Packers still hold Green Bay in thrall heading into NFC championship game vs. Chicago Bears
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 11:23 PM
GREEN BAY, WIS. - On a typical Saturday night, the Union Hotel and Restaurant serves perhaps 150 folks, a Midwestern supper club at the height of its week. The grilled pork chop with apple sauce is $14.50, the calf's liver with bacon and onions goes for $16.75, a waiter wears a Green Bay Packers bow tie, and the regulars who have moved away - Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, myriad other members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame - return whenever they're back in town.
But last Saturday night, McKim Boyd, the proprietor whose family has owned the place since 1918, watched all of three couples walk in after 6 p.m. He stopped serving at 7. Boyd knew that would be it for the rest of the night. The Packers were playing. Try to find a soul who didn't know, who wasn't watching. Try.
"The place stops," Boyd said. "There's no traffic on the streets, literally. There's no movement. It's not like that anywhere else. You go to a bigger city, and a football game doesn't shut the city down. In Chicago, when the Bears play, I'm sure all the restaurants are doing fine. There are people there who don't care about football."
Presumably, there are similar people here, too, but that's hard to verify. Nowhere does football permeate the population as it does in Green Bay. Though Sunday's NFC championship game will be decided by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and the 88 other players who will dress, the matchup is defined by the relationship between the two cities and the unique nature of Green Bay.
No two NFL franchises have met more frequently than the Packers and Bears, 181 times and counting. No NFL franchises have won more championships; the Packers have 12, the Bears, nine. On Sunday, they will play for the George Halas Trophy - named for the late Bears coach and owner. The winner will earn the right to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy - named for the late Packers coach. It's hard to argue that any two franchises have a deeper rivalry - or one that better reflects the sensibilities of both cities - than the Packers and the Bears.
"Both towns are very passionate about their football teams, and first and foremost that's what makes the rivalry one of the greatest - if not the greatest - in all of sports," said Jim Flanigan, a Green Bay native who played seven seasons as a defensive lineman for the Bears and one for the Packers. Flanigan's father was a rookie linebacker on the Lombardi team that won Super Bowl II.
"The dichotomy, the huge difference between the two cities and the regions and the people just fuels that fire. It's the large metropolitan area - and a certain set of people who would consider themselves very sophisticated, with a big-city kind of attitude - and the small-town, kind of agrarian culture in Green Bay."
The city's identity
The signs on the way into town here point out the city's population - 102,313, according to the 2000 census, making it by far the smallest city to host a major American professional sports franchise. Residents are quick to point out that it isn't exactly a one-stoplight town - indeed, the city owns and maintains "106 signalized intersections," according to the department of public works - but it ain't Chicago, either.
There is still a thriving paper industry, and Schneider National, Inc. - the nation's largest trucking company - has its headquarters here. Neither, though, provide an identity.
"Think about what Green Bay would be without the Packers," said Boyd, whose restaurant actually sits on the other side of the city border, in neighboring De Pere. "What kind of reputation would we have? Name 10 communities of 100,000 people. You might recognize the name, but you wouldn't know too much about them. You tell people you're from Green Bay, and they're immediately like, 'Oh, the Packers.' "
But can such an identity impact a game? Some Packers players are acutely aware of the history of the franchise. They walk past giant posters of moments from the past on their way into the locker room. Statues of Lombardi and Curly Lambeau, the former coach and founder of the franchise, guard the giant atrium in front of Lambeau Field, where the Packers Hall of Fame charges $11 for admission, $18 with a tour included and about 90,000 people come through each year. The massive entrance way - known as the Atrium - hosts 500 social, corporate and nonprofit events annually, not to mention 50-75 wedding-related events, from ceremonies to receptions to rehearsal dinners, true Packer love on display.
A different relationship
There is almost no place in town where there isn't constant conversation about the Packers, including Thursday morning at a Starbucks, where three women spoke loudly, anxiously - and with no apparent signs of success - about remaining patient in advance of Sunday's game.