Lambeau Field in Green Bay is less a stadium than it is a state of mind. If you can ever find a way to get there, try to do it at least once. Because the NFL is big and corporate, and the Packers are part of that, for sure, but when you walk into that stadium, even with all of the renovations that have been done over the years, you can still kind of convince yourself that things are the way they used to be.
Me? I've probably been there 20 times. The first time was in 1983 for an exhibition game, memorable mostly because it was Dick Vermeil's first try at announcing after retiring as the Eagles' coach the previous year because he was burned out. Vermeil talked about being nervous on the plane to a bunch of reporters on the same flight -- nervous about broadcasting, not about a really bumpy flight that we were enduring. You might have heard that he turned out to be pretty good at the broadcasting thing, just as he was at the coaching thing.
Back then, Lambeau's capacity was just north of 55,000. The stadium was just a bowl, with bench seats and a press box on one side. Through a series of renovations over the years, the capacity has been increased to about 80,000, with luxury boxes and new concourses and all of the modern amenities. But the bowl remains. It is the essence of the place.
Thirty years ago, the NFL did not sell nearly as much stuff as it does today. In the mid-'80s, you couldn't get very much team-themed outerwear, except for maybe a warmup jacket. So when you went to Lambeau in the winter, even though the Packers' colors are green and gold, the most noticeable color in the stands was orange because people wore their warmest hunting clothes to sit in the stands.
You still see some orange these days, but it is mostly green and gold now. It is still pretty hard to find a reasonably priced hotel room in Green Bay proper, so I have stayed over the years in nearby De Pere, and more distant Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Appleton, Fond du Lac and Milwuakee. It doesn't matter, though.
Because you get in there, and the bowl is the same. And the town still has only about 100,000 people. And if you are ever there when the Packers pull off a late win on a Monday night, as I was one time, this is what you witness after you run down to the locker room to grab a couple of quotes and then come back up to the press box:
Thousands of people, still in the stands, near midnight Central time. The marching band, from one of the hyphenated campuses of the University of Wisconsin, still playing. People singing along to a series of songs, including the two that have been standards up there over the years: "Bang the Drum All Day," and the Budweiser theme song that the university has adopted as its unoffical anthem.
When you say Wisssssss-con-sin,
You've said it all.
It was beyond hokey.
It also was beyond great.
One of the best things that has happened to me as a Philadelphia sportswriter was when the people at Penn asked for my picture to be included in a media section when they were renovating the Palestra concourses. The best thing about the picture, taken by a Daily News photographer in a last-minute rush, is that I am seated in the Lambeau Field press box. It is just too perfect.