Somewhere, Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi are smiling.
The Green Bay Packers officially opened their 50th season in Lambeau Field when they hosted the Atlanta Falcons in an exhibition game on August 19th. Often called the “Frozen Tundra” because of Green Bay’s arctic-like conditions late in the season, Lambeau Field is the NFL’s oldest tenured and arguably its most cherished stadium.
The NFL’s only older facility is Chicago’s Soldier Field, which debuted in 1924. However, Soldier Field was completely rebuilt before re-opening in 2003.
Named for the team’s founder, Lambeau Field opened on September 29, 1957, with the Packers defeating the Chicago Bears, 21-17, in the first game. Originally, the facility was known as City Stadium. It was renamed on September 11, 1965 following the death of Curly Lambeau the year before.
A three-year expansion project completed in 2003 added just over 12,000 seats, increasing the capacity of Lambeau Field to its current total of 72,000.
The most memorable game played at Lambeau Field was probably the famed “Ice Bowl” in which the Packers met the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL championship on New Year’s Eve in 1967. The temperature at game time was minus-13 degrees with a wind chill of minus-46. Bart Starr scored on a quarterback sneak in the final minute to cap a 12-play drive and give Green Bay a 21-17 victory. The win propelled the Packers into Super Bowl II, where they defeated the Oakland Raiders for their second straight championship. The NFL-AFL merger occured a year later.
The Packers enjoyed their greatest success in the 1960s, when coach Lombardi transformed a small town in northestern Wisconsin into “Title Town, USA.” In 1959, Lombardi took over a team that went 1-10-1 the previous season. Over the next eight years, the Packers won six division titles and five NFL crowns, in addition to the first two Super Bowls. In Green Bay, Lombardi became known as “St. Vince” and a street was named after him. Lambeau Field is home to one of the most famous addresses in sports – 1265 Lombardi Way.
The facility developed a certain mystique and whenever the Packers pulled out an unlikely victory, it was said they were aided by the ghosts of Lambeau and Lombardi. Now, the stadium is populated by fans who wear strange hats shaped like cheese. They are known as “cheeseheads.”
Even when the Packers didn’t have good teams – and they have had some bad ones over the years – there was always something special about Lambeau Field, about its hearty fans braving the elements (sorry, football was not meant to be played inside). When you think of Lambeau Field, you think of juicy brats roasting on the grill. Green Bay fans have perfected the art of tailgating in any and all conditions.
If there is one venue where I would like to see a sporting event (some place that I haven’t been), it would be Lambeau Field. The colder the better. Maybe a late December game against the archrival Bears with a playoff spot on the line. Temperature in the single numbers with steam coming out of the players’ mouths. Now that’s football, as recently inducted Hall of Fame announcer John Madden would say. That’s Lambeau Field.
The Green Bay Packers are the real America’s team, despite what the Cowboys like to call them themselves. The Packers are the only professional sports team in America publically owned. Every fan has a stake in the team, literally and figuratively. That means there never will be a greedy owner threatening to move the team to greener pastures.
With a population of just over 100,000, Green Bay has a spiritual bond with the Packers perhaps unlike any team in any other city. Fans live and die with the team. They wait years to obtain season tickets, which are passed down from one generation to the next like gold heirlooms. The Packers have been sold out on a season-ticket basis since 1960 as Green Bay has the longest waiting list for tickets in the NFL. It is estimated to be more than 63,000 and most fans don’t relinquish their tickets until they die.
Winners of 12 NFL championships in its history, Green Bay has the smallest market by far of any professional sports team in the United States.
Actually, if it wasn’t for some extraordinary foresight by the NFL in the early 1960s, Green Bay might not have a team anymore. When negotiating their television contract for the burgeoning league, the owners decided to share the revenue evenly between all the teams. That is why the Packers can be competitive in a city as small as Green Bay. If the Packers were a major league baseball team, they’d likely be forced out of business.
When I was in Milwaukee a few years ago, I had a chance to drive up to see the Packers’ home. As I got closer to Lambeau Field, I was driving on what could have been any Main Street in the country. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the stadium appeared. I was amazed.
There was no advance warning, no giant billboards, no super highways, no parking monstrousities. Just a football stadium tucked into a residential neighborhood at the intersection of Oneida Street and Lombardi Way.
I asked a security guard to let me in just to take a look. He shook his head. “Just five minutes,” I pleaded. He wouldn’t budge, telling me I’d have to wait for the next tour in an hour. But I couldn’t wait as I had to get back to Milwaukee for a return flight to Connecticut, so that is the closest I have come to getting inside Lambeau Field.
On a quiet August afternoon, I settled for walking around the perimeter, listening for those ghosts. I imagined what it must have been like during those halcyon days in the 1960s when Lombardi’s Packers ruled the NFL.