Green Bay carry hopes of traditionalists and neutrals

American football
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American football

MATT TENCH

It is not just the hopes of Wisconsin that the Green Bay Packers will carry with them into Texas Stadium tomorrow. For the sport's traditionalists, not to mention its sentimentalists, their appearance in the NFC Championship game gives what promises to be an enthralling encounter with the Dallas Cowboys a special poignancy.

Unlike most of their NFL brethren, the Pack's history dates back to the origins of the professional game. Formed in 1919, they began as the works team for the Indian Packing Company of Green Bay and, to further set them apart, have played in the same town, under the same name, ever since.

In a sport, perhaps a nation, where change is a constant, such continuity is accorded a special reverence, and there will be no shortage of armchair enthusiasts rooting for the green and yellow come kick-off time tomorrow.

Despite dominating the Thirties and the Sixties, the Packers' appearance in what is effectively a Super Bowl semi-final is a surprise. The smallest town to sustain a professional franchise, Green Bay has grown accustomed in the last two decades to seeing its team locked in the basement of the NFC Central.

Only in the last couple of years, under the daring stewardship of the head coach Mike Holmgren, have the Packers and their fanatical fans been able to aspire to anything like their former glories. Holmgren, who was the offensive co-ordinator in San Francisco, brought the West Coast offense with him, and has successfully established it in the harsher climes of the Great Lakes.

The key to doing so has been the performances of Brett Favre. There was a time when Favre was regarded as a quarterback who could lose you games. In the last couple of seasons he has been winning plenty of them.

Favre's devastating form this season presents the biggest threat to a Cowboy side that has a formidable recent record against the Pack, and has a better balanced attack which includes the phenomenal rushing skills of Emmitt Smith.

The Packers will be looking to their brilliant defensive end Reggie White to disrupt that offense, but his preparation for the game has been overshadowed by far more serious events off the field.

White is the pastor of a church in Knoxville, Tennessee. On Monday it was burned to the ground, with racist slogans daubed on the back door. "The only thing I'm upset about is maybe our police department is not taking this thing serious enough," White said.

"It's time to stop sweeping this stuff under the rug. If we don't do something about these groups, more people are going to die. I think until this country starts dealing strongly with these organisations that are doing things like this, we're going to continue to have these problems."

For White the game can only be a brutal distraction, but we can be sure that he will go into it with the words of one Green Bay legend ringing in his ears. "Winning isn't everything," said Vince Lombardi, the head coach of the Sixties' dynasty. "It is the only thing."

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