For just $5 apiece, the fans got plenty of what they came for. Laughter and tall tales. Opportunities for photos and autographs from some of their favorite Packers, past and present. And all for a great cause. To date, the Vince Lombardi Charitable Funds, run by St. Luke's Hospital and Aurora Healthcare, has raised more than $14 million to fight all forms of cancer. It's a lasting tribute to the legendary Packers coach who lost his battle with colon cancer in 1970.
Packers great Bart Starr and his wife, Cherry, have co-chaired this event since its inception. All these years later, Starr marvels at the endurance of the Lombardi name.
"When you recognize what this man did for so many, the impact that he had on so many lives and how all of us had the pleasure of working with him and being coached by him benefited and have grown in our lives, it is nothing short of a thrill to come back each summer," said Starr. "I love coming here from time to time throughout the year and visiting with the people at St. Luke's. It's just been a joy but I think many, many times when we're going through that of what Coach Lombardi would be thinking and saying if he were in our presence. He was a very humble gentleman, very balanced in his life. But he had unique pride in different efforts and ventures. He would be extremely proud of what this has become."
The Lombardi Classic was born in 1971. Gary Knafelc, who played receiver and tight end on two of Lombardi's NFL championship teams, loves telling a story about that very first Classic.
"On the first tee, (Packer guard) Fuzzy Thurston stepped up for his drive," says a grinning Knafelc. "With the crowd anxiously looking on, the public address announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here's Packer great Fuzzy Thurston!' The crowd applauded and then Fuzzy swung and hit the ball straight up in the air. It landed about 3 feet in front of his tee. That's how the Lombardi started."
Turning serious for a moment, Knafelc paid tribute to all of the hard-working St. Luke's volunteers and to the Lombardi legacy.
"It's a way of paying back for all of the things he did for us," said Knafelc. "This is what we can do for him and it's been amazing that we've been here the last 41 years. It's unbelievable. Not only that, you get together with all of the old guys. It's amazing how long his legacy has lasted. If you talk to people, Lombardi's name is still very vibrant, not just because of the Super Bowl trophy but the things he instilled into everyone he was associated with. We older players understand that more than anything else. He not only helped us become great football players – and I hope I can say this - he helped us all become great men."
Besides Starr and Knafelc, the Lombardi-era Packers were represented by Jerry Kramer, Jim Grabowski and Zeke Bratkowski. There were players from other eras, too, including Lynn Dickey, Jan Stenerud, Frank Winters, Santana Dotson, and two members of the current Super Bowl champs, Tim Masthay and Mason Crosby.
"My grandmother has very severe cancer and she's not expected to be around much longer," said Crosby. "She's been fighting it for a few years but this last year's been really tough. It's really cool, the things the Lombardi Charitable Funds group has done to raise money and create awareness for cancer research. I'm very blessed to be a part of this. I think about my grandmother every time I come out here."
Of course, Crosby has more pleasant things on his mind these days, like picking up his Super Bowl ring later this week. He admits it took awhile for Green Bay's victory over the Steelers to really sink in.
"It kind of took me a few weeks," said Crosby. "I kept thinking I had to prepare for another week because we were kind of grinding there at the end of the year. Finally, after a couple of weeks, I sat down with my wife and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This actually happened!' I think (when we get our rings) it will be the final chapter and we'll have something to remember the Super Bowl forever."
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Tom Andrews has covered the Packers since 1998. E-mail him at email@example.com