American Football: Why hard-drinking Cheeseheads are in moral vanguard

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It is one of the ironies of modern American sports that the nation's best supported professional football team hails from a part of the country that the average citizen would struggle to locate on a large scale map. Nick Halling reports from San Diego on a sporting phenomenon preparing for the Super Bowl, which takes place on Sunday.

Green Bay is a tiny outpost located somewhere in that nowhere-land between Chicago and the Canadian border, a population of 80,000 hardy souls barely registering as a blip on terms of market demographics. Yet its team, the Packers outsells all its big city rivals on the merchandising front, and on Sunday, they are overwhelming favourites to retain their status as national champions when they take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII here.

The Packers are not the oldest team in the National Football League, (an honour that belongs to the Cardinals organisation, currently based in Arizona), but their story is the most remarkable. Unlike their 29 fellow franchises the Packers are the only publicly owned organisation in the NFL, 4,634 shares of stock being divided between 1,915 stockholders, and managed by a 45- person board of directors. Not for Packer fans a fear of franchise relocation. It is a logistical impossibility.

The Packers, who took their nickname from their first sponsor, a meat packing company, traced their birth to September 1919, a 53-0 defeat of the Menominee North End Athletic Club serving notice of the pre-eminence to come.

Their founder and coach, Earl "Curly" Lambeau would continue to run the team until 1949, compiling more than 200 victories and bringing six championships to the state of Wisconsin along the way. It was largely down to Lambeau's inspirational leadership that as the game evolved away from small town America towards the larger industrial conurbations, the Packers were able to adapt and survive.

But by 1959, they were in the doldrums. After 12 years of on-field ineptitude the Packers asked Vince Lombardi, a fiesty tough-talking opinionated New York Italian, to transform their fortunes. Within three seasons Lombardi's Packers had become the most ruthlessly efficient outfit the game has ever seen.

Featuring players like the quarterback Bart Starr, versatile running back Paul Hornung and the fearsome linebacker Ray Nitschke, Green Bay claimed five titles in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls, following the merger with the rival American Football League in the late 1960s.

Following his early death from cancer in 1970 the league named its Super Bowl trophy after Lombardi, whose achieve-ment is without parallel.

During the Lombardi era Packer followers unofficially renamed their town Titletown USA. There is no mistaking Packer fans. Festooned in the club colours of yellow and green, they are loud, passionate, and seem to be everywhere. At the NFC Champion ship game in San Francisco two weeks ago, 12,000 Green Bay fans were in attendance, despite the team having been officially allocated just 500 tickets.

Many of them sport huge lumps of plastic cheese on their heads; the state of Wisconsin produces over two billion pounds of cheese per annum, more than any other state in the US, and they like to drink. Wisconsin tops the league in brandy consumption (hardly surprising, given the arctic conditions its residents have to endure) while in 1996 Wisconsin vendors sold 1.5 million barrels of beer enough for every adult in the state to down over 400 cans.

"Drinking is definitely part of the culture here but the image of the Cheeseheads gets overblown" said Nitschke. "These are good hard-working people who like to work hard and play hard.

"The Packers bring them all together no matter where in life they come from."

Through the lean years of the 1970s and 80s however, the Cheeseheads had little to shout about. The foundations of the current dynasty were laid in 1992, when Mike Holmgren was hired as head coach.

Holmgren, a dead ringer for the golfer Craig Stadler, learned his trade under Bill Walsh the cerebral strategist who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls in the 1980s.

Holmgren acquired the quarterback Brett Favre from the Atlanta Falcons in what proved to be an inspired trade. Since arriving in Green Bay Favre has been named the league's most valuable player for unprecedented three consecutive seasons, and leading his team to victory over the New England Patriots in last year's Super Bowl.

Equally significant was the acquisition in 1993 of the defensive end Reggie White from Philadelphia. The most gifted defensive player of his generation, White's presence has been felt on and off the field, his determination and discipline an inspiration to his colleagues. "I don't mind if my team- mates feel the need to swear" said White an ordained minister, "But they better make sure they don't swear at me."

American loves a sporting underdog and in the Packers they have found a wholesome antidote to the boorish antics of the Dallas Cowboys whose three recent Super Bowl victories were tarnished by tales of sex, drugs and assorted sleaze. By virtue of their very existence, the Packers are a throwback to a simpler era and, in the goofy grin of Favre and the strong moral lead of White, new national heroes have emerged. Whatever happens here on Sunday, Titletown USA is back on the map.