Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lambeau Field – Home of the Country’s Most Welcoming Fans

Yes, that’s someone’s grandmother and possibly great-grandmother out there in -13 wind chill.
Jason Thomas
Yes, that's someone's grandmother and possibly great-grandmother out there in -13 wind chill.
I grew up in Northern California.  I started seriously watching football in 1986.  The 49ers had guys by the name of Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Tom Rathman, Charles Haley, and a highly skilled, young receiver from Mississippi Valley St. in his second season that was better than anyone else on the field at all times.  His name was Jerry Rice.  I was hooked.  Fast forward to 2014, and I’m as big a fan as I was back then.  I can’t remember the last time I missed a game.  Even in the awful, Dennis Erickson/Mike Nolan/Mike Singletary years, when I was away from the Bay Area living briefly in Portland and Phoenix, I would always make it to a sports bar on Sunday to find the Niners game on one TV off in the corner with no audio.  I’d order a bucket of beers and watch the game, often alone.  It’s a little different today with the Red Zone Channel, NFL Sunday Ticket, a 55 inch HDTV in the living room, beat writers on Twitter, text chains with fellow fans back in the Bay Area, etc.  A full room at The Globe Pub is dedicated to the Niners game every Sunday as they fly not only a Chicago Bears flag outside, but a red & gold one as well.

As the above paragraph might indicate, I pretty much have everything figured out on game day, but something happened on the final Sunday in December.  Julius Peppers wasn’t able to sack Aaron Rodgers on a 4th down play and the Packers ripped the Bears’ hearts out by pulling out a win at Soldier Field in the de facto NFC North title game.  This meant that the 12-4 49ers would be traveling to Lambeau Field to face the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers in the first round of the NFL Playoffs.  Yes, the 8-7-1 team was playing at home and the 12-4 team was on the road.  Super annoying and pretty nonsensical, but that’s another story…
As a fan of the 49ers and a person that enjoys being outdoors in the winter, it was pretty much a no-brainer.  I had to go to Lambeau Field.  Lambeau, in January, with extreme cold in the forecast.  Even better.  It’s the “Frozen Tundra.”  It wouldn’t be an authentic experience if you weren’t dressed in 13 layers, right?  Fortunately, for a person looking for tickets at the last minute, the game didn’t sell out until a few days before and with so many tickets available at face value that week, the secondary market was cheaper than ever before.  I picked up a couple of 50 yard line seats 30 rows from the field for a very reasonable price.  Score.
When Sunday morning finally comes around, it’s off to Green Bay.  200 miles and 3 hours later, I’m driving around the suburban neighborhood that surrounds the stadium and park on someone’s lawn for $15.  The woman directed us onto her lawn and introduced herself.  Her name was Melanie and she told us that we were welcome to tailgate on the snow-covered lawn.  She also said that if we needed to use the bathroom, we could go right inside, if we wanted to warm up in the house for a few before we changed into our outdoor gear, that was fine too, and finally, we received an invite to a backyard party of theirs with a bonfire.  Yes, even the guy with the Jerry Rice jersey was invited.  I met everyone in the backyard and after a tiny bit of good-natured ribbing for being a fan of the opposing team, we talked football.  They admired and feared the Niners and I have a ton of respect for the Packers and their sustained excellence over the past 20+ years, so we had plenty to talk about while sharing swigs from the bottle of Fireball that I brought to the party.  After an hour or so on Thorndale St. it was time to move on.  Walking through the small stadium parking lot, we found a sea of tailgaters that were more than happy to loan a bottle opener or a Bic lighter so I could crack into another Lagunitas (Northern CA brew, had to rep the area) while we talked about the upcoming game.  They were terrified of Kaepernick, I was terrified of Rodgers.  They know their football, I like to think I know my football.  They’re not afraid of hanging out in sub-zero wind chills for hours at a time, and neither am I.  We have a lot in common.
After a parking lot lap, it was over to Kroll’s West, a bar/restaurant across the street from the stadium with a wide open patio that wasn’t too strict about outside beverages being consumed on the premises.  A group of 20 & 30-somethings asked if I’d like to shotgun a can of watery light beer with them.  I like to be a good guest, so I took them up on it.  I took it down in a couple of seconds (I’ve still got it!) and it was pretty refreshing, actually.  As a fan of stouts, porters and other 8-11% microbrews, it felt like slamming a can of LaCroix.
Kaitlin Montes, XRT Promotions Director and Packers fan. Oh, the guy with the Batman hat behind us was the one that we shotgunned beers with.
Kaitlin Montes, XRT Promotions Director and Packers fan. Oh, the guy with the Batman hat behind us was the one that we shotgunned beers with.
Kaitlin Montes, XRT Promotions Director and Packers fan. Oh, the guy with the Batman hat behind us was the one that extended the shotgunning invitation.
Oh, did I mention that the wind chill is about -12?  Not a problem.  Heavy Gore-Tex hunting boots, snowboard pants with a couple layers underneath and a down jacket are doing their jobs, and I’d be lying if I said that the occasional swig of cinnamon whiskey wasn’t helping me to forget about the Polar Vortex that was making itself at home in the Upper Midwest.
After making my way into the stadium, I enjoyed a helluva game that ended up going the way of the visitors.  I cheered for my team, even shouted a few times (it’s a reflex) and no one talked any kind of shit to me.  Nothing like you’d find in Philly or Boston.  When the Packers made a big play, I received a few pats on the back from elated fans behind me, but it was in good fun and they even congratulated me after the game.  Yes, after their team lost on the final play of the game, in heartbreaking fashion, a few people shook my hand, told me how good the Niners were, and wished us luck in the next round against the Panthers.  Are you kidding me?!  I’d been to Lambeau once before, had roughly the same experience and knew what to expect, but doing it again, in the playoffs, in sub-zero wind chills really drove it home.  You can hate losing to the Packers, you can curse Aaron Rodgers on the field, you can even grit your teeth at the sight of a Jordy Nelson jersey, but once you visit the hallowed ground in Green Bay and experience the kindness and hospitality first-hand, you’ll always have a soft spot in your heart for the people up north.


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