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Packers' 100th season: A story better than Hollywood or Tonawanda, N.Y.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Monday’s presentation at Lambeau Field was both a historic event and a history lesson.

There will be a lot of both around the Green Bay Packers' home over the next 16 months.

On the first of what will be many occasions to celebrate 100 seasons in franchise history and 100 years of football in the NFL’s most unlikely place, the Packers unveiled a logo that will adorn every players’ jersey this season. They also announced myriad events leading up to the team’s 100th birthday, on Aug. 11, 2019.

But to appreciate it all, there was a story from team historian Cliff Christl that had to be told. It would help support Christl’s contention that the Packers are “the greatest story in sports” -- one that is even too good for Hollywood.

It started with the founding of the Packers by Curly Lambeau and local newspaperman George Whitney Calhoun on Aug. 11, 1919.

“At the time, Green Bay was the sixth-largest city in Wisconsin,” Christl said. “Superior and Oshkosh were bigger.”

Two years later, the Packers were admitted to a league known as the American Professional Football Association, which became the National Football League. Green Bay was the second-smallest city to have a franchise. Only Tonawanda, New York, was smaller.

“We’ve played 1,393 league games,” Christl said. “Tonawanda played one.”

“And from that day forward, this team, I tell people, was perpetually on its death bed,” Christl added. “There was barely a day when it wasn’t.”

Christl told of the first season in 1919, when the only way for the Packers to profit from games at a field without a fence to keep anyone from walking in was to pass a hat around for money. And he told of the first APFA game, on Oct. 23, 1921 against the Minneapolis Marines, which many believed the Packers had to win or they wouldn’t be able to schedule any future games.

“It’s one of the reasons Tonawanda didn’t last -- because they couldn’t schedule any opponents, which you did week-to-week,” Christl said.

There were the league meetings in 1927, when the NFL cut from 22 to 12 cities. One of those league meetings was held in Green Bay for a surreptitious reason.

“A little secret: The owners -- like everyone else in the NFL -- liked coming to GB because we didn’t abide by prohibition,” Christl said.

The Packers also survived 17 months in receivership during the great depression and a bid by the NFL to turn them into a traveling team because while they struggled to draw at home, they had a large following in the big cities because of their early championships under Lambeau.

“Along with our survival is our unmatched success, 13 titles,” Christl said.

Five stock sales -- the first in 1923 and the last in 2011 -- helped keep the Packers either afloat or competitive. Now, there are more than 361,000 shareholders who possess more than 5 million shares of stock.

“It’s a tribute to the community as much as anything else,” Packers president Mark Murphy said. “There were a number of different times when the community rallied together to [save] the team when all the other [small cities] that had teams fell by the wayside.”

Like Tonawanda.

“I believe this is the greatest story in sports,” Christl said. “I make that case partly by looking at what Hollywood has done with true-life sports stories. And I don’t think any of those beat our story. You could probably make a case for the Jackie Robinson story; I think that’s more than a sports story. Maybe the Miracle on Ice. That galvanized a nation, but that lasted a week. We’ve been around for 100 years.

“Why hasn’t Hollywood done a story on the Packers? I think it’s too compelling. And any artistic license they would take would not be as good as the real story. I think our story starts with survival and what the Packers had to overcome to last 100 years.”