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Author Topic: The Roar Of The Crowd, 1997 Playoff Game at Lambeau Field  (Read 2048 times)

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The Roar Of The Crowd, 1997 Playoff Game at Lambeau Field
« on: January 07, 2015, 07:48:47 PM »
The Roar Of The Crowd

by Bruce Schafer

     It was cold.  Bitter cold.  But that’s January in northern Wisconsin.  If I couldn’t tolerate it, I’d move way down south of the border, maybe Illinois or Indiana.

     Sunday, January 12, 1997.  I woke up fairly early, not so early that it required me to set the alarm, but I didn’t waste any time getting ready.  I quietly crawled out of bed, attended to my daily post-slumber routine and began dressing in what I believed would be adequate wear for the outdoor climatic conditions.  It was cold. There I was, hoping to go to the big playoff game, the National Football League’s conference championship in Green Bay, home of the Packers.  Titletown.  Lambeau Field.  Frozen tundra.  The upstart Carolina Panthers were coming to town and the local population was possessed, gripped by an escalating frenzy of fanatic delirium.

     Green Bay is a half-hour drive from my humble abode and after a brief detour to obtain vital nutrition at the drive-up window of a well-known dining establishment, I was on my way.  No ticket.  No personal contacts. Being an actual spectator was not a likely possibility.  Available tickets were few and those that remained were in a different tax bracket than myself.  But dreamers dream and lunatics attempt to act their dreams out, so there I was… behind the wheel, driven by determination.

     Game time was 11:30.  I arrived in the vicinity of Lambeau Field at approximately 9:30, cash in pocket, but no ticket in hand, willing to drop anywhere up to $150.00 for a ticket, even an end zone seat in row one.  I didn’t care where I sat as long as I was in the stadium, hopefully between two cheerful chubby people so I could stay warm at their expense.

     Parking:  five dollars.  Obviously, that wasn’t the price for the stadium lot.  That was nearly full by the time I arrived.  Many of the unfailing faithful had started infiltrating the lot with their vehicles the night before. However, the K-Mart parking area wasn’t too far from the stadium.  That lot was nearly full as well except for a small morsel of available blacktop reserved for those people that were actually shopping at such a ridiculous time.  Even the nearby gas stations closed down their pumps to make room for parking space.  Only a sickly fool would be buying gas during the Packer championship – the attendants probably wouldn’t assist you until halftime, anyway.  Only in Green Bay would that happen.  Understandably, I guess.  The former world champions, winners of the first two Super Bowl’s, a professional football legacy that had been running in idle for nearly three decades, was hosting the NFC championship, the final step before the big show in New Orleans, the Super Bowl, number thirty-one. The once patient fans were hungry for a resurrection of those glory days.

     Green and yellow.  Yellow and green.  Cheesehead hats, sweatshirts, jackets, stocking caps, gloves, anything to keep you warm… green and yellow, that’s what the fans were wearing.  And orange, too.  A myriad collage of blaze orange hunting apparel added a clamorous blend to the traditional color scheme.  Warmth was the essential factor in garment selection because it was cold.
 
     Despite the fact that I had no ticket and little hope of procuring one within the following two hours, I put on my comfortable boots, zipped my jacket up tight and put on my heavy leather gloves.  Oh, and my stocking hat, too.  The green and yellow one, of course.  Now the real adventure began.  I first trampled over to Lombardi Avenue, a brief journey of about 500 feet, past charcoal grills and various other cooking apparatus sizzling with bratwurst, burgers, steaks and weenies.  Couple that with some of Milwaukee’s finer beverages and you would be a tailgater, a devout practitioner of the pre-game ritual.  Even if you’re located on the far side of a large department store and can’t even see the stadium from where you’re at.  It’s the thought that counts.

     I stood at roadside, freezing my posterior as I held up one hopeful (index) finger, signaling that I only needed one ticket (at face value, please).  This gesture of the forlorn fan was met with shrugs and sympathetic smiles from the passing parade of vehicular traffic.  That didn’t last long.  Myself, being an impatient soul and easily frustrated, decided to venture over to the stadium to purchase a pair of programs before they became scarce, one for myself and one for a close buddy.  I received directions from one of the frost-encrusted parking attendants and scurried over to get into line behind a multitude of other consumers, busily jousting and attempting to gain the attention of two besieged vendors.  The programs were going fast, some people buying six, seven, even eight copies at a time.  I weaseled my way toward the front of the swarm and with a little persuasive expertise, managed to purchase a pair of official game-day programs.

