A City and Its Team

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | aug. 2016

This single, $5 share of Packers' 1923 stock didn't really belong to Polly Nichols. Polly is a made-up character in "The Vagabond Halfback" stage play coming up August 5-7 at Green Bay East High School. Sure her brother Norbert teases her that the Packers conned her out of all the babysitting money she had and that all she owns is a piece of paper, but don't tell Polly she doesn't own part of the team. She might just punch your lights out. Stage prop from "The Vagabond Halfback."Days already grow shorter as back-to-school ads make their way onto the television set and into those newspaper inserts that fall purposely-unnoticed to floor.

Another Wisconsin summer is ticking by.

Still, in the city by the bay, there's unusual cheer as the Packers have assembled for yet-another NFL training camp and the promise of yet-another football season has enveloped Titletown.

As I write this, the local sports-radio guys have this year's Packers in the rarefied air of yet-another Super Bowl Championship – the team's odds of winning it all set by Vegas at 11/1. (That's "bet $1 to win $11"). In that same neighborhood are the Patriots, 15/2; Seahawks. 9/1; Broncos, 12/1; and Panthers, 13/1. A bit further out are the Bengals, Cardinals, Cowboys, Vikings and Colts. Way out, say the odds makers, are Chargers, 100/1, and Browns, 200/1. The other 20 teams fall somewhere in between. Since Vegas isn't in the business of losing money, that's relatively good news for Packers fans. (Careful, though – a wince-inducing flashback to last season says that one torn-up knee can send the dominoes tumbling.)

The City is Buzzing

Still, as July drifts into August, what's not to like?

The Packers shareholder meeting went off as scheduled, Thursday, July 21. Packers Training Camp officially began with an 8:15 practice Tuesday, July 26. And Family Night was its usual love fest on Sunday, July 31.

This year's team is the typical mix of pro-bowl players whose names adorn the backs of fans' jerseys, journeymen looking to improve or find accommodations in another town and players whose families are the only ones who know they're here.

Training camp this year is punctuated by a fifth preseason game on Sunday, August 7. That, a part of a weekend-long celebration surrounding Brett Favre's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That same weekend, there will be Tall Ships and fireworks of all kinds.

That same weekend, there's another kind of celebration taking place as the original, two-act stage play, “The Vagabond Halfback,” makes its debut.

Green Bay has always been a town that was pretty proud of itself. In the late-summer, that pride gets especially ripe.

There's something worth noting about a place that calls itself Titletown and gets away with it. Say you're “The Home of the Hamburger,” for instance – as nearby-Seymour knows – and every village that ever fried up some ground beef calls you out. Name yourself “The Tea-Cup Rose Capital of the World” and you've got a dozen burghs throwing dirt in your face. Proclaim you're “The City Where the Peace Sign was First Drawn on a Napkin” and you've got an all-out war on your hands with a dozen locales that question your right. But call yourself “Titletown” and back it up with four-more championships than any other NFL town, the only two “Threepeat” championships in NFL history, soon-to-be the most guys in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a fan base that spans the globe, fan ownership of the team and a history that reaches back to the league's infancy … and, well, the rest of the NFL sits dumbfounded.

Putting a Face to It

In 2011, Dr. James Hurly and Tom Murphy published an impressive tome, “Green Bay: A City and Its Team.” It was a gargantuan effort – begun as much as a decade earlier. This author was fortunate to have been present in some of the project's earliest days. Always a proponent of what I call “street-level history,” – I stood with Hurly on some of Titletown's most-precious sites; some obscure, some quite famous.

It's from these very spots that football in this town sprang up.

There's “White City” – once located just northeast of the intersections of Irwin and Eastman Streets – where a hundred years ago as many as three football games were played on a Sunday. This area was part of Preble then. Families traveled by street car to White City from Green Bay's downtown neighborhoods. The men usually jumped off at White City while the wife and kids continued on to Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Today, folks drive past the former White City grounds without any idea that it was once a hub of local football or the awareness that the teams that played there supplied some of the oomph for Green Bay's gridiron game that, eventually, gave us the Packers.

Some might dismiss the significance of what is, today, a forlorn-looking St. Claire Street where Curly Lambeau spent some of his carefree days as a boy, running and chasing and, probably, tossing a football around. Whether that was a salt sack filled with leaves and stones – as some claim – is a matter of conjecture. However, the plan he developed there surely became a part of his demeanor and that demeanor surely developed him as a successful athlete with dreams that reached to the stars.

Those are the very real things that come from that street-level aspect of our history. To replicate that – Hurly assembled nearly every Packer-related picture of Green Bay's past and, then, went looking for its present. Again and again, in its first pages, Hurly and his photographers situated themselves in spots where those early pictures were taken and snapped current renditions – giving the book its broader title, “Then and Now.”

Standing There

So, what's to be found in these “Then and Now” glimpses into Green Bay's past and present? Actually, the goal is pretty straightforward: Somewhere between those early photographs and those taken for Hurly and Murphy's book is the essence of what it is to be a Packers fan. Contained therein is the drive that has kept the Packers in place in the NFL's tiniest member-city for ninety-five years and counting. And, really, that essence is as tangible as standing on those spots, closing your eyes and doing a little imaginary time travel.

It is a matter of time and place – of moments and locations.

This was certainly the impetus behind the Packers Heritage Trail developed by Packers historian Cliff Christl and others even-more recently. The Heritage Trail is anchored by the Heritage Plaza, dedicated in the autumn of 2013 and located downtown on the northeast corner of Washington and Cherry streets. However, the Trail itself is comprised of 22 commemorative plaques located primarily on the city's eastside “at sites where the blended history of the Packers and their fans during that period actually unfolded.” Christl describes the trail as “a self-guided walking tour that weaves two compelling stories. One is about the rich, colorful and improbable history of the storied Green Bay Packers. The other is about the people of Green Bay and how their undying devotion to their beloved football team pulled it through years of financial struggle and ensured its survival.”

Along the trail, folks see everything from Curly Lambeau's "Birthplace Home to the Birthplace of the Packers." From downtown scenes that factored into the Packers' survival to the site where Vince Lombardi told the Green Bay press (and, in turn, the fans and players) that he'd never been associated with a loser and didn't intend to start by accepting the head coaching position of the Packers. At each site, visitors can close their eyes and imagine a time in the past where the Packers franchise may well have been at a crossroads.

So, there's something tangible about being a Packers fan. Yes, you can and should feel it in your gut and your heart, but you can actually find, see and touch many of the milestones in this team's unique story and history. Hurly's book and the Heritage Trail are good starting points.

Feel That Magic in the Theater

That same vibe takes life on the theater stage in an original, two-act stage play presented for the first time ever at Green Bay East High School August 5-7. It's a story of life, love and Packers football in the Roaring Twenties and the perfect compliment to everything else going on in Green Bay this first weekend in August.

For the first time anywhere ever, there's live football action on the theater stage. Get your tickets at the door or at greenbaytheatre.org and click on Purchase Tickets. The play is produced by the Green Bay Theatre Company and features local acting talent in period-accurate costuming and scenery.

The Vagabond Halfback” comes to theater stages this summer – beginning with a World Premiere at historic Green Bay East High School August 5-7. Produced by newly-founded Green Bay Theatre Company, “The Vagabond Halfback” celebrates colorful Packers Hall of Famer Johnny Blood McNally and the Packers own unique story as the team traveled by train from small-town sandlots to the gridirons of the early NFL. It's a historically-accurate depiction of life, love and football set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Roaring Twenties in the face of the Great Depression. Gullickson also continues as an educator, author, farmer and horseman.

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