Commentary

Let's take a short time out to celebrate the existence of that unbelievable burp in professional sports history – also known as the Green Bay Packers.<p>

Too bad there can't be some kind of 83-layer cake or a big bash somewhere, but if you're so inclined hoist a Cold One or Something Else and drink a toast to you and your friends for being followers of this rare football treat.

You guys and gals are about the fourth generation of Green Bay fans but, unfortunately, you don't have an anniversary date – like Thee and Thou getting hitched on June Umptee and surviving 50 years, give or take.

Well, there is an anniversary date but it's been long lost and forgotten. That would be Aug. 11 – the day back in 1919 when Earl Lambeau gathered 30 guys in the old Press-Gazette offices for the purpose of starting a football team. This year the 83rd anniversary of the team is the day after the Pack's preseason opener at Philadelphia.

Green Bay was a little squirt of a town back then, about 28,000, but now it's a big six-figure squirt, 102,313. Green Bay had a big brother, Milwaukee, a friendship that lasted 62 years (1933-94) and gave the Pack the luxury of a two-city fan base.

You know what started all this nostalgia stuff? It was a hot day last March in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., a few miles from Disney World. The NFL was holding its annual spring meeting at the fancy Grand Cypress hotel and:

There were 32 franchises represented and, thought I, 31 of them are owned by multi-millionaires not to mention a few billionaires. And then there was this Odd Ball, the Green Bay Packers, publicly owned.

There's nothing new about the Pack's brushing with these big-city fellers at NFL comfabs, but the significance seemed greater this year – maybe because of 9/11, old age, two steps in the last playoffs, my usual optimism over the coming season, and a gorgeous renovated stadium.

All the head coaches were there and since our mentor, Mike Sherman, is also executive veep and general manager he was able to view the NFL's inner workings along with Packer president Bob Harlan and senior veep John Jones.

This particular day, Mike had left the meeting to answer a call on his cell phone. "I was talking to Ron Wolf and that Atlanta thing is out," Sherman laughed and then stepped aside to chat with me and my bride of 61 years. We talked up a storm about everything but football.

You look around and you wonder what these owners really think of the Packers, who lead the rest of the NFL with 13 championships and a best playoff record of 23-10. They must admire the richness of the Packer tradition, and especially enjoy beating Green Bay on the field.

All of this got me wondering how the Packers ever made it. What was the biggest single factor in making them a success? The answer in my humble opinion is wrapped up in two words: Winning and Corporation.

The Packers first year in the NFL was 1921 and for the next 19 seasons they posted 147 wins, 60 losses and 18 ties and five league championships, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1936 and 1939 – plus they added another in 1944. The NFL had to put up with this rarity, although the New York press was somewhat sassy then, wondering what's Green Bay doing in the league.

Corporation? Green Bay businessmen, led by Andy Turnbull, publisher of the Press-Gazette, incorporated the team in 122 and that document is still in force today. Thus, the Packers became "publicly owned," as they are now.

Detroit might have looked at Green Bay with envy but instead grabbed the Portsmouth, Ohio franchise in 1933.

Naturally, the driving force behind the Pack was Curly Lambeau. This guy was never an expert on the X's and O's but he was an incurable optimist and a super salesman. He keyed up his players all week and especially on Sundays – plus he had a knack of talking college stars into coming to Green Bay.

Lambeau's biggest prize was Don Hutson, who turned out to be football's greatest pass receiver. He fit right in with Lambeau1s penchant for the passing game. Hutson set numerous records, some of which are unbroken today.

The Packers were on the ropes in the late 1940s but a stock drive by those sacred businessmen saved their hide. Despite seemingly years of losing, those business guys decided to tear down their old wooden stadium and erect a steel and cement edifice.

Bert Bell, then NFL commissioner, walked in that stadium the day before the Dedication Game in 1957 and had tears in his eyes as he looked around. Bell had always said "there will always be a Green Bay in the National Football League" and that stadium delighted him.

Two years after that stadium was built, Vincent T. Lombardi arrived on the scene and two things happened: No. 1, the Packers jumped on the championship bandwagon and left opponents in the dust and No. 2, the NFL, with the blessing of the Pack1s New York Giant friends, Jack and Wellington Mara, approved the present revenue-sharing plan.

Today, the Packers are something of a special franchise in the world of pro sports and as a result they have created a huge underground of fans throughout the country.

Like in 1957 when a new stadium was a must to keep up with other teams, the present Packers are renovating Lambeau Field to match their opponents' facilities.

Okay, let's propose another toast!


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