     Twelve dollars lighter in my pocket, but still carrying enough to buy a reasonably priced ticket, should the opportunity arise.  I looked around in hopeless desperation at all the fortunate fans that had tickets, the ones making their way toward the stadium gates to enjoy an exciting episode of Packer history.

     Unsure of my next course of action, but just about ready to concede defeat in my ticket quest, I first decided to head back to my car and put the programs away for safekeeping.  After that, I would possibly make another desperate sojourn toward the entryway and try my luck at tracking down a seller before giving up and driving home in time to catch the game on the tube.

     There are times in life when something rare and utterly unexpected happens, sometimes good, sometimes not. This day was one of the amazingly incredible variety.  As I finished crossing the street that divides the stadium lot from the rest of the world, I passed groups of people; big groups, small groups, individuals and couples.  At one point, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone vaguely familiar pass to my left.  At first, I couldn’t place the face, not immediately.  And then, like a steel pipe to the side of the head, it struck me.  It was Bruce, an old softball teammate from my previous hometown, one-hundred and eighty miles from Green Bay.  Just as I turned to say “Hey!,” I was grabbed by his companion.  Dale!  It was Dale, the shortstop.  What a remarkable reunion.  We chatted briefly.

     I asked, “Do you have tickets?”

     “No, do you?”

     “No!  You mean you guys spent over three hours on the road and don’t have tickets?  Good luck”

     And then Dale says, “You need just one?  Hey, c’mer.  There’s a guy over there looking for someone to help him carry his camera equipment around.”
 

     These two fine gentlemen, former softball compatriots, led me over to a pair of vehicles where four other guys, not dressed in green and yellow, were packing photo equipment; cameras, lenses, film, monopods, cases and cases of photographic accessories.  Here I met Mitchell, although I really didn’t ask him his name until we were inside the stadium.  He explained that he just needed someone reliable to assist him in carrying his extra cameras as he migrated along the sidelines during the game. 

     “It’ll be easy,” he said.

     The difficulty of the task was not the least bit important for this was my opportunity to get into the game. Lambeau Field.  The frozen tundra.  Mitchell’s three associates included two other photographers and an assistant, a brother of one.  All from the New York and New Jersey area, all freelance, all with sideline passes and a spare for lucky me.  The word difficult was not in my vocabulary.

     One of the other photographers said, “This will be something you can write about.”  They even let me store my programs in the back of their car.  Soon all their gear was arranged, packed and ready.  I carried a large black bag, not too heavy, and our five person caravan crossed the street and then the parking lot, weaving between vehicles, pedestrians, nearer and nearer we marched toward the media entryway.  And then we went in. It was easy.  It was miraculous.  We just walked in, the little orange photo pass tied to my jacket zipper.

     First stop:  the hospitality room, located just a brief distance from the home team’s entrance tunnel onto the field.  This was a room designated to accommodate all photographers, both video and still.  Free snacks were provided; donuts, sausages, toast, veggies, juice, milk and coffee.  No liquids for me.  No way.  This upcoming adventure would be like preparing to run a marathon.  I didn’t plan on having to answer nature’s calling at an inopportune time.  Nothing in, nothing out.

     After all the photographers in our little group added clothing and foot warmers to their attire, we picked up the gear and strolled down a gradual ramp to the field at the back of one end zone.  A security person looked at my pass and waved me on.  This was too good to be true.  We brought all the stuff over to a vacant spot by the side of the stadium.  It was 10:25.  Mitchell said I was to meet him back at that spot at 11:15.  Wow!  Fifty minutes to wander around the stadium and absorb the atmosphere.  Definitely not difficult, as long as I didn’t get too cold.  I walked along the stands, reading the cleverly painted signs and posters that fans had hung up along the barrier wall.  All around the stadium, hardly a bare spot visible.

