It was 2008. We decided to take a family vacation to New York at the end of July. By we, I mean: my mother and my father wanted to take a trip to New York and my brother—Chicago’s newest citizen and most eligible bachelor—and I—readying my venture of four years in East Lansing—agreed to go on one more family trip before I officially became a co-ed. Part of the lure, though, was the opportunity to see one of America’s most treasured landmarks: Yankee Stadium; which was especially important, since Yankee Stadium was about to see its final turnstiles turned that fall. The Davidoffs have, are, and will always be a baseball family at heart (much like Detroit is a baseball city at heart). There’s been something special ingrained in our pop culture souls that guides us to the baseball diamonds every summer. And in baseball, perhaps more than other sports, a team’s stadium and field holds so much more meaning to the players and the fans alike. For the players, each field is different; with variable dimensions, foul territory, bullpen locations, hitter backdrops, or sometimes they’ll even add a hill in center field just to mess with people. For the fans, everyone has their preferred sight-lines and territorial seats. At a baseball park, locations become memories: where we caught that foul ball, where that hom erun sailed over our heads, or, in my family’s case, where my mother got smacked in the forehead by a J.T. Snow line-drive. And, in baseball, you have 81 chances to see your team play at home, where, I believe, you gain a much stronger connection to your home team than in any sport.
It’s why, in baseball, there is such a draw for fans to travel the country to see all the different stadiums and what they have to offer. Which is why when we heard Yankee Stadium was closing its doors, and we were going to be traveling there that summer, my father decided to do whatever it took to get tickets to a game while we were there. I’m not sure what he did to get those tickets and I’ll never ask, but in August 2008 the Davidoff family ventured into the Bronx to see the Oakland Athletics take on the Yankees at the A’s final appearance at the old Yankee Stadium. Yes, Yankee Stadium; the house that Ruth built, DiMaggio cemented, Mantle mantled, and Jeter set soaring into baseball heavens before it became the house than Steinbrenner cloned, then demolished.
We went. Nerves flowing into giddy excitement, my family and I stepped into the ever-hollowed Yankee Stadium—with our Tigers gear on. Yes, we were those fans: wearing team colors for a team that wasn’t fielding balls on the diamond that afternoon. Yankee Stadium was great. It was a wondrous look into baseball history and I will never forget the opportunity to see it that day, in its last year. But I will not say I was blown away. Maybe it was because it was ridiculously hot that day and the game was kind of boring. Or maybe it was because the sound sucked and I couldn’t even hear Bob Sheppard introduce Derek Jeter. Perhaps it was the crowd. You know Yankees fans; how they are. They weren’t really into the game at all, save some “hip hip, Jorge” chants. And they couldn’t stop dogging my family for wearing Tigers sherseys. Remember, the Tigers weren’t too hot that summer. Whatever it was, I didn’t get the exact emotional response walking in and out of Yankee Stadium that I thought I would get. Sure, the baseball history there existed as it did, but it didn’t have the intimate excitement of Tiger Stadium, or the gorgeous backdrop of Comerica Park, or the quirky stories and landmarks of Fenway Park—
—Fenway Park. We also visited there on a trip years earlier, though we didn’t go to a game. Even if the Red Sox were in town that week, I think even my father would have had trouble snagging tickets without giving up his first born (that’s my brother, so I would have been in the clear, though. Just saying). Fenway is just hard to get tickets to. They sell out all the time. Because it’s small. Where Yankee Stadium tries to pack 50,000 a game, Fenway is usually around the 37 mark—which makes it easy to sell out. Fenway was awesome. Seriously. What a fascinating venue. So much fun history there, from the Green Monster to the Pesky Pole to the CITGO sign over left field. But there was also the part of us that walked through the halls of Fenway where paint was chipping off, and we sat in the seats, whose bottoms were broken, and wondered to ourselves if Fenway is not yearly renovated, will it go the way of Tiger Stadium?
