American Football: The Bay of plenty

Super Bowl XXXI: Loyalty bonus puts small-town America back in the big-time. John Carlin reports

Every new-born baby is a little bundle of hope, especially in Green Bay where the first thing mom and dad do after obtaining the infant's birth certificate is put him on the waiting list for a season-ticket to the Packers' home games.

The list stands at 27,000 and rising. Season tickets are renewable each year and such is the devotion of the fans that new ones become available only when a person dies, or becomes terminally incapacitated. Compounding the likelihood of junior ever seeing his parents' dream come true is a clause in the Packers' founding statutes which allows the 56,111 season- ticket holders to pass on these most prized of all possessions in their wills. At the start of the present National Football League season 12 season tickets went up for sale. One of the lucky buyers had been on the waiting list for 26 years.

For the 97,000 inhabitants of Green Bay, Wisconsin, their American football team is not a religion, it is more important than that. If that sounds like Shanklyesque hyperbole, consider this: during the NFL season Sunday services at the town's predominantly Roman Catholic churches are rescheduled from week to week to ensure the congregants will not miss a precious minute of play.

Today, Packers fans are in heaven. Their team is playing in the Super Bowl and they are the overwhelming favourites to win. No one outside Boston believes that the New England Patriots have a prayer in New Orleans tonight. Barring a stunning upset, the Green Bay Packers will be bringing the Super Bowl trophy home. It is named after Vince Lombardi, the fabled coach who led the Packers to their last - but third consecutive - Super Bowl victory in 1967 and who coined the phrase "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing".

The Packers' revival under their present coach, Mike Holmgren, offers tempting comparisons with Manchester United's under Alex Ferguson. The tradition and the nostalgia are there, and so is the loyalty of the fans. During the Packers' lean 30 years their stadium, Lambeau Field, has been sold out for every game. But one difference is that Manchester has other things going for it besides United - City, for example. In Green Bay the Packers are all they have got, the locals having chosen not to make much of their one other distinction - their town is the world's toilet-paper making capital.

Another difference with Manchester United, or Sir John Hall's Newcastle or, more to the point, every other club in the NFL, is that the Green Bay Packers are - quite literally - owned by the fans. They are the only big-time American professional sports organisation that is not run for profit. No one is legally entitled to hold more than 200 of the club's 4,634 shares, each of which is valued at a fixed, untradeable price of $25. The Packers' substantial profits go to pay the staff and cover infrastructure costs. On the remote chance that the club should ever be sold the money would not go into the pockets of the local insurance men, dentists and toilet-paper technicians who own the shares. All of the proceeds of a hypothetical sale, again according to the club's unshakably quaint founding statutes, would go towards building a war memorial in Green Bay.

This is the guarantee that the Packers will never go the way of, say, the Cleveland Browns, whose owner, lured by better money-making opportunities, upped sticks at the end of last season and moved his team, giving birth to the Baltimore Ravens.

To a man, however, the Packers' playing staff are not natives of Green Bay. But no matter. The club is bigger than the individuals, each of whom is embraced as a hero the moment he dons the famous green and gold strip. If you are looking to prove the theory that racism can be vanquished Green Bay would be a good place to start. The town itself is overwhelmingly white, mostly of Polish and German extraction, but the locals' idols are overwhelmingly black - and extremely large. Towering over all of them is one of the two most venerated members of the team, the 6ft 5in, 22st, 36-year-old legend-in-his-own-lunchtime, defensive lineman Reggie White.

As further evidence that the Packers team have God as well as the big battalions on their side, White - alone perhaps in the annals of professional sport - is a fully ordained, practising Baptist preacher. When his home church in Tennessee was burnt down last year during a spate of racially inspired attacks on black churches in the South, the Green Bay locals clubbed together and raised $230,000 for the rebuilding effort, a token of gratitude and respect for a man whose demonic enthusiasm to inflict severe pain on opposition quarterbacks is matched only by an unflinching determination to spread the word of Jesus. When normal players appear before the media, they blurt the usual platitude. White delivers sermons.

"There is a scripture in the Bible that says, when Jesus sent his disciples out, he said, if you are accepted in a town do two things: eat whatever is put before you - I do that well - and two, heal the sick, and as you heal them tell them that the Kingdom of God is near. I think that the people of this state and the people who support this team must understand that God has a plan for this area. That's why He sent me here."

God also sent him there because the Packers offered him a $17m signing- on fee. As for the divine plan, it appears to have been, in White's eyes, a happy combination of instructing Green Bay in the value of racial harmony and bringing the Super Bowl home. Among the sick who God intended White to heal He might have included Brett Favre, the other local superhero. Favre, for two years the most successful quarter in the NFL, has a reputation as a bit of a wild boy - by local, not by Dallas Cowboys, standards. He is neither a cocaine user nor a rapist but he has recently got over an addiction to pain-killers and he does enjoy a beer more than most. White, an inspirational father-figure to Favre as much as to the rest of the team, has helped the team's star player focus his talents on the game.

