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Green Bay's 'team of the people' recalls old NFL


GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There's an insatiable commercial reality to the National Football League reaching the exorbitant point of wondering if sometime the teams, maybe wearing dollar signs instead of numbers, might forget to kick off.

Yet the Green Bay Packers remain a surviving and refreshing symbol of the grand old days of professional sports.

The spirited story of the Packers, how they came to be and have lived on for 79 years, is one that never becomes outdated or redundant. This is a team owned by a prideful public for the dual purpose of providing entertainment while giving itself a "Little David" feel-good civic identity. It's a franchise that knew serious and frequent crises but has recovered each time to live, to grow, to mature and, yes, to even dominate.

Had it not been for the income generated from television, the Packers as we know them would be passe. Now the team is so prosperous that Green Bay is beyond being troubled by fears of its team taking a hike to a more enticing and larger metropolis. It hasn't been easy for the Packers to get to the point of gaining and enjoying a pleasurable solvency.

It's truly a team of the people -- owned by 109,723 stockholders whose only dividend is the comforting self-assurance that their way-of-life Packers will always endure. None of the football charitable investors get a return on their money, shares that total about 4.7 million.

The team was once so strapped it had to stage an intrasquad game during the regular season to make money to meet the player payroll. That was on Thanksgiving 1949, an occasion when Packer backers were counting their blessings that the team, via the emergency gate receipts, was at least going to be able to live to see another season.

The next year, the team's training lodge, located 15 miles away, burned down while the Packers' general manager and coach, Earl "Curly" Lambeau, was attending a league meeting in Philadelphia. Charges were never proven that it was a fire of convenience but the insurance payments of $50,000 came at a time when the club was again pressed for revenue.

Shortly thereafter, volunteer solicitors were ringing doorbells of their neighbors in Green Bay to sell $25 certificates.

It was to be a pure donation, not an investment proposition, but the town responded the way it always has.

The Packers originated in 1919, when started by Lambeau as a semipro organization, and took their nickname from the sponsoring Indian Packing Co., but two years later joined the NFL. To help pay the way, the Green Bay Press-Gazette and other businesses loaned the team $2,500.

Times, at least financially, were always tough for the Packers. But because the Packers were included in the NFL's television agreement, receiving an equal portion of the rights fees, they are now solidly established in business.

"We're only here," says president Bob Harlan, "because Pete Rozelle [the late commissioner] convinced the owners to share the money."

The Packers, being community owned, are the only NFL team required to publish an annual earnings statement. In fiscal 1997, for instance, they reported $6.7 million in net income. Green Bay is the only league team allowed such an arrangement.

Otherwise, it's required that each club have one individual who owns 30 percent and the authority to make decisions. The NFL, arbitrarily, likes it that way and hides behind the policy by saying it can't give similar approval when some other city wonders if it can emulate Green Bay.

What is called Lambeau Field was built in 1957 and expanded seven times to where it now has a capacity of 60,790, a luxurious training and office complex and even its own Hall of Fame museum that two years ago drew more visitors than the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

The team was floundering, living in its rich traditional past, until coach-general manager Vince Lombardi joined it in 1959 and remained nine years, earning five NFL titles.

Lombardi was a natural leader, no-nonsense and effective. He was frequently observed in church, serving as an altar boy at St. Willebrord's on Adams Street. But even before "Saint Vincent" arrived, it wasn't unusual to be at Sunday Mass and hear the priest ask for divine help for the Packers while some visiting team players were in the pews and listening in astonished amazement.

Green Bay's jobs are largely found in the health service field and at such paper-producing giants as Fort James and Proctor & Gamble. Since 1990, the trend has been toward the Republican Party.

Chamber of Commerce officials mention Green Bay is predominately Roman Catholic (about 65 percent) with a population dominated by persons with ancestors from Germany and the Netherlands. Football flavor is everywhere, as witness streets named after such Packers heroes as Lambeau, Lombardi, Starr, Isbell and Hutson.

In 1940, only one black family lived in Green Bay. Today about 3 percent of the population is African-American. At one time it was said minority players felt uncomfortable in Green Bay, but that complaint is rarely heard any more.

It's not entirely accurate to say the Packers have put Green Bay on the map, but they do give it special distinction. Lee Remmel, director of team public relations, says a travel official told him that surveys of 200 U.S. cities with around 100,000 residents show Green Bay is the best known on the list. Call it the Packers' renown.

There's a quiet charm ever present in Green Bay, even in the dead of winter when frigid winds blow, the bay freezes and snow blankets the landscape.

The best thing about the NFL is it has a team in Green Bay. Small-town America, yes, but a place of character, history and mystique.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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