It was 2011. My family took a drive down I-94 to see the Red Wings take on the Blackhawks and visit my brother while we were at it. To the United Center in Chicago we went. Yes, the United Center. The airline-named stadium where Michael Jordan flew. Supposedly, the best indoor sports venue the Midwest has to offer. It was my first time there. And, look, The Joe has its problems, but we come from Detroit, where (location withstanding) The Palace of Auburn Hills might be the best damn venue for a basketball game or a concert in the entire country. The United Center is strange, with its seats so high you’d think it was engineered for a football game. It was tough to watch a hockey game there—I couldn’t imagine watching a basketball game there. Furthermore, I can’t go to a hockey game and drink Canadian beer? What gives, Chicago?
And then there are the fans, who scream “Detroit sucks!” between each and every stoppage of play—a treat they reserve only for the Red Wings; a chant that, against every other team, is “let’s go Hawks!”. But, I get it. There will always be this disdain between Chicago and Detroit fans. I am not sure why it exists to the extent and aggressiveness that it does. though. For Detroiters, I am certain there is a bit of (for a lack of a better term) inferiority complex. The city of Chicago is everything we thought Detroit would once be. Chicagoans think they are better than us in every way, but we want the world to know that Detroiters do some amazing things, too. Why Chicagoans have the disdain they do for Detroit fans? I’m not sure. Perhaps the way the Bad Boys stopped Jordan from a couple of more championships in the late 80s still stings for them. Either way, the only chance we ever get to duke it out as city rivals is when our sports teams play. The Chicago fans, sometimes, are a bit much. I won’t make rash generalizations, but when multiple people at the United Center saw my Datsyuk jersey and came up to my mother and I to tell us to “f$%@ off”, you get the sense that you’re not wanted there at all. That’s my mother, guys! Come on!
The Blackhawks won. While we stood on the streets of Chicago trying to catch a cab, we got a mouthful from the Chicago fans that passed us. Luckily, that winter, I had the pleasure of being able to respond to each and every Blackhawks fan giving me crap with the simple question: “When is the Bears’ playoff game?”
Out of the Lions’ Den, into the Tundra
It was a few weeks ago. I sat down at the deli for dinner with my parents and my grandparents. Like most Sunday dinners, conversation started with that day’s Lions recap. Just minutes earlier, the Honolulu Blue had completed their game against Minnesota with a W. It was the kind of game the Lions would normally lose, except they didn’t. The idea that this Lions team was somehow different than the rest began to stir in my mind. And with Jay Cutler and the Bears—next on the schedule—looking more like the Cubs, an NFC North title game seemed destined with the Packers: the last game of the season. My father turned from the opposite side of the table and glared at me.
“Kale. Lambeau, baby,” he announced.
“Yeah. Should be a fun game.”
Then he said it. “Let’s go.”
I laughed. He asked why. Why would I laugh at the idea that my father, at his age (not to be disclosed), would want to sit at a football game in Northern Wisconsin the 28th of December? He likes football, sure, but this is Green Bay! In December! The last time he sat outside at a football game was the 60s, when the Lions were playing at Tiger Stadium. And all I ever heard about those stories is how terribly, insufferably cold it was. At least I had recently sat through some pretty cold football games in East Lansing (2009 Iowa game, anyone?).
There wasn’t a chance, I thought. Until my dad brought it up a second time at the end of dinner. He gave me the ultimatum: if I was fully committed to going, he was, like Yankee Stadium, going to find a way to get us to the game. The Lions hadn’t won at Lambeau since 1991. I was one year old, so it is safe to say I had never seen the Lions win at Lambeau Field. The opportunity to go to one of the NFL’s most-revered stadiums to see the Lions make history could not be passed up. I saw the seriousness in my father’s eyes. Trust me, I know that look—that look he has when he sees an opportunity to do something memorable and will stop at nothing to insure its fruition.
He was all in.
And so was I.
It wasn’t soon after this that I told the world I was going to Lambeau to see the Lions finally beat the Packers on their home turf and everyone except my friend Sam (who was also going to Lambeau with his father) was sending me texts and facebook messages about how jealous they were of the possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity my dad and I were about to witness. Jealous, but supportive. Because even the cynics were starting to believe in our Lions. Maybe not believing they were going to do it, but, damn it, if there was ever a year that there was a chance, this was that year. Days before, my friends and I sat down and watched highlights from the 1991 season, which showcased the Lions winning at Lambeau—if they only knew back then what this would mean to us now.
