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How times have changed in Titletown

"Let it never be forgot That once upon this spot For one brief and shining moment Was a place called Camelot."<p>

There is an erie quiet pervading America's Dairyland these days. From the dense forests which blanket Wisconsin's northern tier, past the seemingly countless farmhouses dotting the rolling, green landscape, the hushed calm fills every nook and cranny like a thick early morning fog.

But that's the preferred way of life for the people of the state one year shy of its sesquicentennial. It's a simple one, really, and a quality one at that. For many, the only collar worn is blue, and you'll find the people rolling out of bed before the rooster even thinks about crowing, heading to a factory job or trotting out to the milkhouse ready to earn an honest day's pay. And the funny thing about it is more often than not, each will be wearing a smile on his or her face.

It may not be a lifestyle full of glamour or fortune, but Wisconsinites embrace it with open arms and almost always fall asleep looking forward to the following day's routine once more.

However, the tranquility doesn't last forever. In fact, the current peacefulness just came into being a mere five months ago. The silence is replaced by excitement, and electricity, and enthusiasm. The entire state is a buzz and the heart pumping the jubilation into its veins is a modern day football Utopia: the city of Green Bay.

At first glance, Green Bay resembles many other smaller Midwestern communities: quiet streets, clean neighborhoods, well-kept schools, and beautiful churches. But it isn't long before the town's most prized possession – it's Camelot – slowly lurks above the trees, stealing the landscape, dominating the modest skyline. The shrine is called Lambeau Field and the knights of the Round Table are Mike Holmgren, Ron Wolf, and Bob Harlan (each has an equal share in team decisions), while the magician dazzling the natives with tricks that haven't been seen in these parts for nearly 30 years is Brett Favre. Interestingly, there is no one person ruling the kingdom – a certain and noticeable departure in this age of owner-first, everyone else-second professionally run organizations.

All, among many others, comprise the Green Bay Packers, last season's Super Bowl champions and a source of civic pride not only in Green Bay, but in the state as well.

However, not all used to be fine and dandy in the place called Titetown, U.S.A.. Sure, last season's title was the 12th for the Packers, the most by one team in NFL history. But blended in with the championships and the glory have been losing seasons and despair. Perhaps the darkest hour of this storied franchise occurred ten years ago when Sports Illustrated published a damaging piece on the Packers and Green Bay – a story that virtually suggested the organization pack up the tent and get out of the campground.

The piece, entitled "Troubled Times in Titletown," was written by six-time sportswriter of the year recipient Frank Deford and questioned the city's ability to maintain a professional franchise in the modern era of sports and wondered if the city and the team would ever be able to rekindle its once glorious marriage.

"I certainly remember the article," said Harlan, the Packers' President and Chief Executive Officer since 1989. "I think both the organization and the people in the area following the team didn't think the story was fair."

At the time the article was released (May 25, 1987), you couldn't blame Deford questioning the direction of the team. After all, the Packers were coming off their worst season (4-12) in 28 years, and the only seasons Green Bay tasted the postseason since the departure of Vince Lombardi following the 1967 season when the Pack won Super Bowl II were in the strike-shortened 1982 season and ten years prior in 1972.

And it didn't help Green Bay's image any when two of its players at the time were engaged in a pair of highly publicized sexual assault cases.

"Unquestionably, it was a difficult situation for the Green Bay Packers back then," said Harlan, who was the team's corporate assistant to the president then. "There were, of course, the incidents. It was an extremely low time. I'm not denying it for a minute."

The assault incidents involved defensive back Mossy Cade and wide receiver James Lofton--the latter sending hurtful shock waves throughout Packerland.

Cade was convicted in May of 1987 on two counts of second-degree sexual assault. Apparently, Cade invited a woman, an aunt by marriage, to stay at his Green Bay home a couple days prior to a Packer game. The woman claimed to have been assaulted and Cade ended up spending 15 months out of a two-year sentence in jail.

Lofton, on the other hand, was acquitted of the charges in May of that same year, but by the time he was, he had been stripped of his green and gold uniform he had worn for nine seasons. Instead, Lofton, who had been traded to the Los Angeles Raiders a month ago, would be wearing silver and black. Lofton had been accused of assaulting a woman in a stairwell of a local downtown nightclub in December of 1986. Because of the charges, then head coach Forrest Gregg suspended Lofton for the final game of the ‘86 season, largely because the wide receiver was considered a team leader who had been known to give back to the community.

Strangely, just two years earlier, Lofton and former running back Eddie Lee Ivery were accused of sexually assaulting a Milwaukee dancer, but the charges were later dropped.

But while questioning the lawful conduct of players in trouble is certainly justified, Deford's accusation that African-American athletes weren't and couldn't be happy in Green Bay was the type of negativity Harlan said was uncalled for.

Deford wrote that some of the African-American players felt uncomfortable in such a small town and professed to getting stared at weirdly by the locals when out socially.

"At the time, I don't think anyone knew the article would portray Green Bay in such a negative light," he said. "It was like that ESPN special that aired a while back, just unfair."

The ESPN special Harlan is referring to was a one-hour documentary called "Outside The Lines: Inside Titletown, U.S.A." which aired last December and painted a backwards picture of racism when it came to the mostly white Green Bay population and the African-American athlete.

