Monday, February 14, 2011

The Charm of Green Bay: Super Bowl XLV Review

Apologies, I meant to post the Super Bowl review last week, just after the Super Bowl, when it was still very fresh. But it has only been a week, so it can hardly be considered ancient history, right? In any case, I wanted to not only give a review of the impressive victory by the Green Bay Packers, but also to delve into the reason why I so strongly wanted to see the Packers win it all this year. So, here was the review that I just touched up a little bit, and wished to post a whole lot earlier:

Wow! That Packer's win was indicative of their entire season. Hot start showing tremendous potential, followed by key injuries and the Pack seemingly on the ropes, but pulling through in the end. With the secondary severely depleted, was a bit worried the Steelers would come back, and it looked like that's what they were doing. But Green Bay got it, and deserved it! So glad they won!
It was like their entire season in microcosm/miniature. All year long, they battled to maintain that delicate mix of great and lofty expectations.

It was so pleasing to see them win. Earlier this season, I had taken a trip to the Midwest, and was fortunate enough to have gotten to see them. It was my second experience at Lambeau Field, having seen a preseason game prior to this one, back in 2009, against the Cleveland Browns.

Green Bay was even smaller than I had imagined it. Really, it feels like a typical suburban town, only that it is the big “metropolis” in the region, I it can rightly be called that. The one thing that makes it stand apart would be the Green Bay Packers, and of course, they were the reason that we were here.

Everything felt different, right away. It was strange. You could feel that this team was a local commodity, if you will. For one thing, it was the most packed preseason game I had ever been to at the time, and probably still is. The opponent was not the huge draw, being the lowly Cleveland Browns. Yet, looking around, there were hardly any open seats that I could tell.

It was, and remains, the most fun preseason game that I have ever been to, bar none. There was just a different feel about it. It felt almost like a college game, and yet it felt like a big event. But a community event, local, yet welcoming. Very inviting, very friendly. The game I was at earlier this season, against the Lions in the regular season, would prove to be the same thing. If I was admiring the Packers before, I became basically a fan of theirs after this positive experience. It was sports as they should be, at their best.
There is such a pleasant ambience about the town. It feels so special, so unique. The team literally and figuratively belongs to the community, to everyone, in a way. It is, after all, the only publicly owned franchise in the league. It is also a team steeped in rich and proud tradition, and there is clearly a legacy
There was something unique and easily noticeable right away. A positive spirit about the team, about the feel for the game, of the sport, and of their team, and this team’s place in history in this big league. It is the one thing that lends this town something truly unique and distinctive, and it is everywhere seen here.
That preseason game, a 17-0 shutout victory against the hapless Cleveland Browns, was apparently sold out (as it turns out, it was not quite a sell out, but almost – and certainly had to be the most crowded preseason game I have been to). There was hardly an empty seat to be found in the entire place.
But that was not all. It stayed that way, a stadium packed for the Packers, until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.

Folks, I reiterate: this was a preseason game. Yet, it was a community event, and everyone seemed happy. They all could agree on one thing, and that was their Green Bay Packers. The thing that put this relatively tiny community on the map.

The most unique home of any team in the National Football League, if not in all of North American sports, and it made the team perhaps the most unique and distinctive team in North American sports. It has what I would consider to be a college feel to it. It is an event to behold and enjoy, appreciate.

It is hard not to become a fan, and so I became one. Yes, this, despite the fact that I have been a devoted Giants fan since I first started following the sport back in 1981, and they have remained my number one ever since. Also, the New York Jets were, and remain, my number two team. Yes, I am not one of those “hater” fans that can’t stand the other local team, or the whimsical fan who only follows my team, and does not enjoy the sport.

I like football, and find it entertaining. I have been privileged enough to see the Giants go to the Super Bowl four times, and win it three of those times. That is a pretty strong mark, and I am appreciative of their success. The Jets have not made it in my lifetime, although they have come close at times, and hopefully will make it sometime in the near future. But when these two teams are both eliminated, I still follow football, and like most people, I have my favorites, and my least favorites, and the older I got and the more I understood, the more the Green Bay Packers climbed on my list.

Still, going to Lambeau Field was something else entirely. I did not expect it to be, but it was. Figuring it would be the typical drunk fest of dumb, overage jocks who’s lives centered entirely too much on football and other sports, and not enough on the vast array of other things that life offers, I was surprised when it seemed far healthier.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. The people of Green Bay love their Packers, and maybe they have an added significance in their lives, perhaps more than in other areas. I guess what was absent was the hopelessness, the nastiness. It seemed a far healthier atmosphere then I was accustomed to, being from the greater metropolitan area, living in the densely populated New Jersey, in stress-inducing suburbs of New York.

Go to a New Jersey Devils hockey game, and you will hear the fans adding their own unique, charmless lyrics after every goal the Devils score, as they all yell in unison, “Hey! You suck!”
I am not a fan of the Rangers, but the degree to which Devils fans obsess over the Rangers (Rangers Suck, and whoever the most recognizable name on whatever team New Jersey happens to be playing that day swallows) is really excessive.

Speaking of Rangers fans, admittedly, they are the reason I could never get into the Rangers, being some of the most arrogant, obnoxious, holier than thou fans I’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s the Big Apple’s team, but seeing as though they followed up on the tremendous promise of the 1940 Stanley Cup Championship team (fought before the United States entered World War II) by finally winning it again in 1994 (right around the time that OJ Simpson was making headlines for all the wrong reasons), and that they have not come close to winning it (or even going) since, you feel tempted to tell them to give it a rest.

