Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 10, 2011

The Trophy Goes Home

There is a comic moment in one of the early scenes of “Lombardi,” the superbly acted Broadway dramatization of the legendary coach’s early years in Green Bay. As Dan Lauria in the title role ponders whether to become a candidate for the Packers’ vacant head coaching position, the actress Judith Light, portraying Lombardi’s wife Marie, tries in vain to locate Green Bay on an atlas map of Wisconsin. One by one she calls out the names of other municipalities while not spying the little city at the head of its like-named bay. As with most effective comedy, the moment succeeds in part because of its substantial element of truth.

In our major professional sports, there are large markets and there are small markets; and then there is Green Bay. With a population of 102,000, the city is easily the smallest to serve as home to a franchise. Manchester, New Hampshire is larger. Alexandria, Virginia is almost fifty percent larger. Those two examples aren’t entirely apt, because Manchester is less than an hour north of Boston, and Alexandria is smack in the middle of the densely populated D.C. metropolitan area. Drive an hour from Green Bay and one can get to, well, Oshkosh; or perhaps the outskirts of Sheboygan.

But there in Green Bay sits Lambeau Field, its 73,000 seats enough to accommodate most of the city’s residents. The field is named after Curly Lambeau, the Green Bay native who was the Packers’ founder and first great hero. A standout player at Green Bay East High School, Lambeau made the Notre Dame varsity as a freshman; but was forced to return home prior to his sophomore year because of a severe case of tonsillitis. As a 21-year old he founded the Packers along with George Whitney Calhoun in 1919, drawing the team’s name from his job at the Indian Packing Company. Lambeau starred as a halfback for the Packers for a decade; and took on the added role of head coach shortly before the franchise joined the fledgling National Football League in 1921. Over three decades Lambeau coached Green Bay to six NFL titles, which ties him with George Halas for the most coaching championships.

Lambeau left the team after the 1949 season. In a move eerily presaging one by Lombardi two decades later, he reappeared on the sidelines briefly as head coach of the Washington Redskins. The Packers, meanwhile, fell on hard times. But despite nine consecutive years without a winning record, the residents of Green Bay remained fiercely loyal. When the NFL threatened to force the team to move to Milwaukee unless a new stadium was built, Green Bay voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to finance the structure in 1956.

Constructed for just under $1 million and originally called City Stadium, the field opened in time for the 1957 season. Two years later, after a dismal 1-10 performance in 1958, ownership turned to Vince Lombardi, then an assistant with the New York Giants. Despite Marie’s reluctance, Lombardi jumped at the chance to prove himself worthy of a head coaching contract. The rest really is a whole lot of NFL history, much of it made on the natural turf of Lambeau.

Lombardi immediately turned the team around, posting a winning record in his first season and going to the league’s title game in his second. Then over the next seven years the Packers ruled professional football, winning five championships, including of course decisive victories over Kansas City and Oakland in the first two Super Bowls. But as great as those two victories were, the game that most defines the Lombardi era in Green Bay was the NFL title match against the Cowboys prior to Super Bowl II.

The “Ice Bowl,” played on New Year’s Eve, 1967, still sets the standard for brutal conditions. At game time the temperature was -15 degrees, with a wind chill of -36. Lambeau’s turf-heating system broke down, leaving a rock hard and icy playing surface that would eventually give the stadium its well-known nickname. The officials were unable to use their metal whistles, stopping play throughout the contest with hand signals and shouts.

With Dallas clinging to a 21-17 lead with 4:50 to play, Green Bay got the ball on their own 32-yard line. With no margin for error, and with Lombardi pacing the sideline, quarterback Bart Starr led the Packers down the field, throwing three key completions during the drive. With the clock winding down fullback Chuck Mercein rumbled 8 yards to the Cowboys’ 3-yard line, setting up first and goal. Twice running back Donny Anderson plunged into the line, and twice he was stopped at the one.

As the clock hit sixteen seconds, Starr called his final timeout. It is said that during that final stoppage, when Starr suggested a quarterback sneak to Lombardi as they conferred on the sideline, the coach responded, “Well, run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” Run it Bart Starr did, squeezing into the end zone behind the block of guard Jerry Kramer. By then the thermometer had dropped to -20, but the nearly 51,000 fans that had filled Lambeau to its then-capacity were still on hand to witness and cheer their team’s, and their little city’s, triumph.

Long after Lombardi’s untimely death and the naming of the Super Bowl trophy in his honor, Green Bay returned to the title game in 1996, winning the city’s 12th championship behind the coaching of Mike Holmgren and the passing of Brett Favre. Last Sunday of course, with Mike McCarthy patrolling the sideline and Aaron Rodgers calling signals and throwing for three touchdowns in a game that proved the Super Bowl can still be about exciting football and not just commercials and commercialism, the smallest market team of all won its 13th title, most in the NFL.

As a Wild Card and the 6th seed in the NFC, this Green Bay team had to win without benefit of a home playoff game at Lambeau. But on Tuesday afternoon, on a day not much warmer than New Year’s Eve, 1967, they brought the Lombardi Trophy home to a raucous celebration before 56,000 of their faithful, in a city less than twice that size. A young and obviously talented team, with a quarterback who performed on Sunday like a steely veteran rather than a third-year starter playing in his first Super Bowl, Green Bay looks like a team that should contend for years to come.

Of course in sports nothing is ever certain. In the NFL that uncertainty extends to when the next game will even be played. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in three weeks, all day negotiations between the owners and the players’ union scheduled for today were abruptly cancelled. It is hard to fathom that the two sides would risk the wrath of fans that a lockout and stoppage of play will certainly bring down upon the game. But then one should never underestimate the power of greed. For fans, the only solace is that if the two sides should foolishly conspire to slay their golden goose, then for however long we are without football at least the Lombardi Trophy will rest where it most belongs.

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