Sidelines: One big, happy family

If this was your first-ever trip to Lambeau Field, you'd probably swear there was a real, honest-to-goodness NFL game on the schedule. Certainly, everything about Green Bay had that regular season NFL game day feel about it.

People arriving from all over the country the night before, ready to whoop it up. Oneida Street closed for many blocks in the stadium area. Families – moms, dads and a sea of little shavers clad in Packer green and gold (and, of course, in hot pink, the latest fashion trend) – milling around 10 hours before kickoff. Every available parking space - within the Lambeau Field parking lot and in the lots of all the neighboring hotels, restaurants and other businesses, plus the front and back yards of private residences – filled.

And of course, there were the sights and sounds of Lambeau Field tailgating. The familiar smoke from all the grills wafting slowly upwards in the summer sun, filled with the scent of bratwurst, burgers, chicken, steaks – anything you can possible cook on a grill. You name it and people were eating it. Music blaring from cars and portable stereo systems. It's an outdoor party as good as any in the country.

Na'il Diggs has taken part in five of these Family Night scrimmages and he continues to be amazed at what he sees. "They're always very exciting and they get better and better every year," said Diggs in the Packer locker room afterward. "The fans are great, the support is great and I think a lot of guys who have never been to Lambeau before are absolutely amazed as far as the turnout goes. It's amazing to see the number of people who stay for the entire scrimmage and support the Packers."

For the record, there were 62,492 enthusiastic fans who packed Lambeau on this night. The popular event drew 60,217 last year, 48,898 in 2001, 50,240 in 2000 and 46,420 in 1999. Family Night was not held in 2002 or 2003 when the stadium was being renovated.

Prior to kickoff, fans were treated to a performance by the Oneida Nation dancers. The Packers distributed glow-in-the-dark rally towels, helping everyone get into the spirit of the occasion. Austin DeGroot, an 8 year-old young man battling Leukemia, delivered a stirring performance of the national anthem. A bit later, a jetliner coming in for a landing at Austin Straubel Airport approached Lambeau Field at an unusually low altitude and then tipped its wings to give the passengers a glimpse of the festivities below. The public address announcer asked, "Are you ready for some football?" and these fans were clearly ready. Heck, they were doing The Wave before the opening kickoff.

Rookie quarterback Aaron Rodgers could hardly believe his eyes when he trotted onto the field for the first time. "It was phenomenal," Rodgers began. "This is what I was missing in college, this atmosphere and the love of football that you people have around here is unbelievable. When I ran out onto that field my juices were going. I had the butterflies and it was a great feeling. I wish there had been live tackling because I needed to get that first hit under my belt."

Even veteran fullback William Henderson is still amazed by the fan energy at this practice event. "I'm still blown away!" said Henderson "I mean, 60 thousand people showing up for a scrimmage practice. It's pretty unbelievable in so many ways. Again, it just reaffirms the love of the Packer fans for what we do on this hallowed ground of Lambeau Field."

For the first time in 14 years, the Packers played a different team with the Buffalo Bills providing the opposition. "That was definitely a nice change of pace," said Henderson. "It gave us a chance to see what other types of schemes people might try to throw at us and let our guys know that it's going to be competitive wherever we go and whoever we play against. We're going to see (the Bills) in a couple of weeks and we'll have the chance to truly compete with them again. The Bills came here hungry tonight, as fun as this scrimmage is supposed to be. It wasn't supposed to be super competitive but they came ready to play."

And the fans came ready to cheer their favorites on even if there wasn't an actual game going on.


Tom Andrews

Editor's Note: Tom Andrews began covering the Packers in 1974 as a reporter for Milwaukee radio stations WZUU and WOKY. He has been a contributing writer to Packer Report since 1999 and his articles have also appeared in the Green Bay Packers Yearbook, Packer Profiles, Packer Tracker and Sports Collectors Digest among other publications. Andrews is also president of Andrews Media Ventures, a Milwaukee area media and communications consultancy. Email him at toma@andrewsmediaventures.com.


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