View from the other Bay

The Tampa Bay Times:

On the day before the big game, one of the team owners is wearing an old Packers T-shirt with camouflage shorts. He’s behind the bar pouring beers, wiping the counter and filling bowls with peanuts.

Heaven knows if Marty Leonhard was serving any of his fellow Packers shareholders inside Lenny’s Tap on Saturday. There were 16 people in the bar at 11 a.m. and, statistically speaking, the odds were good that at least one of those morning drinkers also had stock in the team.

This may be a hard concept to grasp in Tampa Bay where stadiums are built — or not — only after years of nasty public debate. But folks around Green Bay willingly toss their money into a proverbial hat to make sure their stadium is competitive and their team stays put.

The Bucs’ opponent in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is the only not-for-profit franchise in major-league sports in America. In a city with a population just over 100,000, the Packers are owned by 361,311 shareholders. The stock, by the way, pays no dividends and cannot be resold.

It’s been made available only five times in the past 97 years — the last time was in 2011 at $250 a share — and prospective buyers are warned their certificates hold virtually no monetary value. The stock exists only to provide a financial lifeline for the Packers and to give the community a sense of ownership in the team.
Which, around here, makes it priceless.

To me, my certificate is just another piece of Packers art. It’s no different than hanging a picture of Aaron Rodgers on the wall,” said Leonhard, whose family has owned Lenny’s Tap for 45 years and who bought his stock in 1997. “It’s the only game in town. Yeah, we have the Wisconsin Badgers and the Bucks and Brewers. But this is it in Green Bay.

“And if you own a little piece of the team, some people get to walk around like they’re one of the bosses.”

In terms of population, Green Bay is almost identical to Brandon [Florida]. The major difference being Green Bay has 13 NFL championships and 26 Hall of Famers. This is what you would get if the New York Yankees were, say, the Topeka Yankees.

Other fan bases may be just as rabid, just as loyal, but none share the same romance of a blue-collar town and its team that always seemed on the verge of bankruptcy before Vince Lombardi showed up. And few other major-league cities could duplicate the same small-town feel.

“It’s a big-league team in little town America, and I don’t think you’ll ever see another one like it. The money has grown too much in sports,” said retired University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor Daniel Alesch, who was commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute to write a white paper on the uniqueness of the relationship. “It really is a love affair between a team and a community.”
It wasn’t unusual in the 1960s and 1970s to see Packers players shopping at the grocer on the corner, or picking up their kids from school. Fans would run into players all around town and, to hear the natives tell it, no one ever complained.

Irene Fennell was still in elementary school in the late 1960s when her 10-year-old brother, Doug, got a copy of a Bart Starr biography. One of the older Fennell children piled his siblings in the car and they drove to the house of the Packers quarterback.

“While the rest of us sat in the car, Doug went up and knocked on the door,” Fennell said. “They invited him right in the house, gave him cookies and a drink and Bart signed his book for him. When Doug said he had five brothers and sisters, they got out pieces of paper and signed autographs for each of us with, you know, ‘Warm wishes’ from Bart Starr. That was Green Bay.”

And the rest of the kids waited in the car the whole time Doug was alone in the house?

“Well, we didn’t all want to knock on the door,” she said. “That would be rude.”

The Green Bay Press-Gazette recently ran a feature remembering locals who passed away due to COVID-19. Each resident was memorialized with a paragraph or two, highlighting significant details of their lives. It was noted that one gentleman was married for 57 years, was a math teacher and died while still on the Packers season ticket waiting list.

Around here, the waiting list is simultaneously loathed and revered. Since 1960, Packer games have sold out at Lambeau Field, leaving unlucky fans searching for tickets in the newspaper and on street corners in previous generations, and through ticket brokers and the Internet in recent years. At last count, the waiting list was more than 137,000 long and only a few hundred season tickets come open each year.

When his son was born, Jeff Ash thought it would be a hoot to put Evan’s name on the season ticket list. That was 26 years ago. Every year, the Packers send a postcard to let him know his current spot on the waiting list.

“I moved to Green Bay in 1980 and I wish had I put myself on the list back then because I might just be receiving season tickets now 40 years later,” Ash said. “Somebody signing up today? The list is so much bigger, you’re not going to get tickets in your lifetime.”

Yet it doesn’t deter the fanaticism.

“The schedule comes out in April, and everybody commits it to memory. Your friend may call and say, ‘Hey, we’re getting married October 15.′ ‘Oh, sorry, the Packers have the Vikings that week,’” said Corey Vann, who manages the Hagemeister Park bar. “You go to a liquor store 15 minutes before a game and there’s 100 people buying beer. Once the game kicks off, there’s nobody around. It’s what we do.”

It’s a short walk from the Lambeau Field locker room to the team’s practice field and, for decades, kids have risen before dawn on the first day of training camp to secure a job as an unofficial bike buddy during the summer. The bicycle is turned over to the player, and the child runs alongside with the player’s helmet in hand, or rides on pegs attached to the back tire.

John Gee was a middle school student who had just moved to Green Bay from California in 2005. He convinced another player to pass the word to Aaron Rodgers that he was waiting for the rookie quarterback from the University of California to arrive after a brief contract dispute. When Rodgers walked out of the locker room for his first day as Packer, Gee was waiting with a Cal baseball cap on.

“I was kind of shy growing up and wasn’t the most popular kid because I had just moved to Wisconsin,” said Gee, who is now 28 and a real estate agent back in California. “Aaron would ask me questions to get me to open up. We talked about California, video games, football, music. I tried to get him to check out some metal bands that maybe he didn’t know about. We found common ground with the Foo Fighters.”

For the next three years, they rode together before and after every training camp practice. Suddenly, the shy kid from California had the Packers’ first-round draft pick showing up to watch him play his middle school football games.

By 2008, Rodgers had replaced Brett Favre as the starting quarterback and the Packers deemed it a security risk to have him riding a bicycle across the Lambeau Field parking lot, so Gee was out of a job. Still, their relationship did not end.

“We got together for one last ride the following year, which would have been my junior or senior year. He had already been the starter for a year at that point, but he reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you want to take one last ride together?’” Gee said. “It’s a difficult thing to conceptualize as a kid but I’ve thought about it a lot over the years and it really is a unique thing. It’s been around since the Lombardi years and there’s really nothing quite like it. You almost feel like you’re part of history.”

Named for the Indian Meat Packing Company in 1919, the franchise would not exist today were it not for the community coming through with the first two stock sales in 1923 and 1935. Conversely, the town of Green Bay would be as anonymous as Sheboygan were it not for the Packers.

It’s not as if it were easy. If it were, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, Akron Indians and Duluth Kelleys would still be in the NFL. It works only because the community was willing to invest, and the franchise consistently won.

And as evolution turned the NFL into a league of bigger and bigger cities, the mystique of Green Bay grew more and more around the nation.

“That small-town story line is how they built interest going back to the 1920s when they started slaying the Bears and the Giants,” said Cliff Christl, the team’s official historian. “A lot of people in small-town America closely identify with the Packers.

“When I first went to work for the team, I told them this is the greatest story in sports. It’s that romance of the team surviving against all odds and then becoming the most successful franchise in the NFL.”

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