My friend Michael let me borrow his authentic Reggie Bush jersey. I packed it and a sweatshirt, along with the massive jacket I bought at Dunham’s before the MSU-Iowa game in 2009. My father packed just about everything Dick’s had in its winter gear aisle into his suitcase and we were on our way to the airport.
Takeoff to Kickoff
Green Bay’s airport reminded me of the airport in Wilmington, North Carolina except smaller. The thing about a smaller airport, almost always, is that the people there are usually nicer and happier than at a big, busier airport, so I didn’t read into any of the smiles and generosity we were getting from everyone when we landed. It seemed like anyone was going through that airport for one reason and one reason only: The Game. Packers and Lions garb donned just about everyone there.
It took us three seconds to get from the gate to the parking lot. What was this place? How was a football team this big in a city so small? Those were my initial thoughts, because, really!
We walked outside and thought, this ain’t that bad. We’re from Michigan, we’ve experienced the cold before.
On the way to our hotel, there was all but one topic with the cab driver: The Game. And it was different than most other experiences you have with opposing fans. Our cab driver was surprisingly interested in who we thought was going to win the game the next day: our Lions or his Packers. But he wasn’t in it to jab in our face how much better the Packers are year in and year out than the Lions. He didn’t even seem to know about the streak the Packers held at home against the Lions. For him, he was just glad that we had traveled into his town to go to his field to see some football the way Green Bayites know how to watch football. We arrived at the hotel, hopped out of his van, and he wished us and the Lions good luck; which my dad and I thought was strange. I just assumed that this quiet, elderly cab driver—with his winter beret and (what I thought was exclusively a) Yooper accent—was simply one of the few genuinely nice Packers fans we’d meet among a routy, disrespectful group of drunk football fans.
You see, we are Detroit/Michigan State sports fans. We’re used to Cleveland fans and Chicago fans and Ohio State and Michigan fans. We’re just used to ugly and—a lot of times—annoying rivalries that hold, sometimes, much more meaning than just the play on the field. So, we expected to be treated by Packers fans in Green Bay similarly to the way that Indians fans would start chants in the 7th inning of a Tigers game, like “Detroit’s bankrupt!” clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.
We were wrong. It turned out happy cab driver was not alone, for it seemed something was truly in the water up in Green Bay. Every waiter and hotel concierge and TSA officer and concession stand worker all started conversations the same way: “Welcome to Green Bay” and ended them the same way: “Good luck!”. It’s the kind of place where you’ll be sitting down eating lunch and Packers fans will come up to you to have a simple football conversation; to tell you where you need to eat, where you can park, what gate you need to enter Lambeau.
We’d ask tips on where to drink before the game. “Oh, you can go anywhere,” they’d say in their Faux-Yooper accents, “just walk around the stadium and stop by almost any tailgate. They’ll give you food and drink.” We’d ask about the weather and they’d gladly give us tips on what to wear and which brand of hand warmers works the best. And we’d ask about Lambeau: we’d tell them this was our first time, and we’d show them our tickets, in the 300-level, and they’d all say: “Oh, those are great seats. There’s not a bad seat in the whole damn place. Not a bad seat at all.”
For the respect these fans have for their football heritage is matched only by their respect for their favorite team’s stadium.
Cheese and Packing, Sure, but: Football
More than most sports, I’d say, professional football teams base their mascots and stadiums and names after deep rooted economic industries in their cities. The Steelers, for example, take on the history of the iron and steel industry in one of America’s toughest rust belt cities. The 49ers embrace San Francisco’s history of the gold rush. The Oilers used to embrace Houston’s biggest economic drive. Even the Patriots envelope themselves in Bostonian historical fame. And the Lions have such strong, deep-rooted ties to Ford Motor Company and its city’s auto industry. The Packers, too, have their namesake rooted in the city’s once-famed ACME Packing Company. Yet, that company has been long gone, and Green Bay’s economy is no where near tied to the packing industry as the auto companies are to Detroit’s very being. There’s the cheese, though, right? I suppose. But the cheese industry is more of a Wisconsin industry and even Sargento—the Ford of cheese companies, you could say—is based well south of Green Bay in Wisconsin.