Being a fan of hockey, I have a particular affinity for Canadian teams since hockey is, historically, a Canadian sport. But I’ve heard people shout out such lovely slogans as “Canada sucks!” and “Fuck Canada!” while attending such hockey games, both in New York and in New jersey. Was this perhaps during the height of the tensions between the two countries, during the glorious days of the Bush regime, you may wonder? Actually, a couple of such incidents happened just a few weeks ago, when I took my son to a Rangers game, to see the red hot Vancouver Canucks. Xenophobia was on display there. Speaking of those same Rangers fans, I also happened to go to another game in September, and was witness to a gay bashing incident. Lovely fans, indeed.

Some people like that. On some level, I can agree. If you have stress, then there are worse outlets for it then sports, although statistics have shown links to the rise of domestic violence following the loss of a local sports team.

Still, not everyone takes it that seriously, and this brings me back to the Pack. There might be exceptions, certainly, but in Green Bay, in Small Town America in the heart of the Midwest farming country, there seems to be a more ideal atmosphere. Kinder, more balanced. Perhaps a bit on the corny side, but even this has some considerable charm, when compared to the nasty Northeast. It’s not just the New York/New Jersey sports scene where nastiness can be easily spotted. I remember going to a Redskins game in Maryland, against the Patriots, and some drunken idiots claiming that Boston was “not even a real city”.

So the more relaxed and pleasant feel of Green Bay (aside from the weather) was indeed welcome. I have seen two Packers games at the famed Lambeau Field, which is pretty good for s Garden State guy, right? One preseason game, which felt very much like a college game, and felt as significant as a regular season game. The other was a regular season game outright, this past October, against their division rival Detroit Lions. What a game that turned out to be, much like the Super Bowl, actually. The Packers raced ahead, looking unstoppable at first, only to see their opponent grab the momentum, and get the Pack seemingly on the ropes. By all accounts, it seemed the Packers would lose, and yet they never relinquished the lead. They managed to pull it out, winning that game, 28-26. Watching the Super Bowl from work (okay, yes, I’m that rare dweeb who has to work on Super Bowl Sunday), I wore the same jersey that I wore on that day, my good luck jersey, and brought the mini helmet I got at Lambeau Field. Yes, I even got my son a cheese head. And yes, it take it away from him when he seems ready to destroy it, as if it were some valuable piece of art, instead of a glorified piece of foam in the shape and color of a slice of cheese. Shame on me.

Watching the Pack through these playoffs, and especially during this past Super Bowl, I found myself smiling at some of the memories, even the charming corniness, of the Packers faithful at Lambeau. It just happened that they were playing another poster child team for northeastern nastiness in the Pittsburgh Steelers, complete with their sinister quarterback, Big Ben Roethlisberger, he of the alleged assaults against women, with plenty of witnesses who confirm the allegations. Nor is that his only charming quality. I remember an interview (admittedly only vaguely) when he was a rookie, and he was talking about how women swooned at the sight of him (which makes me wonder why he would ever need to force himself on a woman in the first place, but that’s another story). Such a modest guy. And of course, there was that whole motorcycle accident without wearing a helmet episode, which showed very poor judgment by any standards, even though technically, you don’t have to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle in Pennsylvania. Everything about the guy seems to exude an air of perceived invincibility, doesn’t it? He seems to think, or at least seems to have thought, that he could get away with anything, literally, and it would never catch up to him.

I read that he was the least liked player in this past Super Bowl. Surprise, surprise.

So I would have been rooting for the Packers, anyway. The Steelers have won it plenty already, a record six Super Bowls overall, and this would have been a third in six years, and a seventh overall. For the packers, it would have been their first since the epic 1996 season, and only the second since the Lombardi era of the 1960’s. Now, Title Town has another title to add to their legacy, and add to the Lambeau lure.

It had long been a dream of mine to go see a game at Lambeau. All of the history, the tradition. Think of the names, Lambeau, Lombardi, Starr, Nitzke. The Frozen Tundra, host to such epic battles throughout the history there, with the championship runs of the 1960’s, most famously the so-called “Ice Bowl” which was the coldest NFL game ever. Incidentally, the third coldest game ever recorded was just a few years ago, when the Giants beat the Packers at Lambeau. Admittedly, I was happy to see them do it, but that was an exceptional circumstance, not the rule.

Finally, a note about Aaron Rodgers, who managed to keep his streak of overcoming immense pressure to exceed expectations remains unbroken Some of the experts proclaimed it the best game a quarterback ever had. Now, I would not go that far, having seen some incredible games by quarterbacks in high pressure situations, but it sure stood out. Nor was this a typical Super Bowl where the quarterback got the nod over more deserving players, which has happened with a fair degree of frequency over the years. The Packers, it is fair to say, would not have been in the big game if not for Rodgers, and they would not have won it if not for him, either. He had a mediocre third quarter, to be sure, and until the final touchdown pass, it looked like he had cooled off for good following a red hot start to the game.

Yet, with that touchdown drive, and with the drive late in the fourth to get the Pack a field goal that forced Pittsburgh to have to go for a touchdown to win it, rather than a field goal to tie it and force overtime, showed that he had reached elite status. He responded to the pressure like he always had: like a champion. He remained cool, calm, collected. Maybe it was not the best game a quarterback has ever played, but it was the game that he needed to play to lift his team to victory, and it was exactly what he delivered. In the process, he raised himself to the ranks of the great quarterbacks in the league, as well as adding another legend to the seemingly countless legends of Title Town. Let’s just hope that he knows enough to stay there, and not ever detract from his on-field performances with bad off field behavior, unlike his predecessor, or the other high profile quarterback on the field this past Super Bowl Sunday.