Lambeau or Bust: NFL Experience Incomplete Without a Trip to Green Bay

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — The first place Lambeau Field hits you is right in the nose.

It's 9 a.m. on game day here, and already the alluring aroma of brats grilling on Weber grills is rarifying the eastern Wisconsin air. The smell wafts through the gray skies of a crisp November morning, drawing you into the Lambeau Field experience as if it were a trap play drawn up by Vince Lombardi himself.

No GPS is necessary to locate Lambeau Field. The telltale signs surround the 50-year-old home of the Packers, inviting you in to the kind of big-time football experience that happens only in the NFL's smallest city.

The streets around Lambeau – which rises out of a neighborhood that's part industrial, part residential – are named for Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and Mike Holmgren.

Just a couple of blocks down Lombardi Avenue sits the one and only Tundra Lodge. The neighborhood McDonald's eschews the corporate-mandated red tile roof in favor of Packers green with gold stripes. A bridge in town is named for Ray Nitschke.

This is Titletown, USA, in all its Sunday-morning glory.

Like the city of Green Bay (population 100,353), Lambeau Field appears far too small to house so much historical significance. There are no towering upper decks, just the original seating bowl surrounded by the red-brick veneer of a renovated exterior. A stadium this intimate can't possibly hold 72,615 fans, 12 NFL titles and one of professional sports' most unique game-day experiences.

Maybe that's why the Lambeau Field aura stretches so far beyond the stadium's famous tundra, to myriad tailgate parties and caravans that roll into town from across the state.

Eight times during the regular season a sellout crowd arrives from all points in Wisconsin – and beyond – to squeeze into the benches of the NFL's oldest stadium. Another 74,000 stand by on a waiting list. At noon, Mason Crosby will officially kick the game off. For Packers faithful, however, the fun begins long before game time.

Game day in the NFL's version of a college town starts early, in many cases, far from Green Bay.

Today's contest is for "Gold Package" season seat holders, meaning many in the crowd will journey from Milwaukee, which is located 119 miles south. You couldn't get lost between Milwaukee and Green Bay if you tried. Just find a car with a Packers logo on it, and fall in line. The caravan will deposit you in the right place.

The Lambeau Field exit off US-41 is Lombardi Avenue, and if that doesn't clue you in to the fact that you're within a Bart Starr sneak of pro football's de facto capital, that aromatic mixture of charcoal and brats filtering through the neighborhood surely will.

Football hangs heavy in the air, too. Outside Lambeau, touch football games break out in the parking lots. An endless string of oversized inflatable Packers make the surrounding streets look like New York City during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Nearby, residents turn their homes into parking lots, while virtually every corner of the surrounding neighborhood plays host to a tailgate party.

One such party goes off at Brett Favre's Steakhouse, which stands in the shadow of Lambeau Field. Here, behind an eight-foot-tall, black-granite monument to Favre, the parking lot is transformed into a giant outdoor celebration of the Packers and their iconic quarterback. Twenty-five bucks gains you admittance to an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink party that begins at 10 a.m. and rollicks under green-and-gold-stripped canopies until 30 minutes before kickoff – leaving just enough time to make it to your seats.

Inside the restaurant, fans watch a pregame show while wolfing down the Breakfast of Super Bowl Champions (four strips of bacon, scrambled eggs smothered in cheddar cheese, country-fried potatoes and a buttermilk biscuit), and swilling Leinenkugels and Bloody Marys (which in Wisconsin come with a beer chaser).

A television talking head makes an announcement: "Brett Favre," the voice says, "is the biggest surprise of the NFL season." The Sunday brunch crowd roars in approval. That's not only our quarterback you're talking about, that's our host.

Next door to Brett Favre's Steakhouse, a warehouse-size merchandise outlet called the Jersey Store offers the mind-bending sight of a man clad in a Favre jersey buying a Favre jersey. One, presumably, for laundry day.

The store does a brisk business, as do makeshift stands selling bootleg gear ("Got Brett?" T-shirts seem to be the hot item) set up along the streets leading into the stadium. In virtually every instance, the buyer of new Packers gear is wearing old Packers gear. You can never have too much, it seems.

Save for a few minor tweaks, the Packers have been wearing the same uniforms all the way back to the days when Lombardi was merely a name on a sweatshirt, and not the name of a street and a trophy. That being the case, it's not as if Packers fans need to concern themselves with keeping up with the latest fashions. And that only serves to make the constant ringing of cash registers at merchandise outlets in and around Lambeau all the more remarkable.

Green Bay is the unofficial epicenter of pro football, and, today, it also feels like the hub of sports marketing.

After the Jersey Store, the next stop is a Fuzzy Thurston-hosted tailgate party at the Resch Center, home of the Green Bay Gamblers junior hockey team. Thurston, a Packers guard from 1959-67, was a member of five NFL title teams and two Super Bowl champions.

The 75-year-old Hall of Famer signs autographs at $10 a pop, while fans chow down on the requisite beer and brats. Thurston reportedly prepared for the 1967 Ice Bowl game, when the temperature was 15 below zero, by guzzling "about 10 vodkas." I can think of no better pedigree for a Lambeau Field pregame party host.

Given the open bar, Thurston isn't the only one answering to the name Fuzzy on this morning. Some partygoers participate in a contest, donning frozen jerseys in hopes of scoring game tickets.

It's less than an hour before kickoff now, but the tailgate parties show no signs of slowing.

Before I make my way to the stadium, Ken Wachter, the Resch Center's president & CEO has a tip: "John Madden loves the chili at Chili John's inside the Atrium."

That's recommendation enough for me.

I make my way past the Don Hutson Center – the Packers indoor practice facility – and through a parking lot, where I pass the twin statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau that line up like a pair of split backs outside the stadium. There, an orderly procession of Packers fans take turns posing for photos, before entering the contemporary glass and steel "Atrium" that was attached to stadium's exterior in 2003.

The Packers have done a remarkable job of modernizing Lambeau without erasing its history. The 2003 renovation kept the original seating bowl, with its unobstructed sight lines in tact, while adding 11,600 seats (at a cost of $295 million).

The five-story Atrium – home to the team's administrative and football operations offices – could just as easily be its own attraction at Disney World. Packersland anyone?

The Atrium also houses the two-story team store, which has a twisting line longer than the one outside Space Mountain, and a Leinenkugel Lodge bar. I've been in town roughly two hours, but already I can figure out that that's just about everything a Packers fan needs. Curly's Pub (named for Curly Lambeau, the stadium's namesake) is here, as well, and so is an ice-cream parlor called Frozen in Time.

Editor's note: This article originally was published in December 2007.