     The stands continued to fill up and by 11:15, nearly every seat was occupied.  A few miles to the north, downtown Green Bay was void of breathing humans.  They were either here or glued to a spot in front of their television watching the game.  Had a bomb been dropped in downtown Green Bay, the only casualties would have been a few aimless wanderers and maybe a couple of bartenders.

     Mitchell gave me two cameras to carry and this was, for the most part, the extent of my duties.  He didn’t even use one of the cameras until after the game had ended.  Prior to the introduction of the players, the public address announcer gave the current weather readings.  The temperature:  3 degrees.  The crowd roared.  Wind chill:  minus 27 degrees.  The crowd roared even louder.  Players were introduced.  The frenzy escalated as the Packers charged onto the field.  The playing of the National Anthem was accompanied by a vociferous crowd and as they sang and hollered along, a quartet of Air Force jets screamed across the sky above the stadium.  The words “the home of the brave” were not heard.  The crowd roared in approval.  60,000 strong.  They weren’t cold.  I wasn’t cold.
 
     I won’t go into all the details of the game.  This is done to a much greater extent by the professional reporters, the television and radio media.  The Packers won.  After struggling early, they broke away, showing their dominance, their desire.  They ruled.  30 to 13.  Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl.

     During the game, Mitchell and I floated up and down the sidelines, getting as close to the action as possible, not always seeing it all, at other times witnessing every bit of the action in excruciating detail.  As we roved from location to location, we needed to dodge video crews, clumps of cables and various other television obstacles, but we always arrived at our planned destination in time to catch the action up close.  To the best I could estimate, Mitchell and his buddies shot over three thousand frames of film.  My coat pockets were stocked with film just to keep Mitchell from running low.  They were emptied by the end of the third quarter.

     As soon as the game ended and the players began their on-field celebration, I asked Mitchell what he wanted me to do at that point.  He looked at me with a cheerful smile and said, “Enjoy the moment.”  Therefore, temporarily free from any obligation, I wandered onto the field, Lambeau Field, the frozen tundra, and stood as if in a trance as the NFC championship trophy was presented to the Packers.  Some of the day’s heroes spoke before the crowd and expressed their sentiments.  I was transfixed, entirely in awe.  For the first time in twenty-nine years, champions walked on this field and I had the privilege to be amongst them, to see their smiles, their hugs of compassion, their enthusiasm at close range.

     After the presentation, I located Mitchell and his buddies and waited as they packed their gear for the final time.  The stands began to empty and clean-up crews started to appear.  Five hours I had been out there on the field, the sidelines.  I wasn’t cold.

     For me, this had been a wonderful experience, practically an adventure in itself.  There may come a time in the future when I will forget certain aspects of the game, no longer remembering where I was on the sidelines when a certain play took place.  But there will always be one moment I will never forget, one special time where I could, as the network football advertisements stated, “Feel The Power.”  It followed a Packer 32-yard field goal that put the team ahead by the score of 20 to 10.  The ensuing kickoff was taken by the Panthers and returned to the 22-yard line.  After the obligatory TV time-out, Carolina huddled up and as they proceeded to line up for the first-down play, the fans roared, a deafening ambiance of noise, a ceaseless, intense resonance of vocal thunder.  I stood there on the sidelines and I could feel the power, the awesome power.  For one brief magical moment, there was no world outside the stadium, no workplace to drag my ass come Monday, no bills to pay, no troubles in all the land.  I was standing on a field of dreams, not fictional dreams, but dreams quite real.  It was a short-lived illusion.  Three plays later, Carolina completed a pass for a first down and Mitchell and I were on the move again.  Even so, the roar of the crowd was still in my head. Those four Air Force jets could have flown over at that very moment and they would have been difficult to hear.  I had felt the power.

     After the game, I assisted Mitchell in carrying his gear back to the vehicles.  After all, I’d volunteered to help him and I was not about to relinquish my role at that point, especially since I left the two programs I’d purchased earlier back in Mitchell’s car.

     I said my goodbyes and heart-felt thanks, collected my programs and as I left to go to my car, one of the other photographers reiterated, “This is something you can write about.”  Sounded like a great idea to me.  But first, I needed to get back to my car, turn the heater on and warm up.  Just a little, anyway.


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