My son and I traveled companionably on Highway 29 east towards Wausau. He under the impression we were off to perform yardwork for his grandma’s friend. But I knew we were en route to Lambeau Field to take in the Dec. 12 tilt against the hated Chicago Bears.
I’d known for a few months, sharing the secret with a scant few people. We woke that Sunday morning and I instructed him to dress warm and in his Packers gear (wearing Packers’ clothing on a Sunday is nothing novel around our house where Henry and I tend to be very superstitious about our gameday rites.) We were going to stack firewood, I explained, for some lady in grandma’s book club. I could see that Henry was dismayed by this plan, but he didn’t put up too much of stink. The Packers game was at night, after all. Even if we frittered away the afternoon, he’d surely have the evening to watch the game. My wife and I packed extra warm clothing, blankets and some seat cushions, but Henry took little heed of these supplies. When the appointed time came, we loaded into the vehicle together, tuned the radio to a game, and lit out to the east.
Outside Thorp, he turned to me and asked, “Where are we going, exactly?”
Now I smiled. I pointed at my LeRoy Butler jersey (#36) and again to his Packers knit cap. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”
“No,” he replied.
“We’re going to Lambeau,” I smiled.
He broke into an impossible grin, began squealing with delight, bounced up and down in his chair, and hugged me fiercely. For a parent, it doesn’t get much better. Surprises are few and far between in this life, almost as rare as firsts — those moments when we encounter something for the very first time. This day would be both. A surprise trip to Lambeau Field combined with his first time seeing an NFL game.
It had been more than 15 years since the last time I’d visited Lambeau. Those were the final games of Brett Favre’s reign and my mom had secured our tickets through her place of work. We have different memories of that game, but we both recall incredible fall weather and a Packers victory. But this game promised many differences: a 7 p.m. kickoff, December chill, and all the improvements to Lambeau Field and the Titletown District, which did not even exist when I last visited the stadium.
We arrived at Lambeau about four hours before kickoff and found parking in the muddy front yard of a decidedly blue-collar residence. Then we walked to the stadium, which in and of itself is an experience. It’s one thing when you’re an adult and seen your share of professional or college games. You’re prepared for the pomp. The tailgating, the drinking, the music, the costumes ... But if you’ve never seen it before, if you’re a child, it’s magical. Celebration and exuberance are in the air, yes, but so too is a mild undercurrent of danger and recklessness. So too is confrontation. And especially so when the Chicago Bears come to town. Especially since Aaron Rodgers recently reminded the Soldier Field faithful that their squad was in his possession much like a tiresome toy he can only be bothered to play with, and ultimately break, twice a year.
That said, the pregame atmosphere was entirely positive. We watched an eight-piece Mexican brass band. Henry had his picture taken beside Jeff Kahlow of Fond du Lac, aka “Frozen Tundra Man”, a superfan who has designed what might be the NFL’s most recognizable costume. We spied kicker Mason Crosby driving into the stadium. Eventually we filed into Lambeau, took the Hall of Fame tour, and then dutifully waited for the gates to open. Our seats were incredible. Section 105, 10 rows off the end-zone on the north side of the field. Close enough to the field to really hear the football hit the hands of a receiver. Close enough to hear the players talking as they warmed up.
When the Bears jumped out to an early first-half lead, I was privately concerned that perhaps Henry’s first game would also be an exercise in disappointment and frustration. But with 5:09 remining in the first half, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields threw a pass that was intercepted by Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas who returned the ball all the way for a touchdown, giving the Packers their first lead of the game. Of course, temporary pandemonium ensued, with neighboring fans giving us high-fives and everyone cheering and hollering, including my kind, sensitive, son, who turned to me, and screaming, bellowed, “We still own you! We still own you!”
A person could attend a hundred or even a thousand NFL games in person and never witness a game more entertaining than the one we watched. A game with an embarrassing amount of special-teams blunders, but also four Aaron Rodgers touchdowns, Davante Adams gobbling up over a hundred receiving yards, De’Vondre Campbell securing 16 tackles, and Preston Smith recording two sacks. The two teams scored a combined 75 points, 45 of which came in the second quarter alone.
By the time we returned home, it was two o’ clock in the morning and we had been fortunate to encounter only dry, sparsely trafficked roads between Green Bay and Eau Claire. But it did feel so good to stand in that old stadium, amidst tens of thousands of likeminded fans, cheering on our team. There are so few opportunities in our lives to release the pressure that builds in our everyday lives. Too few opportunities to scream, to jump up and down, to allow the frivolous to distract from the serious, to agree, if only for a matter of hours, to drop all politics aside and join together screaming, “Go, Pack, Go!”