My former neighbor, George, is a big Green Bay Packers fan. And there's a reason - his uncle, Bob Harlan, is the former CEO/President of the Packers. Bob Harlan and George's mom are brother and sister. George didn't trumpet the fact that his uncle was the former CEO for the Packers - I don't think I knew about the connection until almost a year after he and his wife, Hanna, had moved in next door. I asked George if he ever goes up for games and he sort of said, "Yeah, every once in a while. My sisters go a lot more than I do. I'm not really that close to the Harlan family like my older sisters are."
(Correction - I got this part of the story all screwed up. It turns out that George's dad and Bob Harlan's wife, Madeline, are brother and sister. I've been telling people over the past couple of years that Bob Harlan and George's mom were brother sister. George told me after this post came out, "No, man. It's my dad and Madeline who are brother and sister, not my mom and Bob. Where did you get that?" Dunno, man...)
I said, "I've always wanted to see a game at Lambeau Field. If you ever get a chance to grab some tickets, let me know. I'd love to go up."
That chance happened earlier this fall when George's parents were visiting Bob Harlan and his wife, Madeline, at the Harlan's vacation home in Door County. Madeline told George's dad that she had 4 tickets for three upcoming games. One of the games was Dec. 5 against the San Francisco 49ers. George called me up and said that he could get those tickets. Knowing that there would be a better than even chance that it would be colder than hell in Green Bay at that time, I still said, "OK! Let's go!"
George said, "The wives will be cold, but it's more fun to see a game in Green Bay when it's cold."
I've been to Lambeau Field a number of times. I stop there nearly every time I go to see my account up in Green Bay. I like to go to the Packers Pro Shop and stop in for a beer at Curly's Pub on the upper level of the Atrium area at Lambeau Field. But I've never had the opportunity to gaze down on the storied field before.
Now, let me just say that I really don't follow one National Football League team. I'm more of a college football fan than a pro fan. A lot of times, I usually don't start paying attention to the NFL until about half-way through the season. But that's not to say that I don't follow the Midwest teams. I was a huge Vikings fan as a youth until they crushed my very soul by losing four Super Bowls in eight years. I followed the Bears for awhile and I keep up with what's happening in St. Louis as my friend, Mike Naughton, is V-P for Finance for the Rams.
But I've always known that football is a religion up in Green Bay. Even in the down years, the Packers would still sell out Lambeau Field. In fact, there is a waiting list of nearly 68,000 names for Packers season tickets. Before this season, 126 people were able to get off that waiting list and get season tickets for the Packers games. If you're number 65,737 on the list, I hope you're a very young person.
Lambeau Field was originally named City Field (actually, "New" City Field - it replaced the old city of Green Bay-owned City Field) when it opened in 1957. In 1965, it was renamed Lambeau Field after the Packers founder, Earl "Curly" Lambeau. The original capacity of City/Lambeau Field was 32,500 when it opened and by 1995 the capacity of the stadium had expanded to a titch over 60,000 (pictured right). The City of Green Bay continues to own and maintain Lambeau Field.
Bob Harlan recognized the fact that the Packers wouldn't be able to exist if they didn't do a major overhaul of Lambeau Field, adding more luxury boxes, more seats and adding fan friendly amenities. In 2000, Harlan announced an aggressive $295 million dollar renovation for Lambeau that would address the needs to help keep Green Bay competitive into the 21st Century.
George told me, "Uncle Bob went all over the state of Wisconsin talking to civic groups, town hall meetings, whoever, just to tell the people of Wisconsin that if this didn't go through, the Packers would be dead in the water trying to keep up with all the other teams in the NFL."
Of course, Harlan was able to convince the people and politicians of Wisconsin that the upgrade of Lambeau Field was a high priority and funds raised through a stock sale of the Packers, a half-cent sales tax rise in Brown County (Green Bay's county), and funding by the State of Wisconsin was approved. The citizens of Brown County had to vote on the proposed sales tax increase in 2000 and it barely passed - 53% Yes to 47% No. Renovations on Lambeau Field began in 2001.
