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 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2019

The Story of Storytelling

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Myth of White Genocide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Joe!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.

Article
The Myth of White Genocide·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squatter camp outside Lawley township, in the southwest of Johannesburg, stretches for miles against a bare hillside, without electricity, water, or toilets. I visited on a blustery morning in October with a local journalist named Mophethe Thebe, who spent much of his childhood in the area. As we drove toward the settlement he pointed out land that had been abandoned by white Afrikaner farmers after the end of apartheid in 1994, and had since been taken over by impoverished black settlers who built over the former farms with half-paved roadways and tiny brick houses. You could still see stands of headstones inscribed in Afrikaans, all that remained visible of the former inhabitants.

Article
The Story of Storytelling·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The story begins, as so many do, with a journey. In this case, it’s a seemingly simple one: a young girl, cloaked in red, must carry a basket of food through the woods to her bedridden grandmother. Along the way, she meets a duplicitous wolf who persuades her to dawdle: Notice the robins, he says; Laze in the sun, breathe in the hyacinth and bluebells; Wouldn’t your grandmother like a fresh bouquet? Meanwhile, he hastens to her grandmother’s cottage, where he swallows the old woman whole, slips into her bed, and waits for his final course.

Article
Run Me to Earth·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They were released.

For the first time in seven years, they stood outside in the courtyard of the reeducation center. They looked across at the gate. They remembered none of this. The flagpole and the towers. The cameras. Prany counted the sentries in the towers. He heard the rattle of keys as the guard behind him, wearing a green uniform, undid his handcuffs. Then the guard undid Vang’s. They rubbed their free wrists. Vang made fists with his hands.

Prany dug the soles of his new shoes into the dirt. He watched Vang’s hands and then turned to see the building they had exited. It resembled a schoolhouse or a gymnasium. The flag flapped in the wind. The sun on him. The immense sky. His neck was stiff. He knew that if they were forced to run right now his legs might buckle. Not because he was weak, but because in this moment, in the new environment, out in the open, his entire body felt uncertain.

Article
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten years ago, a week after his sixtieth birthday, and six months after his first appointment with an oncologist, my father died. That afternoon, I went to my parents’ bedroom to clear up the remains of the lunch my mother had brought him not long before he collapsed. A copy of Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants, which he’d asked me for after I reviewed it in a newspaper, was open on his bedside table. He had gotten about halfway through it. The Vagrants isn’t what you’d call a consoling book—it centers on a young woman’s unjust execution in a provincial Chinese town in 1979—and I had mixed feelings about it being the last thing he’d read. Perhaps an adolescent part of me had been happy to let him have it out of a need to see him as a more fearless reader than he might have wanted to be just then. Still, my father had read Proust and Robert Musil while working as a real estate agent. There was comfort, of a sort, for me, and maybe him, in his refusal of comfort reading.

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.

Classes at a Catholic school in Durham, North Carolina, were canceled in anticipation of protests against a lesbian alumna, who had been invited to speak at a Black History Month event.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today