Growing up in Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers' weekly battle on the gridiron was the spotlight and entertainment on Sunday afternoons. My dad and I huddled around the TV, cheering at every high point and groaning at every low with the aroma of my mom's "football dinner," chili and hotdogs, seeping in from the kitchen. For me, like many Wisconsinites, Packer football formed a cultural aspect of my identity that I still hold onto today, despite going to college in Minnesota.
Packer Backers are like the brother or sister many people never had. They will be there through the good and the bad and give their unconditional support through thick and thin. Packer Backers will listen to problems, analyze the situation and offer a solution. They can surprise people and show up pretty much everywhere regardless if people need them or not. And most of all, Packer Backers will be there just when people feel like nobody else is.
Growing up in Milwaukee, a city rooted in industry and blue-collar labor, I saw how hard people worked to make a living. Milwaukee citizens may see a connection between their physically demanding jobs and the rigorous battles football players endure each week. The Packers play in a historic outdoor stadium that forces players to fight through frigid temperatures, braving the same Midwestern climate many citizens deal with every day at their jobs. I believe the people relate to the Packers more than a team that plays indoors because they understand how tough it is working outdoors, let alone playing a professional sport.
Maybe not, but people in Milwaukee and all over Wisconsin accept the Packers as a prime example of Wisconsin culture and who we are. We are blue-collar folk who pride themselves on working hard to succeed and accomplish our goals. We withstand many physical and mental hardships like the Packers do each week but are expected to fight through them and perform at a high level. This is why the Packers are as much a part of our culture as Miller Breweries, Harley-Davidson and cheese. And this culture is most apparent in the Packer games themselves.
At a Packers-Bears game last year it struck me how closely Green Bay resembled a college campus on Sunday afternoons. People deck out their restaurants, shops and houses alike, in green and gold. Tailgaters cram local grocery store parking lots eating bratwursts, claiming they were the first people there at six in the morning. The smell of charcoal grills and the sounds of polka blaring from car stereos engulf the parking lot, not to mention the live bands playing the "Bears still suck jingles" in the beer tents.
Fans are completely immersed in the culture and they begin to see how big of a role the Packers play in many Wisconsin natives' lives. The franchise has a rich history of 12 championships and a host of NFL legends like Lombardi, Nitschke and Starr. The waiting list for season tickets is an astounding 61,000 names long. It's the only franchise in American professional sports that is publicly owned, and that's how the people see the team: one of their own.
The games themselves bring out a certain camaraderie among the beer-drinking, camouflage-wearing fans. You may not know the half-naked guy with his body painted and a chunk of cheese on his head, but over the course of the next three hours, he becomes your new best friend. You may not know one thing about the person, but the fact that he's at Lambeau Field, braving the cold weather and supporting your favorite team confirms his loyalty.
The Packers not only have a strong fan base in Wisconsin and the Midwest, but these fanatics migrate to Green Bay from many different states. And this isn't only for games at historic Lambeau Field, but for practices during training camp as well. Last summer, I went to a practice and sat between a couple from Pennsylvania, and a guy from Michigan. I was surprised, seeing as those two cities are true football markets with their own crazed fan support. We shared stories of being Packer fans living in different states, proud to show our true alliances to the green and gold.
Living in Minnesota, rooting for Packers
Milwaukee was my home until three years ago when I had to choose what university to attend. Two Wisconsin schools and the University of Minnesota sent me acceptance letters, and I chose the latter. All I knew as a kid my family, my city, and the people I met were gone. And so were my beloved Packers.
Football formed a part of my cultural identity, so my alliance with my hometown Packers would surely be tested. Well, at least this is what I thought when I first came to Minnesota. Seeing as the Vikings and Packers are divisional rivals, I thought instead of family and friends huddled around the TV on Sundays, I would be alone in my dorm room, scared to let out a Packer-supporting peep. Sometimes I didn't even have the opportunity to watch the game on TV.
The worst thing about Sundays in Minnesota is when the Packers and Vikings play at the same time because the Vikings will be on local TV and Packers fans are left to track the play-by-play action on the Internet. I found the Internet to be a couple minutes behind the live action so I settled for my dad calling me every time the Packers scored a touched or stuffed the opposition in the red zone.
