Pack back in land of big cheese

Andrew Baker hears how Green Bay's return to the glory days has gone to their heads
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The Independent Online
IF YOU'RE going to San Francisco, be sure to wear those flowers in your hair. If, on the other hand, you're going to Green Bay, Wisconsin, the necessary headgear is a piece of cheese. The cheese hat, a foam rubber replica of a wedge, is worn by "cheeseheads", die-hard fans of the Green Bay Packers. And as the team prepared for today's NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, everyone in Green Bay was wearing wedges.

"There has been great demand for cheese hats from all over the country," Dave Nennig, special assistant to the mayor of Green Bay, reported last week. "Everyone is buying up Packers memorabilia. My wife went down and bought six 'NFC champions' sweatshirts."

Green Bay, which Nennig described as "the largest city in north-eastern Wisconsin", is about the size of Watford, Basildon or Blackburn: a biggish town. It's cold, there are a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and it is not melting. In Green Bay they make paper, and they are proud of their dairy products, hence the cheeseheads, but most of all they are proud of their football team.

The Packers have an impressive Super Bowl heritage. In January 1967 they won the first Super Bowl at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The next year, they won Super Bowl II in Miami. Then things went quiet for 28 years. Until 1996 there had been no appearance for Green Bay in an NFC championship game, let alone the Super Bowl. But last week they met San Francisco, the reigning Super Bowl champions, and produced one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport. The bookmakers made the Packers 10-point underdogs: that turned out to be their margin of victory, 27-17.

The citizens' response was staggering. Eight thousand people - nearly 10 per cent of the city's population - trekked out to Austin Straubel International Airport at 1am to welcome the team back from San Francisco.

The next day the Pro Shop at Lambeau Field was packed with fans seeking Packers memorabilia. And still they come. "We apologise for the inconvenience," the shop's desperate answerphone message runs, "but we have been overwhelmed with calls in the excitement of it all. We're doing everything we can to pick up the phones . . ."

Championship sweatshirts have become the town's uniform, and people are starting to hanker after the ultimate souvenir. "If they make it," Dave Nennig said, in the hushed tones of the true believer, "there'll be a Super Bowl shirt." The players sense how close they are to glory. "We can taste it," said the wide receiver Robert Brooks, who this year broke the team record for receiving yards. "I mean, I can feel it. Now we know how good we are."

Good the Packers may be - they have won eight of their last nine games - but the statistics are against them today. The Cowboys are the best team in the United States, and the Packers have lost five times in Texas Stadium since 1993. Brett Favre, the Packers' quarterback, remains upbeat. "We expect to be in this game and we expect to beat Dallas," he said.

There is a kind of fearless atmosphere at Green Bay, the result of last week's victory. The coach, Mike Holmgren, acknowledged this. "I think after winning that game on Saturday, they should feel different," he said. "San Francisco were the defending world champions." Holmgren spent last week calming his players after the San Francisco win, getting them to focus on the games ahead. "A couple of the guys recognised the fact that there is still the possibility of a couple more ballgames," he said. Today's may be the harder of the two: the NFC champion has beaten the AFC champion in the Super Bowl every year for the last decade.

Back in the mayor's office, Dave Nennig has been fielding calls from all over the USA wishing the town well and requesting cheese hats: "I had to send one to Washington State yesterday," he said. "That's the other side of the country."

Green Bay appeal to fans in small towns everywhere, not just because they are perennial underdogs but because the team belongs to the people of Green Bay in a way that none of the big city teams do. Lambeau Field (named after the team's first coach, "Curly" Lambeau) belongs to the city of Green Bay, not some fat-cat speculator who might one day move the team.

"Lambeau Field is not a superdome," Dave Nennig admitted. "It's open to the elements. But we like our fresh air up here. There are 60,790 seats, and you never see one empty." The mayor of Green Bay, Paul Jadin, has expressed his civic pride by having a bet on the game with the mayor of Dallas. "He has an excellent chance of winning it," Nennig said. "The Packers have pride and determination and we're proud of them. In the glory years we were known as America's Team. For a while Dallas have been threatening to take that title away. Now we can reclaim it."