Context — January 18, 2017, 1:54 pm

The Lords of Lambeau

On family, fate, and Packers football

An excerpt from Austin Smith’s essay on the Green Bay Packers for the January 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Read the full story here.

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!)

The 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.

Read the full story here.

Share
Single Page

More from Austin Smith:

From the January 2017 issue

The Lords of Lambeau

On family, fate, and Packers football

From the August 2015 issue

Leap Day

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today