I’ve been going to Packer games for several years now: pre-season, regular season, playoffs, but my first time will always hold a special place. Frigid temperatures and beating the Cowboys in the playoffs, flaming torches and chants of “One of us” telling me the natives had truly accepted me as one of their own. As far as “first times” go in life, it was perfect. No awkwardness or damp disappointment (perhaps the odd fumble to keep this analogy alive) just a lovely experience for all in green and gold. Time has marched on since that magical day, and many games have been played. Some, like that playoff, I’ll never forget. Others I honestly struggle to remember at all.
It’s not that any visit to the hallowed turf of Lambeau Field is forgetful, but games or tailgates blur together under the steady flow of traditional Wisconsin beverages. Sometimes the beer fairies steal the memories altogether, but I know I was there. I’ve seen pictures. Quite often those same pictures make me happy to live in ignorance. Not the “firsts” though. They carry too much weight to be washed away. First time against a rival, first Thanksgiving game, first time in the hall of fame, or the first time you fill in a donor card to send a collarbone to Lombardi Avenue. I had another “first” raise its head over the parapet of opportunity this week, family night. It’s not something I had ever really considered. It didn’t appeal. It’s just a practice, right? Well, no. It’s so much more than that.
I’m a regular tailgater at the same house in Ashwab… Ashwhababa… next to Lambeau and last Saturday was invited to join the Park Shark and their Packer family for the evening. 60 plus family members, neighbors and tailgate regulars to drink, swim, eat, cheer and drink some more. It was like going to a game, just with sunstroke, less traffic and the faintest whiff of diesel fumes and animal excrement still clinging to my truck from the county fair. The beer flowed like it should and many meat products from the pulled or tubular variety did their job to soak up the celebration. Bean bags were tossed. Predictions and Bear jokes were made (miss you Jay). The perfect way to spend a summers day.
It shows you just how much the team means to the fans that a sell-out crowd came to watch (at the stadium, not bean bag toss). I was worried the lack of an actual game would leave Lambeau somewhat deflated, like a Starbucks on the moon (or anywhere really) it would be void of atmosphere. It didn’t. We walked across, and music played, families mulled around, and local authorities posed for selfies. It was just like the game day experience but one that had been told to behave because Grandma was coming. Not that it was a sober event by a long shot. For many in attendance, it was their first time at the stadium, but you could spot those well-seasoned veterans of both football and parenting. Seeing a man climb the steps with four open beers and a baby under his arm reminded me that not all heroes wear capes. Some wear broad beer-drenched smiles and baby vomit. Before the team took the field, there was an acrobatic display by a group calling themselves “The Chicago boyz” who, I am told, are famous for appearing on a tv talent show. They did well and got a rapturous reception from the crowd despite their name, but I was proud to hear “The Bears still suck” being chanted between the applause as if to say, “We accept you, travelers from a strange land, but have met your kind before.”
I took my boy child with me (a Lambeau veteran by now) and he came to symbolize what many see as the reason for “family night,” the children. Their wide eyes and bright smiles are just adorable. They nervously shuffle around unsure of the new faces, noises, and rules. To think the draft was only a few short months ago and now here they are, walking out from the tunnel to a capacity crowd. They grow up so fast. It was the children in the crowd who sometimes offered the best entertainment, like one bold young man who ran down the steps (father rushing after) waving his shirt over his head and screaming “This is why momma calls me the mistake!”. Another hero on a day for many.
When practice came to an end, the players made a great effort to interact with fans around the edge of the field and then it all came together. Players, fans, staff, sat back to enjoy the laser light show and the fireworks finale. This is where the event became special for me and melted my usually icy and inebriated heart.
It was Harper Lee who famously wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family…”. No doubt many of us remember the text from school days. There are times when we wish would could choose our family, and in the sense of the Packers, we have. We have chosen our team and who we share the experience with.
We all have a family, or the memory of one, but that doesn’t make it our only one. The Packers organization and its fans are like a family. There are the crazy ones, the ones we try to forget when they move to Minnesota but forgive quickly, the gossip, or those that we can only handle in small doses. When it comes to getting them all around the dinner table we put aside our issues and just enjoy the moment. Lambeau on Saturday night was a Thanksgiving table, a wake for great Uncle Vince where nobody argued, a fundraiser to help little Aaron get the matching ring he deserves, and a fire breathing sing-song for all to tell the world that football is back. The Packers are back. The fans are ready and I, one amongst millions, can’t wait for the season to start.