George and I couldn't remember if the Packers had to relocate any of their games during the renovation project, but through some research I did for this entry, it turns out the Packers played all of their scheduled home games at Lambeau Field for the 2001 and 2002 seasons. When the project was completed in 2003, the seating capacity rose to the current 72,928.
Since we were getting the tickets for free from George's uncle and aunt, we decided to use free hotel points to get rooms for Saturday and Sunday nights. I used Hilton Honors points for our rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn in Appleton on Saturday night, Hanna used her Holiday Inn Priority Club points for our rooms at the Holiday Inn East in Madison on Sunday. It helped keep expenses tremendously low as it would have easily been well over $500 per couple just for the weekend trip to Green Bay had we paid out of pocket for tickets and hotel rooms.
We got into Green Bay around 9:45 the morning of the game. We came in on Lombardi Ave. and began to look for a place to park. We took a left on S. Ridge Rd. by the stadium (see map) and we saw a guy parking cars in his yard - literally in the shadow of Lambeau Field. It was $25 dollars to park, but we were right across the street from the stadium with the promise of an easy out if we wanted to leave early. We parked around the back of this house. I had to take this picture to illustrate how close we were to the stadium. George said, "Isn't it wild that an NFL stadium is located in the middle of a neighborhood? How cool would it be to live across the street from or Lambeau Field in your back yard?"
The day dawned cold and grey with a stiff wind coming off of the lake. It wasn't going to get much higher than 25 degrees and we were all bundled up. As we walked toward the stadium, I became painfully aware that the stocking cap I'd bought at Home Depot a few days before was going to be woefully unsuitable for the cold weather. I needed a new stocking cap.
We stopped off in front of the Atrium at Lambeau Field - in the Bob Harlan Plaza, no less - and Cindy got this picture of the immortal Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi. There is also a statue of Curly Lambeau on the plaza and in between the two statues is a plaque commemorating the efforts Bob Harlan accomplished during his leadership from 1989 to 2008.
We knew the Packers Pro Shop would be packed with people, so George suggested a Packers store down south and east of the stadium near Brett Favre's Steakhouse (see my entry on Favre's steakhouse here). We worked our way down to a large Packers merchandise store to look for a stocking cap for me and a hooded sweatshirt for George. While I've been very impressed with the Packers merchandise at the Packers Pro Shop, The Jersey Store had even more stuff (pictured below left). It was split into two sections - one for women's wear and one for men's gear. I found a stocking cap with the Green Bay logo on it for $10 bucks. George found a vintage Packers hooded sweatshirt for $50. We made our purchases and worked our way back toward the stadium.
George had a great idea to stop off at the Bay City Smokehouse which had an outdoor bar and beer garden set up in their parking lot. It afforded us a chance to go to the bathroom, get a couple beers and a bloody mary. Cindy was especially bundled up in her heavy winter coat and her thermal pants over a couple shirts, a pair of jeans and her Uggs boots. Cindy is the type of person who gets cold when the temperature dips below 70 degrees. I was sort of worried how she'd fare in this cold weather - I certainly wasn't enjoying it - but she was a trooper for a good portion of the day. Here she is enjoying the bloody mary I got her at Bay City Smokehouse (pictured above right).
George wanted to go find his cousin, Mike Harlan, the youngest of Bob and Madeline's boys, who usually tail-gated in the west parking lot of the stadium. George's cousin Kevin Harlan is a well-known sports broadcaster and his other cousin Bryan Harlan is a well-known sports agent in Chicago. Mike Harlan works for Badger Sports Properties in Madison and George said that he's much closer to Mike than he is the two more well-known Harlan brothers.
Now, tailgating at Green Bay - or, for that matter, at ANY Wisconsin sporting event - is just world class. One of the things I wanted to do was to walk through the legions of tail-gaters grilling, drinking and having a great time before the game. The Green Bay tail-gaters take it up a notch with their elaborate gear and spreads. Even though it was in the mid-20's with a biting wind out of the Northeast, we saw a few hearty souls dressed like it was a 50 degree day.
