Essay — From the January 2017 issue

The Lords of Lambeau

On family, fate, and Packers football

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I flew home for this game. I live in California now, where I find it difficult to explain to friends my family’s love for the Packers, and for football in general. During my childhood, we lived in Freeport, Illinois — but we were dairy farmers, which made us honorary Wisconsinites. Later on, after I had already left home, my parents made it official by moving to a small farm outside Madison.

In the early Nineties, the great Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, renowned for his brutal tackles, came to the Ford dealership in Freeport to sign autographs. My brothers and I approached him with trepidation. Though he had retired before we were born, I remember being afraid that he would shake off his age and arthritis, the way rockets shake off ice as they leave the launching pad, and demand something brave of us. Instead he remained in his seat. Actually, there was something about him that reminded me of my grandfather at the end, crippled from decades of farming, his fingers bent at right angles at the first knuckle. I had brought my treasured copy of Steve Cameron’s The Packers! Seventy-five Seasons of Memories and Mystique in Green Bay, and Nitschke scrawled his name in glossy marker across a black-and-white photograph of himself running down a tunnel, the 66 on his jersey hovering apocalyptically in the distance. The spine of that same book cracked the other night when I opened it to refresh my memory of Packers history. (May I be forgiven for having forgotten so much!)

HA052__03HL0The Packers were founded in 1919. Curly Lambeau, a football standout in college at Notre Dame, and George W. Calhoun, the sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, decided to start a team in the little town. It was not such a strange proposition at the time, when similarly small towns such as Sheboygan and Oshkosh had their own football teams. Lambeau worked as a shipping clerk at the Indian Packing Company — hence the name of the new franchise. His boss paid for jerseys and offered the use of a field next to the plant several days a week.

In the old pictures, the men that Lambeau found to play for him look like soldiers, or smoke jumpers, or any other outfit of rakish young men. Their names conjure another era of American sport and masculinity. There was Red Dunn and Whitey Woodin, Cub Buck and Moose Gardner, Dick O’Donnell and Harry O’Boyle. There was Jug Earp, who was related to Wyatt, and there was Johnny “Blood” McNally, who plucked his sobriquet off a theater marquee advertising Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand, and who had already tested his mettle playing for such vanished franchises as the Milwaukee Badgers and the Duluth Eskimos.

They must all be dead now, those boys who (to paraphrase the poet James Wright) grew suicidally beautiful in October and galloped terribly against one another’s bodies — and did so without much protective gear. In its early years, football more closely resembled rugby than the game we know today. The helmets were really just leather caps like those worn by early aviators. In a photograph from as late as 1928, a Green Bay tailback named Eddie Kotal is playing bareheaded.

The Packers won ten games that first year, besting the Marinette Northerners, the Racine Iroquois, and the Stambaugh Miners — losing only one game, the last of the season, to the Beloit Fairies. The players split the profits, which amounted to sixteen dollars apiece. Some of that money had come out of Calhoun’s hat, which was passed around the sidelines during games like a collection plate. (The median annual salary for an NFL player today is around $860,000.) But the Packers suffered financial hardships in those years, requiring more cash than could realistically fit in a hat. Lambeau scratched around for funds, and supposedly a friend sold his car early on to keep the team solvent. In the end, aid came mostly in the form of stock sales, the first of which took place in 1923: the team sold a thousand shares in the Green Bay Football Corporation at $5 each, and further required shareholders to buy six season tickets, hoping to fill the bleachers and the coffers in a single go.

Today the Packers are the only professional sports team in the United States that is owned by shareholders — 363,948 of them, representing 5,020,523 shares. This is one of the main reasons why such a small town has managed to retain a professional franchise. The other is that the Packers seem inexorably entwined with this place, its weather, and its residents. Which explains in turn the airborne communion of the Lambeau Leap: when a Packer scores a touchdown, it is expected that he will jump into the stands. In this way, the symbolic embrace of the team is made literal, even more so if the player happens to weigh 340 pounds, like the great nose tackle Gilbert Brown.

The cheesehead is another symbol of this intense connection. Donning a wedge-shaped foam crown, fans can simultaneously celebrate the team and the state’s signature commodity. (The Packers sell their own version for $19.95, available in just one color: gold.) To be honest, my family has never owned a cheesehead, being as we are from the milk side of the spectrum. But there are other options when it comes to what to wear to a game. Squint your eyes, and the crowd at Lambeau sometimes resembles the Wisconsin woods: through an understory of camouflage fabric, you can see both hunters in their blaze orange and innumerable animals in the form of fur hats and mittens. (In the woods at Lambeau, you will also find a few naked, shivering men.)

Before leaving the house this morning, I texted my brother Levi to ask if I could wear his blaze-orange hunting coat, it being a night game, with temperatures expected to be in the low thirties. Permission was granted. As for my hands, I will be wearing the same cheap farm gloves I wore to feed calves as a boy.

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is the author of Almanac: Poems (Princeton University Press) and is currently a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. His short story “Leap Day” appeared in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Austin Smith:

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