My frustration set in after the first couple of weeks at school. In one of my dad's game-update conversations, he mentioned that I should go to local bars to see if they have satellite TVs that would have more than one game on at a time. I didn't consider it until I couldn't stand the ring of my phone or the headache I got after looking at the computer monitor for three hours.
So I ventured to Stub and Herb's, a popular bar and hangout for students. I remember seeing paintings on the side of the building of all the mascots of the different Minnesota teams and thinking, "why would they have the Packer game on here?" But as I approached the building I saw something peculiar through the decorated glass windows. I saw an army of green and . . . wait . . . green and gold. I expected to see purple and gold, the Vikings' colors, of course. Thinking the haze of smoke in the bar may have distorted my vision, I decided to investigate the situation.
I sheepishly stepped into the bar and a bouncer with a Packer shirt greeted me and said, "Hey, you can come in as long as you keep wearing that," in reference to my Mike McKenzie Packer jersey. I cracked a half smile thinking he was being sarcastic, but as I moved past him an announcement rang over the bar's loudspeaker.
"Hey everyone," said the bartender, who sports another Packer jersey. "The Vikings suck and if you're not a Packer fan, then get out of the bar!"
The uproar of cheers made me feel like I was right back in Cheesehead Nation. I walked through the bar looking for an open seat, which was a task in itself. I found one next to a group of thirtysomethings who immediately recapped the action so far. This reminded me of my trip to Lambeau sitting next to people I didn't know who became my new best friends.
It was great because I could watch my favorite team with a group of people with green and gold in their blood. However, this trip to the bar sparked many questions. Why would a Wisconsin team, which is the rival to the Minnesota team, have such a huge fan base in the enemy's state? And why would a local, Minneapolis bar play the Packers game with loudspeakers welcoming only Packer fans.
I was curious to see if this was a continuing trend or if Stub and Herb's was the only campus bar openly supporting the green and gold. Next Sunday it was Big Ten's Restaurant with a door way cluttered with cheeseheads unsuccessfully finding an open booth. Then it was Bobby Z's, another campus bar with a sign in the entrance declaring itself a Packer Bar. All these places helping those Packers fans deprived of their weekly sports excitement. Maybe there are so many Packer fans because the Minnesota-Wisconsin border is so close to the Twin Cities, but I can't imagine a Vikings bar in La Crosse, Wis., which is about 20 minutes from Winona, Minn.
I realize these bars are most likely the exception rather than the rule. The campus may be a disproportionate representation of how many Packer fans really are in Minnesota. There is a great number of Vikings fans on campus and the surrounding cities that pack the Metrodome each home game but it seems like you don't hear about the "purple pride" unless the Vikings win that week. I've talked, argued and debated with many Vikings fans and they have told me they don't really pay attention to the Vikings unless they win.
I understand Packers fans are a little crazier and more obsessive than the average football fans, but I can't fathom disregarding your team regardless of how it plays.
Of course, now that the Vikings came out of the gate with six strait victories, all the fans who each year, just hope for another good draft position are dusting off their Randy Moss jerseys and trying to renew the "purple pride" in Minnesota. Oh, and those fans love the fact that the Packers are in second place in the division and are happy to tell me about it.
"I don't think Brett Favre has it anymore," my friend Kyle bellowed after the Packer-Viking game. "The Vikings are the team to beat now, not the Packers," he continued without realizing that one game doesn't make a season.
Well, that one game did make a season for Vikings fans like him. It gave them some hope, that maybe, just maybe, the Vikings will be better than the Packers. He was of course, humbled after the Packers ran all over the Metrodome carpet, tightening the noose on the division lead.
As for me, I don't need a reason to cheer for the Packers. It's a part of my identity that I am not willing to let go of, no matter what their record is or where I'm living. It's more than a football game; it's a symbol of Wisconsin and the character of the people that live there. So even though my dad can't be here to cheer around my apartment TV, and my mom isn't around to make her "football dinner," I feel like there is another family I can rely on to watch the games, the Packer-Backer family.
So the next time you're thinking about what's most important to Wisconsinites – beer, cheese or the Packers – just take a quick walk to a neighborhood bar. Chances are a Packer fan will be there to tell you.
Editor's note: Chris Matt is a student at the University of Minnesota.