Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Making the Pilgrimage to Lambeau Field

Note: Rather than writing yet another installment of how the Saints played awful "this week", I've decided to write about the Lambeau Field experience instead. There are other places on the internet to find a detailed obituary of the Black and Gold's latest act of self-immolation.
Due to the boom in new stadium construction fueled by the increasing hunger for luxury boxes and further induced by a Super Bowl award, the NFL lacks venues that possess an aura that comes close to that of a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.
With one exception.
Lambeau Field is the only stadium that approaches those hallowed temples of sport in history and relevance  to its particular game.
Over the years, the stadium has been expanded, upgraded and renovated (rather than torn down and built anew) and it's currently undergoing another addition with the installation of new seating in what I believe to be Lambeau's south end zone- work being financed from the latest sale of Green Bay Packer stock.
And though parts of the stadium are very modern, the bowl is different from any other in the NFL. 
Lambeau Field, to me, is a cross brtween a midlevel college stadium and Las Ventas, Madrid’s bullfighting ring.
Allow me to explain as I know this is a tough description to fully grasp.
Like the domain of an Iberian matador, Lambeau is old and historic and like the referenced bull fighting ring, there are few chairs as most of the seats are in fact numbers stamped on a bleacher, but as in both venues, a seat cushion can be rented.
And like Las Ventas, where you sit can be important in terms of temperature.  In a bull fighting ring, there’s Sol and Sombra tickets (sun and shade).  In Green Bay, the visitor’s sideline is on the sunny side while the home sideline is in Lambeau’s shade.  
The big difference between the two is that in Madrid the animal carcasses are in the middle of the stadium while in Green Bay they are all over the parking lots cooking on countless charcoal pits.
LSU fans take pregame tailgating to a high level of luxury and extravagance, but tailgating at Lambeau Field is done on a widespread scale as if a grill is attached to every vehicle bumper.
And though Lambeau doesn't have the luxury coaches that populate the south side of Tiger Stadium on any given game day, Green Bay has to have the largest collection of retrofitted ambulances and school buses anywhere.  
Like most college stadiums, Lambeau Field is a big bowl and adding to the collegiate feel of the environment there are male and female cheerleaders working the crowd on the sidelines. And in Green Bay the cheerleaders are dressed like cheerleaders and not strippers, with all due respect to the Washington Redskins’ First Ladies of Football.
Also worth noting was the post-game entertainment, something you see in AAA baseball stadiums and not the NFL.  
After the last players trotted from the field, the University of Wisconsin band, which performed the national anthem at the start of the game and played the halftime show, put on an encore show for almost 45 minutes, playing state and college songs and a few polka tunes (Saints fans have Get Crunk, Packers fans do the Chicken Dance and sing and dance to Roll Out the Barrels).
But what makes Green Bay the most unique is the fanbase.
Considering its miniscule media market and its location two hours north of Milwaukee, Green Bay should not have a professional sports franchise above the minor league level yet they have one of the most important teams in the league with a national fan base that penetrates every nook in the country.  
There's even a Packers bar in Las Vegas.
And though New Orleans Saints fans are some of the most passionate in sports, the Green Bay fanbase is on another level. When their franchise was in financial trouble, people bought stock (in actuality 
contributed as the highly restrictive stock does not yield any dividends to owners, has limits on its transfer and has a real worth far less than its cost).
It took then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to keep the Saints in New Orleans and support for improvements to the Superdome have come from taxes. Also at one point Louisiana taxpayers were directly subsidizing the team.
There is a 20,000-person waiting list to buy Saints season tickets.  The Packers' line stretches to 60,000.
To say that the Packers are the heart and soul of the community would be an understatement.  
The pews at Saint Agnes a few hours before kickoff looked more like a pep rally than parishioners gathered for Mass. Packer jerseys were everywhere and even the dressed up ushers were wearing Green Bay ties.
Green and gold candle glasses surrounded an image of the Blessed Virgin.
Packer fans have a reputation of being the nicest folks anywhere, though I can attest that isn’t universal. 
It is true that some of the nicest people you will meet at an NFL game are Packer fans, though I found more than a few hostile ones around.
For example, I had never been taunted by someone in a wheelchair until this past weekend, and I had that novel experience twice in the less than friendly confines of Lambeau.
I found plenty of Packer fans to be snide, with more than a few going out of their way to approach me to ask “for real?”, either questioning my choice in NFL teams or being stunned that someone had the audacity to wear another franchise’s colors on their sacred ground.  And the way the Saints have been playing lately, possibly both.
Also at the start of the game their announcer took a rather nasty dig at the visiting team when he encouraged over their public announcement system for the home team and fans to “send the Saints home packing with bags on their heads”.
I couldn’t imagine a class act like Jerry Romig saying anything remotely like that over the Superdome’s speakers.
They don’t always keep it classy in Green Bay.
While walking out I encountered a couple that do.  
An elderly husband and wife walked up to me to ask what I thought of their stadium.  I really didn’t know how to answer because in terms of amenities, Lambeau Field is perhaps only a few rungs above the aptly named “Ralph” in Buffalo and the “Black Hole” in Oakland.
I expressed my admiration for their commitment to preserving tradition, celebration of history (outside the main entrance are gigantic statues of Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi) and refusal to conform or surrender their team.  
Grandma, with a green and gold bow in her hair, wasn’t buying what I was selling as a compliment and shuffled off arms linked with her husband’s.
In my hesitation I could see their pride.  The Packers are not just the big thing in Green Bay.  
It’s their everything.
Tips for Hitting a Green Bay Packers Game
Forget flying into their airport.  Rumor had it that airfare direct to the city were in the high four-figures.  Milwaukee, which has Air Tran and Southwest flights, is only a two hour drive away.  If you’re determined to fly in as close to Green Bay as possible, consider Appleton, which is an hour south.  Hotels in the area tend to book up well in advance of the game (the Packers play in Green Bay but are the pride of Wisconsin and have a national following).
Milwaukee is home to one of the best brewery tours in America (Miller) and has outstanding German restaurants.  Chicago is another option if flying into Milwaukee is too expensive.
Because of the high demand of tickets, prices are high making a ticket to Lambeau one of the pricier regular season game tickets in the league.  Stub Hub and Ticketmaster TicketExchange are two advance sale outlets though you could roll the dice and buy tickets from dealers outside of the stadium.  Yet another quirk in Green Bay, there are actually licensed sellers in a designated zone that wear badges with license numbers.  Online sellers were asking $180 with fees while the licensed onsite sellers were asking around $150.  
Finally there is the matter of parking at Lambeau Field.  You don’t.  Since lot space is in high demand, short of buying a pass from someone on line, you will have to deal with bars, businesses and area homeowners who rent space in their lots, driveways and frontlawns.  A property owner in the vicinity of the proposed Tulane Stadium should take their medication before looking at the parking scene around Lambeau Field on 
gameday.  Bear in mind that Lambeau Field sits adjacent to people’s backyards.  Prices for parking can range as much as $35 for a premium spot at a nearby bar to $10 five blocks away at the Jimmy John’s.  Also, the parking lots at Lambeau Field do not open until four hours before kickoff so there is a major traffic jam on the roads leading to the stadium where people start tailgaiting on the open roadway.  
Whether you’re a cheesehead, a Who Dat or a Dirty Bird, Lambeau Field is a special place to watch an NFL game and with the way the NFL schedule rotation runs, the Saints are not guaranteed another game there until 2018, though it could be earlier pending on how the Saints finish in relation to the Packers.

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