s not for nothing that churches are known for scheduling services on Sunday around, not during, game time.)  It’s a tater tot casserole for dinner then going bowling kind of place.  There’s nothing fancy about it, nor should there be.  No one has the time or interest to put on airs; it’s too cold for one, and you can’t look cool in parkas and flap caps shoveling snow.  (Sure, the so-called Cape Cod of the Midwest, Door County, is just round the corner, but it’s all owned by Illinoisans, much to the annoyance of the locals.)  Not unlike the uniforms and the logo, little has changed.  It’s like our sense of home in that regard: remembered a certain way in sepia tones, we want it preserved ever thus, immutable, moored for time immemorial.  And by and by it still is.

In a world surrounded by super-this and excess-that, glamor and glitz, mega-corporation-conglomerate-merger Wall St US Cellular Citibank Blah-Blah-Blah, there’s still a place as blue collar as it gets, in a gritty industrial city of 100,000 — not on the coasts, not in a sunny retirement state, but a backwater burg tucked up way away in the Upper Midwest of Lake Michigan — where the colors are green and gold, the field’s still called Lambeau, and the name of the team calls to mind third-shift lunchbox joes in white shirts with rolled up sleeves in the meat packing plant.  No focus group in a million years would’ve approved of the Packers’ name or team colors.  While it may come straight out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, there are no animal beasts with fang-teeth, claws, or paws drawn up slick and formidable by whiz kid cartoonists, and no sleek colors dreamed up by interior designers or gestalt psychologists.  It’s plain Jane yellow and green — clashing colors — the colors of mustard and relish.  For Green Bay’s a burger and beer town — unless it’s Friday and time for fried fish.

I may have to be reminded what the “Lambeau Leap” is, and however irreverent this will undoubtedly sound to some, the theme song of “Go Pack Go” is just terrible and befits a spleen-reaching cringe.  Really, my staggering ignorance not just of football in general but the Packers specifically, would cause a dyed in the wool fan to cry or shake his or her head with the kind of dismay and shame otherwise reserved for perversion or heresy.  Regardless, my heart’s no less in it – thanks not to some parochial chauvinism because they’re the home team; but because they’re a team that actually consecrates the notion and feeling for home.

You just gotta want them to win!

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