If anything, Green Bay is the least racially-laden town in professional sports – at least according to former defensive end Sean Jones who retired after last season. Jones has said publicly that he loves the people of Green Bay and claims the town has the lowest amount of racism of any city he has played for (Jones also suited up for the Los Angeles Raiders and Houston Oilers).

And that seems to answer Deford's main question throughout the piece which asked: "Can the Green Bay Packers and Green Bay, Wis., ever again be on the same team?" The answer is a resounding "yes."

One need look no further than the ceremonial Lambeau Leap following a Packer touchdown at home. Any time a Packer hits paydirt, he leaps into the adoring arms of peopled donning foam cheeseheads, blaze orange hunting attire, and beer bellies. In other cities and stadiums across America, the player could very well get mugged, but in Green Bay it's a celebration. Even Holmgren, Green Bay's long-limbed head coach, likes the tradition just as long as "the fans throw him back."

Of course, winning helps, too. But contrary to what Lombardi once said, it isn't the only thing. Green Bay could handle the losing as long as it was done with dignity and not with some of its players in the courtroom. Quality players make up a quality team, both on and off the field.

"Good character is vitally important, it means a great deal," said Harlan. "We talk about that quite a bit. Anyone who is brought in is told what is expected. Mike does a wonderful job with that. He tells the players what is expected of them and if they don't follow it they're gone. It's that simple.

"Now, Green Bay is an attractive place to play, and the players don't want to make mistakes and mess that up."

It certainly didn't hurt matters when Green Bay pulled off the biggest coup in professional football history by luring free agent All-Pro defensive end Reggie White to Green Bay in the NFL's first year of the modern free agency system. If you look up good character in the dictionary, the Reverend White's picture is included with the definition.

As well, White's addition in 1993 helped the Packers' cause on the field, too. When Holmgren took over the reigns in 1992, Green Bay was coming off a dismal 4-12 campaign. But a 9-7 mark in his first season, along with identical records in ‘93 and ‘94 – as well as playoff appearances--brought reason for some long awaited optimism in Titletown.

White became Green Bay's biggest pitchman to prospected free agents while Favre, the team's wild gunslinging quarterback was maturing and on the brink of greatness. In 1995, the Packers would finish 11-5, good enough for their first division crown in 23 years while Favre won the team's first league MVP award since former quarterback Bart Starr grabbed it in 1966. The Packers made it as far as the NFC Championship, but fell to Dallas, 38-27.

However, with a few key players added to the mix, the final pieces of the puzzle finally came together last year as Green Bay finished 13-3 and advanced to its first Super Bowl in 29 years. The Packers went on to defeat the New England Patriots, 35-21, to bring the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy back home to Titletown where it belonged – with its loyal fans.

"You have to have a little bit of luck," said Wolf, Green Bay's General Manager who took over late in the 1991 season and has been credited with being the team's chief architect. "I was a beat-up old scout coming in for a last hurrah. Some things happened for us, bringing in a great coach, trading for a great player (Favre), then signing the best free agent ever (White). The Packers are a great story."

Added Favre, explaining what makes Green Bay so special: "I just think it's a down-home personality. We're not owned by one person, but by a bunch of people, by the city, basically. It's Green Bay, it's small-town America."

But while the town will always remain small by professional sporting standards, the fan base seems to grow faster that a pesky weed amid a plush lawn. According to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, Packer merchandise ranks second only to the Dallas Cowboys through March of this year while Super Bowl XXXI merchandise set a new sales record of $130 million, eclipsing the $100 million set just a year previous.

"Packer merchandise has been selling like cheese in Wisconsin and like pancakes nationwide," McCarthy said.

On a local standpoint, tourism has been directly influenced by the Packers' success. Last year, about $33 million was brought into the economy thanks to sellout crowds who needed lodging and food, along with the thousands of railbirds who lined up along the Oneida Street practice field during training camp said Mark Kanz, Director of Tourism for the Green Bay Area Visitor and Convention Bureau.

And if the season ticket waiting list is any indication of just how popular the Packers are, chew on this statistic. The list is now 32,000 names long, and according to a story published recently by the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers have estimated that 99.5% of the 27,000 total season ticket holders from last season have paid for 1997. With that rate of turnover, people just getting on the waiting list won't get season tickets for 4,000 years.

"Our fans have been absolutely wonderful and have really helped us along," Holmgren said. "They've been with us through some tough times and the bumps in the road as well. I couldn't be happier (winning the Super Bowl) for them."

While Deford's article certainly raised some valid questions, the one asked repeatedly throughout turned out to be the one that never should never have been brought up. The fans love the Packers – always have, always will – and in turn the Packers love the fans. They never were off the same team.

"We've been in love with these fans all our lives," said Jerry Kramer, a former guard for the Packers in the 1960's. "Fan isn't even an appropriate word. These people are much more like family than they are fans. There's a relationship here, there's a bond and an emotional thing that's been going on for a long time."

Times aren't troubled anymore for Titletown. They're simply terrific.

Editor's note: This story appeared in Packer Report in the fall of 1997.

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