We walked to the west side of the stadium looking up and down the rows for George's cousin. We never did find him, so we decided to head to the Atrium to warm up and get a beer in Curly's Bar.
The Atrium at Lambeau Field is a large area that features a number of concession stands on the main floor. The Packers pre-game radio show was going on in the Atrium (you can see the guys at the podium in the lower left of the above left picture) and a few people were milling about listening to them. The Atrium is also the home of the new Packers Hall of Fame. The old Hall of Fame, of which we've visited in the past, used to be located across Onieda Street to the south and east of the stadium. I haven't been in the new Hall of Fame, but I understand that it's pretty cool.
Along a wall in the Atrium is a number of commemorative bricks that people bought to help fund the stadium project. The families on both George's dad's and mom's sides bought a number of bricks to go on the wall. Above right, here's George pointing to the brick his parents bought in the name of his family.
I was having too much excitement looking at a wall of bricks, so I mentioned to George that this was really cutting into our beer drinking time. We made our way up to the upper level of the Atrium and a cold beer at Curly's Pub. The bar/restaurant is named after Packers founder and former head coach Curly Lambeau and features over 130 televisions throughout the place. Understandably, on a cold morning before a game, it was packed. George and I got a couple of beers and hung out on the upper level of the Atrium with our wives watching people come and go.
Of course, some of the most popular items you'll see at a Green Bay Packers game are the infamous "cheesehead" hats. These hats are generally wedges of cheese made out of a polyurethane-based material. But we saw a number of variations of cheesehead hats all around the stadium. The two above - the top hat cheesehead and the crown cheesehead were just a couple of ones we encountered. We also saw a cowboy hat cheesehead, a fez cheesehead hat and a sombrero cheesehead hat during the course of the day. No, I did not buy one.
We made it to our seats just before kickoff. They weren't bad, but they weren't exactly what George expected. We were on the South 10 yard line on the West side of the stadium, up from the Packers bench. George thought we'd have better seats, but I didn't care. We were at a game in Lambeau Field!
Of course, I had to satisfy my scoreboard fetish with the first picture above left. And I was able to squeeze off the above right picture as the 49ers were getting ready to run the first play from scrimmage from the game.
I had two regrets, however. First of all, the Packers wore "throw-back" uniforms from the 1929 season - the year the Packers won the first of their 12 National Football League titles. Nope, not the familiar green and gold uni's, they looked more like Notre Dame playing in their navy blue and gold jerseys, mustard gold pants and brown helmets. It was really disappointing to me to not see the Packers in their regular uniforms.
The second regret was going out at halftime to try to warm up and to go to the restroom. The line for the men's was about 150 deep when we got there. While George and I really didn't have to go that bad, we decided to have a Leinenkugel beer while we waited for the line to go down. Unfortunately, before that happened the game started again and we missed one of the most spectacular touchdowns in Green Bay history.
Donald Driver caught a wide-open pass from Aaron Rodgers at the San Francisco 40 yard line and was hit no less than five times before he bowled over the goal line for a 61-yard touchdown reception. Here's the replay of that spectacular play:
We heard the crowd going nuts when we were out on the concourse. George said, "Oh, man! The Packers just scored! Something big must've happened."
That night when we got into our hotel rooms in Madison, George called me up and said, "Have you seen the replay of Driver's touchdown? It was unbelievable!"
Driver's touchdown opened up what was a close game at the half. The Packers went on to score another touchdown later in the period and then added a couple 4th quarter field goals as they won going away 34-16. We decided to make our way out with a little over 3 minutes left in the game to hit the restroom and then get over to the truck to get us out of Green Bay ahead of the traffic. I took this picture just before the Packers got another field goal to give them their 34 points on the day.
I told George that if the opportunity ever arose again in the future that I'd love to come back to see a game at Lambeau Field. Maybe next time, I'd like it to be a little warmer than 25 degrees with a stiff breeze (which had turned to the west about halfway through the afternoon.) He wouldn't commit one way or another, especially with his aunt and uncle getting up in years. But even if he can't score tickets again, I wouldn't mind trying to find a couple tickets on Stub Hub just to go back to see a game at Lambeau Field at some point.