Our traveling party, seven strong, poses in the shadows of Lambeau.
Thursday, August 16. An ordinary weekday by most standards. Yes, a light thunderstorm passes over the Madison area, providing further relief for a drought-stricken summer. What makes the day remarkable is the presence of a Green Bay Packers game.
A few weeks ago, on a whim, I purchased seven tickets to watch the exhibition contest between our Packers and the Cleveland Browns. The tickets are good, cheap and the game falls on the birthday of my friend Zakk, who has declared himself an Ohio native. I'm convinced that Zakk's first trip to legendary Lambeau will be just as amazing as mine was, igniting a fiery passion for the Packers and the sport of football.
We meet at my house at 10 a.m. and frantically load coolers. All seven of us, clad in Packers jerseys, cram into the van. I find myself behind the wheel of a minivan for the first time in my life and find a respect for the men and women who operate these behemoths on the road each day. There is nothing "mini" about a minvan. As we exit Highway 151 and head for Rosendale we're greeted by a "Walker for Governor" sign with the word "Governor" crossed out in red paint and replaced with "President."
"Man, we aren't by Madison anymore, huh?" one of my friends remarks.
Rosendale is infamous to Green Bay-bound football fans as a hotbed for police activity. The courthouse even has "I was pulled over in Rosendale" t-shirts for sale. After navigating through the dragnet of authorities anxious to sanction passersby, we hit Highway 41, the final leg of the trip to Lambeau.
Exiting onto Lombardi Avenue, "Green and Yellow" (the Lil Wayne remix of Whiz Kalifa's Pittsburg anthem "Black and Yellow" by in honor of the Packers making it to Superbowl XLV) flows from the speakers and our arrival in Green Bay becomes official. We buy a parking spot on the corner of Lombardi and Ridge Street -- $25 seems steep, but there's a primo view of Lambeau, grass to play football on and plenty of nearby fan activity.
I spot a Chevy Avalanche with two Browns fans and in the spirit of sportsmanship and friendly curiosity, I approach. I find out they have made only a short trip from Oshkosh but the driver is "a Browns fan before conception" and sports a #17 Browns jersey. When I ask if it's a Braylon Edwards jersey (formerly of the Browns, Jets and 49ers, now with the Seahawks) he responds "It used to be!" and launches into a tangent on Cleveland's ability to draft and prematurely lose talented players.
I leave the conversation with a greater appreciation of what it means to be a Packers fan and just how spoiled we are thanks to the football brain trust operating in Green Bay. The Browns are just as beloved as the Packers, but boast no Super Bowl wins and have endured more hardships than arguably all of the other 31 teams in the National Football League combined. Despite it all, their fans remain loyal and optimistic that former Packers coach Mike Holmgren, now general manager in Cleveland, can right the ship.
Walking through the stadium's Verizon gate is less than spectacular; I recommend heading straight through the atrium instead for a truly awe-inspiring entrance to Lambeau. We spot a sign-making station and everyone gets to work.
I want the Lambeau rookies to feel the full weight and history of the building, so we make our way to the Packers Hall of Fame, pay the $10 for adult tickets and begin a trip through Packers' history. The hall's museum-like atmosphere, not normally one with much appeal for a group of twenty-somethings, serves as a good change of pace from our afternoon of consumption. We look at old uniforms, pose on the training camp bikes, line up with the statues of old offensive and defensive linemen, perform Lambeau leaps and take turns sitting at the legendary Vince Lombardi's desk.
After the Hall of Fame, we peruse the pro shop and I pick out a Randall Cobb jersey, my obsession with the Packers spurring me to insist that I own a new Nike jersey to wear through the upcoming season. Curly's, a pub located in the Lambeau atrium named after Curly Lambeau, greets us with an enthusiastic wait staff, stiff but expensive drinks and a rowdy clientele eager to join in "Go Pack Go!" chants started by whomever chooses to do so.
An hour passes in what seems like an instant and we make our way to our seats just in time for kickoff. The Browns win the toss and receive. The normally electrifying Josh Cribbs turns in a meager return and the Browns offense, led by controversial first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden (at 28 years old it showed an incredible amount of confidence on the part of the Browns to take him in the first round) takes the field.
The very first play is a Montario Hardesty fumble which the Pack recovers, setting up Aaron Rodgers and company with a short field. Rodgers fires a pass at Jordy Nelson and the ball bounces off his hands in the end zone. The offense barely huddles before and attempting the exact same play, but this time Nelson leaps above the defender and makes a gorgeous touchdown catch. The atmosphere is electric as 68,000 fans shout with joy. That the touchdown comes in preseason action against one of the league's perennial losers doesn't matter. Lambeau is rocking like it's hosting a playoff game.
Unfortunately for the Packers, the next three hours seem like a quarterback clinic put on by Weeden and third-year backup Colt McCoy, who has been the subject of numerous trade rumors that include the Packers. The play of Green Bay's own number-two QB, Graham Harrell (12-for-24, two interceptions, no touchdowns), suggests that McCoy would be a more comforting option.
As we depart the game, a 35-10 loss, Zakk proclaims that the Browns will win the Super Bowl and Brad, in a fit of absolute and sudden rage, slams his cheesehead to the ground. We make our way to the van and are fortunate enough to escape the usual traffic jam exiting Green Bay, a phenomenon after Packer games that can only be compared to rush-hour traffic on the 405 in Los Angeles.
In the end, the Packers lost a meaningless pre-season game which greatly took away from the mystique of the Lambeau experience, but when a franchise inspires the love and passion of millions of fans all over the world, you can't help but appreciate being even a tiny part of greatness.