I knew all of this going in and, I suppose, I would sometimes make fun of the Packers and their silly customs. That was, until I spent a day in Green Bay and went to their football game. It was clear from the airport gate to the hotel room to the restaurants and bars to Lambeau Field, Green Bay is truly all about one thing and one thing only: football.
My friend Sam and I, an hour or so before the game, were discussing why it was that the Packers fans were so nice to us. Perhaps it is because they didn’t fear the Lions at all. I mean, why should they? In that sense, the Lions are to the Packers what, say, the Royals are to the Tigers. They are that team that is so thirsty for success, that Tigers and White Sox fans alike don’t have the sort of hatred for the Royals that you would for a more prominent division rival. More to that point, for as nice as the Packers fans were to us, there was sure a lot of mutual disdain for the Bears going on between both fan-bases. I wondered if Chicago football-goers would be treated with such respect. And for a moment, I was sure that would not be the case. Thinking about it, now, though, I am certain that the Packers treat our Windy City counterparts with almost equal treatment.
The reason is this: in Green Bay, Packers fans don’t need to talk up their team or their city because you’re in their house now. Because juxtaposed against the nice-talking, Yooper-sounding, sweet-hearted, welcoming, green and yellow Aaron Rodgers lovers was the wintry, fierce, football backdrop. A day was all I needed to understand that this town not only loved football like every other town, but it was football. Where the Steelers embrace their steel heritage and the Patriots love Paul Revere and the Lions steep themselves in the Motor City’s greatest economic achievements, the Packers hold a unique place in the NFL world in that they are the only team that is informed solely by its football heritage. Everywhere you go, there are pictures of Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. Where the citizens are welcoming, Curly and Vince are not. From their pictures and their quotes, you get the sense that these two men created a football legacy in Green Bay that is instilled in the team, even today. You just get that sense, looking into Vince Lombardi’s eyes; those black and white photos lining every restaurant and bar and storefront wall in Green Bay are just irking on out-of-town visitors. Walking around Green Bay the day before and the day of, I felt this genuinely creeped-out feeling that this is where real, true, American football was born and bred—that everything else was somewhat of a farce. I got the feeling that Curly and Vince knew exactly what they were doing, even back in the day: inviting the country’s best football players to come all the way up to Northern Wisconsin to try and prove their worth.
It’s that damn smile. That damn, gap-toothed, mischievous grin that Vince Lombardi gave in every photo; the kind of smile you only see from superhero villains. And he looks like just that: the most masterful of villains. With his overcoat and fedora, glasses and smirk, Vince Lombardi is still taunting all of football: You think you know tough? Come play in Green Bay. You think it’s cold up here? This is where we train, every day. And you think you know football? Prove it by winning at Lambeau.
After all of it: all the cheerful football talk and all the welcoming pleasantries, I am sure that the Packers fans were simply being nice to us because there was no doubt in their minds that Aaron Rodgers and his team was going to go out there and shove our Lions into the cold, hard, Lambeau ground.
Are You Not Entertained?
