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SUPER BOWL XXXIII: DENVER BRONCOS VS. GREEN BAY PACKERS;
3:15 P.M., SUNDAY; TV: CHANNEL 4. RADIO: KNX (1070)

Pack May Be Back, but Fans Never Left

January 19, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Stadium View Bar & Grill truly has a view of Lambeau Field, a block away, even on a night when snow falls hard and the wind-chill factor approaches minus-30 degrees.

Customers hurry inside, shaking snow off their heavy coats and hats, ordering beer by the pitcher. At a table near the bar, a guy regales his buddies with barbecue wisdom.

"Start the grill going in the basement," he says. "Pat 'er down with butter, then throw some onions on there and see how she goes."

For some reason, this gets a big laugh. Then everyone goes back to talking about the Packers.

This small city on the shores of the Lake Michigan bay by the same name has long been known for cold weather and cookouts--but most of all, for football. Curly Lambeau and Don Hutson. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr. Now Brett Favre and Reggie White.

The place is full of phantoms, the streets named after former greats. People still talking about how they used to play Ping-Pong with Johnny Blood--his real name was McNally but he took Blood from a theater marquee so he could play pro games while he was still in college--or how they once met Lombardi.

It is hard to imagine much of anything changing here.

Return to Glory

The home team is a heavy favorite to beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego on Sunday. That would mean consecutive NFL titles and a full-fledged return of the glory days. Lombardi's Packers won the first two Super Bowls, in 1967 and '68. Lombardi then left for Washington, the Packers faded and only in recent seasons have the faithful been rewarded again. And this time it's not only the players getting attention.

The fans have become famous in their own right, Cheeseheads popping up in newspaper articles and television commercials across the country. Die-hard Packer fans--a redundancy, actually, because there is no other kind--evoke memories of a simpler time, when coaches wore flat-tops, before players wore tattoos.

It is the best kind of nostalgia, sweeter than the smoke from a grill full of bratwurst.

It is also enough to make some people wonder: Has the winning, the hype, changed Green Bay?

Just listen to the chatter at Bosse's newsstand, around the corner from City Hall, where fans come each morning to buy a paper and spend a few minutes trading theories. From behind the counter, Steve Liebert tracks the shifting moods.

Last season, when the Super Bowl was still a dream, tantalizingly close, conversations were hopeful but guarded, as they had been for so long since the late '60s.

Then, with another championship stowed safely in "Titletown USA," the fans wanted more this season. When the team started 3-2, they murmured that General Manager Ron Wolf should not have lost Desmond Howard to free agency. Or maybe Favre had lost his touch.

Now that the Packers have rolled through the playoffs with the quarterback in command of his game and the defense stingier each week, the regulars make a point of stepping inside Bosse's walk-in humidor to select a postgame cigar to enjoy after the anticipated victory over Denver.

The attitude has become cocky. Or what passes for cocky among the traditionally quiet, reserved populace.

Under a Microscope

North by the bay, at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, Daniel Alesch is one of several faculty members who have studied the team and its fans. Alesch has noticed an "intensification."

"It's more personal," said the public administration professor, who has been on the waiting list for season tickets for 25 years. "They can't walk away from it."

What else might you expect from a place where the football stadium can be seen for miles in all directions, every bit as prominent as the factories and churches?

Maybe Green Bay was considered a city at one time. But the rest of the world grew up around it. With a population of 96,466--the metropolitan area population is 210,000 --Green Bay has a small-town feel.

It is difficult to go anywhere without seeing someone wearing green and gold. At the bank. In the mall. Downtown workers tape pennants and posters to their office windows.

And it is nearly impossible to find someone who dislikes the team.

"Like my friend's mom, she's really not a football fan but she can tell you who all the players are," said Keith Waeghe, a 27-year-old native. "Even if you're not a football fan, you still have respect for the Packers."

Maybe that explains why a car wash sells vials of dirt from Lambeau Field for $10 each. Or why a nearby Native American casino is raffling off a custom green-and-gold riding mower.

People all over town say they have bought into the latest Packer stock offering, handing over $200 for a certificate that will never pay a dividend or appreciate in value.

The stock is a matter of civic pride. The first offering was made in 1923 and the team has been publicly owned for decades, an enduring oddity in professional sports.

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