Take the exit for Wisconsin-32/Oneida Street/Ashland Avenue in Green Bay, then follow the signs for Pilgrim Way. Drive past Hobby Lobby and Best Buy and all the other stores that let you know you’re Somewhere in America, even if the exact location might not be clear.
If you decide to stuff your face at Golden Corral, it’s comforting to know that nearby are no fewer than four mattress stores (also the kind of shop found in every town), where you can buy some rest for your food-comatose self. There’s also a funeral home not far away, should it come to that.
Take a right on Ridge Road, and the collection of franchised businesses begins to fall away, replaced by neat ranch homes lining up in one, long, small-town salute.
And then, out of nowhere, in nowhere by big-city standards, Lambeau Field bursts into view. It might be the most jarring sight in American sports. A massive, 81,441-seat stadium plopped in the middle of a neighborhood of regular folks.
And it’s absolutely wonderful.
I’ve made this trip every season for more than 20 seasons, and my reaction is the same every time I turn onto Ridge: I can’t believe an NFL team lives here. That reaction is followed by a question: How much home does Aaron Rodgers’ $33.5 million annual salary buy here?
The Bears play the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau, and the game will mean a lot because it always does. That has nothing to do with the Bears’ skinny playoffs hopes and everything to do with two football teams that go back to the Mesozoic Era. This season is the NFL’s 100th — perhaps you’ve heard — and nothing symbolizes it better than this game in this place.
But back to the awe. All these road trips to Green Bay, and the mind still struggles to grasp it: an NFL team. Here. Forget about throwback jerseys. The very idea of this is a throwback.
When Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks talks about the first time he encountered Lambeau Field, it’s like hearing someone else describe a drive-in movie and a malt afterward.
“You’re driving through this little town,’’ he said. “We’re on buses. It gives you that old-school, high school, driving-to-a-game feel. You pull up at the stadium and you say, ‘Hey, this is Lambeau.’ It’s a cool feeling. I think that makes the place special.’’
It’s as if George Halas had never moved his team from Decatur to Chicago in 1921, had never turned the Staleys into the Bears. Try to imagine that. Imagine an NFL franchise in a central Illinois city with a population of 72,174. Crazy? Green Bay proper has a population of 105,116. In 1920, Decatur (43,818) had a bigger population than Green Bay (31,643) did.
So it’s possible to picture modern-day Decatur as a similar bantamweight city with an NFL team. Packers fans are Cheeseheads. If Halas had not gotten restless, you, dear Bears fans, would be Soybeanheads. What might have been.
In Green Bay, what is and what was are almost indistinguishable. When Rodgers is done driving the Packers to another touchdown inside Lambeau, he has the option to drive his car down Lombardi Avenue right outside the stadium.
The franchise has won 13 championships, the most in league history. Part of Chicago hates the Packers for that. Part of Chicago pretends to hate the Packers for that.
Here’s the truth: We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves without them. You say another team would fill the hate vacuum if the Packers didn’t exist? Not like this. There’s too much familiarity between the two fan bases, too much trash-talking, too much of a past. There’s not too much of a good thing.
There’s just history, a lot of it.
“I love the inside of the stadium,’’ Hicks said. “Lambeau was where I played one of my first NFL games. I remember just looking around the entire stadium — and I’ve done it ever since — and seeing the history and the great names that have come through there. There are only a few places that have that type of history.’’
The Packers are community-owned, with more than 360,000 shareholders, many of whom do their civic duty and paint their faces green and gold on game day. Bless them all. They’re the reason the team has stayed in Green Bay. If the Packers had had a robber-baron owner, they’d be playing somewhere that didn’t force fans to wear snowmobile and hunting apparel to fight the elements.
Oh, that cold. I covered the NFC Championship Game between the Packers and Giants on Jan. 20, 2008. The temperature at kickoff was minus-1 and the wind chill was minus-23. My rental car started, but the frozen door wouldn’t shut. I held onto it and drove until it thawed.
When I walked around the stadium before the game, I saw a guy with no shirt and an oversized thermometer hanging from a chain around his neck. That’s Lambeau. With a lot of beer thrown in.
“I tell people, I’ve never been cold in my life since then,” former Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer told the Washington Post two years ago. “Because I know what real cold feels like.”
Green Bay’s weather forecast for Sunday calls for sunny skies and a high of 14. Balmy. You’ll see steam coming from players’ mouths, and you’ll see two teams fighting for territory. You’ll see a small city that never really grew up. In a good way.