Where I was underwhelmed by Yankee Stadium, where I was confused by Fenway’s lack of upkeep, and where I couldn’t see a damn thing at The United Center, Lambeau Field did not disappoint in any way. The steps up to the stadium seemed of ancient proportion. We saw the towering bowl and the blue-collar architectural design and we knew it not the brisk weather that gave us chills. Lambeau was classic, but updated, with a beautiful glass atrium for you to warm up and drink beer in. The fans, of course, were as welcoming in the inside as they were on the outside. And the view from our 300-level seats were absolutely perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
It was cold. It was damn cold. I had been in cold football weather before, but when the sun began to set at an early 4:30p (an hour into the game) in northern Wisconsin, the chill began to set in on our souls. And it was clear from the very beginning that we were visitors. Everyone around us seemed to have a better tolerance for the cold than we did. The ghost of Vince Lombardi was doing everything to make it hell for the Lions and their fans. Before the game started, the chilliest wind swirled throughout the stadium and snow began to fall, almost on command to precipitate on what was otherwise the sunniest December weekend in Green Bay in years. The Lions were hopping in place near the bench, trying to keep warm, as the PA Announcer and Green Bay fans welcomed in their home team to the loudest of cheers. It was clear, early on, that, along with the Lions, my dad and I and all the other Detroit fans in the stadium were civilians among gladiators.
And that’s how it felt the whole game. The gladiators versus the lions, in the Colosseum that was Lambeau field. The lions were being tortured, as the gladiators were being cheered on by their greatest admirers. It literally is torture. Lambeau holds its own meaning for home field advantage, especially in late December. Because like I saw in Vince’s eyes, it’s true: the Packers practice and prepare for this weather constantly. They play in this weather all the time. The Lions don’t. And it’s clear that the Lions’ once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed quarterback and leader who was born in Florida, played high school in Texas, and college in the South still has no idea how to succeed in true blue, real, cold, American football. Matthew Stafford’s accuracy had been questioned in games previous, so it was no surprise that at Lambeau, in the foreign cold, it was barely there at all. It cost the Lions the game, where the gladiator Aaron Rodgers led his band of football-hardened all stars to victory.
Rodgers left the game in the first half with further issue to his already injured calf. The looks on the faces of his admirers was a look I hadn’t seen all weekend from Packers fans: the look of doubt. “We’re f%$#ed,” some said. And although Matt Flynn had torn the Lions apart before, no one was convinced the highly-paid back up could do it against this Lions’ defense. Then, from the tunnel, out came a walking Aaron Rodgers. In the middle of a play, Rodgers made it back to the Green Bay sideline under his own power. And his admirers noticed immediately. It was then that chants of “M-V-P” shook the stadium and were heard all the way to Milwaukee. Chants that I heard, in my head, went like this: “Max-i-mus! Max-i-mus!”[youtube http://youtu.be/hriR60Y4w48]
The gladiator returned. To slay the lions.
Roots and a Fandom Strengthened
I had a strange epiphany during the game: most of these fans were not from Green Bay, and a large majority of them were not from Wisconsin and had no familial connection to the Cheese State at all. Yes, in fact, many of the Packers fans come from all over the country. Before my trip, I would have found that to be absolutely ridiculous, but the trip to Green Bay made me realize that this was a true mecca for all football fans. If you needed to follow a team you were certain would win decade in and decade out, the Packers are your team to convert to. When Joique Bell fumbled a hand off from Matthew Stafford the play following a blocked field goal, a man dressed in all Packers gear next to my father said: “We’re from Detroit, but that is why we can never be Lions fans.”
A strange sentiment, but I’ve seen it before. I guess I will never understand that. The Lions have given us almost nothing but sorrow, as football fans, but they are still our team. They are the organization I was taught to like to hate and love to love. The Lions taught me what it’s like to be a true fan through and through; that bandwagons have no meaning here. We’ve been through the Millen years for godssake. Green Bay showed me what a winning team and a winning organization and a winning town looks like, but I’m still a Lions fan.
I’m, perhaps, a bigger Lions fan now than I was before because of all the Detroit fans we saw in Green Bay who shared with us the struggle. Because, just before a Lions goal line stand, “Lose Yourself” came on the loudspeaker at Lambeau and all of the Lions fans looked at each other to rejoice in “our song” from “our guy”. Because being a Lions fan from Detroit is about more than just football; we have such a history in Detroit and it follows our team on the football field. Because the roman philosopher Cicero told stories of lions that dispatched gladiators, and even though I wasn’t there to see the lions take down the gladiators at the Colosseum, we know it is going to happen at some point.
And when it does, the Lions fans at Lambeau will cast down the most soulful cheers Green Bay has ever heard.