The two are black and white, chalk and cheese. White wears a jacket that reads, "Jesus Christ. Alpha Omega. King of Kings." Favre's cap says "Repel". But White and Favre adore each other almost as much as the fans adore them. At the end of the play-off against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago Favre ran towards White who, tears in his eyes, embraced him in a bear-hug to end all bear-hugs. The fans exploded in a roar that for sheer passion and fervour and long-repressed rapture bears comparison to the response at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, when Nelson Mandela handed over the rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar.

The two will embrace again today, depend upon it. The heavens shall smile on Favre's arm, White's holy beef and the righteous faithful of Green Bay.

Prime time for Packers and Patriots: Matt Tench gives the lowdown yonder in New Orleans

Green Bay Packers

How to be

offensive:

The geographically challenged Packers operate the purist form of West Coast offense from the middle of Wisconsin, and having succeeded all season in the chilling outdoors, it should thrive in the Superdome. Quarterback Brett Favre is prone to adrenalin rushes early on, but once he settles has the arm to spread it far and wide. The Pack boast more receivers than a bankruptcy convention, but look especially to tight ends Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson in clutch situations. Running is a means to an end in this system, but Edgar Bennett's power and Dorsey Levens' speed should keep the Pack on track.

Case for

the defense:

Coaches call rushing through the middle of the line "running up the gut". For the Packers the gut in question is that of Gilbert Brown, who is 23 stone and sensitive about his weight. In anchoring the middle of the line this year he has improved an already formidable Packers' defensive unit, making them crushingly difficult to run against. With old hands Reggie White and Sean Jones having lost none of their appetite for quarterbacks, and Leroy Butler, a devastating blitzer, the Pack are no easier to pass against.

Extra special

teams:

For much of his career Desmond Howard has played like Frankie Howerd,

attracting ridicule and irritation as he failed to live up to the promise shown at college. At Green Bay he has found a niche as a kick returner. He has the pace - having scored a touchdown on the waterlogged Lambeau Field in the play-offs - to be especially threatening on the Superdome's artificial turf.

Stat that matters: The Pack were top scorers in the league and conceded the fewest points.

And one that doesn't: Mike Holmgren has never beaten the Patriots as a head coach.

Star to

watch

Brett Favre. The Kid is on home territory and in the mood to party. Expect no mercy.

Star in the

making: Dorsey Levens. Quick, clever back who can punish as a runner or receiver.

Notably quotable: "The cold weather and no nightlife." Tight end Keith Jackson explaining his initial reluctance to move to Green Bay.

New England Patriots

How to be

offensive:

In his New York days Bill Parcells would have considered his worst nightmare to be trusting in a slack-jawed young quarterback who didn't respond to being bawled at. At New England that nightmare has become real with Parcells and Drew Bledsoe forming the league's odd couple. Bledsoe has a gunslinger's arm and a pacifist's demeanour, but Parcells knows that on his day, given his abundance of targets, Bledsoe will notch up some stunning yardage. After Bledsoe's dismal showing against Jacksonville, though, Parcells may be more inclined to base his gameplan on the rushing of Curtis Martin.

Case for

the defense:

After nearly four years of striving to be anything better than mediocre, in the last month this unit has started playing like a Bill Parcells defense. They have not conceded a touchdown throughout the play-offs, but have not faced an

offense remotely as potent as the Packs'. The key figure is probably Willie McGinest, who came into the league hailed as Parcells' new Lawrence Taylor. While still not in that class of one, McGinest has the speed, both in getting to quarterbacks and stopping the run, to make him the defense's big playmaker.

Extra special

teams:

On the gridiron, as in other places, there is much to be said for faking it, and no one is better at that than Bill Parcells who coaches his side's special teams. The key here, as elsewhere, is not getting caught and knowing Parcells' propensity for fake punts, faked field goals, faked just about anything, the Pack will be expecting a trick or two.

Stat that matters: Bill Parcells has yet to lose a Super Bowl.

And one that doesn't: The last team to wear white in a Superdome Super Bowl (which the Pats are doing) won.

Star to

watch:

Curtis Martin. He confounded expectations by rushing for 166 yards and

scoring three TDs against the Steelers. A repeat would cause an upset.

Star in the

making: Willie Clay. "Big Play" Clay is his team's top interceptor and is sure to have plenty of balls fizzing around him.

Notably quotable: "Bill will scream `you suck', and Chris will come and say `what he meant was that was a poor read'." Drew Bledsoe on Parcells and coach Chris Palmer.

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