denis gullickson | talking titletown | aug. 2017
Part One of a Three-Part Series
One hundred years ago this summer, the stage was set for an epic, evolving drama that would establish the Green Bay Packers of today and cement the team's unique position among contemporary professional sports franchises.
Anyone who wears Packers apparel and claims to have green and gold blood in their veins should know the story.
And, if you don't think knowing our team's early history is as necessary for entering Lambeau Field as a ticket, then you're merely one of those people who likes to sport your shiny, new “Rodgers" jersey, don your party beads, dance to “Bang the Drum All Day" and echo “Day-O" while pressing to get your mug on the jumbo-tron.
Yeah, I said that.
During the five football seasons from 1917 to 1921, the seeds were sown for what is the greatest team story in the NFL. In fact, it might be the source of a lot of fun and a lot of beer drinking across Titletown to proffer at least a couple of those years as the Packers' “birth date" — a call that even the team is sometimes confounded by.
Over the next three issues of “Frankly Green Bay," we'll take a look at that stretch of time and how it gave Green Bay and the world its Packers.
Lambeau and Calhoun
As the summer of 1917 ticked along, young Earl Louis “Curly" Lambeau could be found knocking about the streets of Green Bay's east side. He'd graduated from East High School that spring, was working construction for his father, Marcelle, and courting Marguerite Van Kessel.
If there was a spring in his step that charmed many and put-off some, it was there because he'd ensconced himself as an athletic phenom at East. His pompadour and self-assurance added to his presence. The inscription in his senior yearbook read, “After athletics, I'm going out to conquer the rest of the world."
Plans were for Curly to take his considerable football skills southward to the “U" in Madison where he'd continue etching his name across the gridiron. It was a proud tradition that had factored into Green Bay's football tradition for years — including guys like TP Silverwood, who'd captained and coached the Green Bay city team in 1896 and '97, and more-immediately, Joe Hoeffel, another East High alum who'd serve in unheralded fashion as the Packers first NFL coach in 1921.
While Curly was likely good enough to crack the varsity unit at college, NCAA rules relegated freshmen to a beginners squad and that was that.
Immediate future in place, Curly bided his time as the Northeastern Wisconsin summer seared. Baseball season was underway and Curly likely played on one or more neighborhood nines.
As the summer days began to wane, talk at the ballparks naturally turned to the upcoming football season. On the prep front, the sometimes-tense, normally-good-natured back-and-forth between the two sides of the Fox River dominated. While East High had finally shed the monkey from its back in terms of besting West High — thanks especially to Curly's prowess — the question remained of whether or when the tide might turn back in West's favor with Curly graduated.
As far as the Green Bay City Team went, names like Jimmy Coffeen and Andy Muldoon were being bandied about as key cogs in a football engine that had seen a resurgence over the previous decade. Bolstered by the high school grads who might join the huddle — the city team looked to continue its hard play against aggregations from up and down the Chicago & Northwestern tracks.
When September rolled around, Curly put a temporary seal on his affairs in Green Bay and hopped the train to the state capital to take classes — but, mostly, play football.
At the sports desk of the Green Bay Press-Gazette now toiled a surly, curmudgeon-y, cigar-chomping sportswriter named George Whitney “Cal" Calhoun. Sometimes fueled by beer or whiskey, the choppy clanking of Cal's typewriter would stir up more than one hornet's nest in the regional sports world.
Reflective of the era and the venomous influence of newsprint at the time, Cal's modus operandi was to fire a few written shots at those teams up and down the tracks — just to get them ducking before they toed up against Green Bay sports teams. The rough and tumble nature of football itself invited that sort of pre-war volley.
Most certainly, Calhoun's word-flow would put additional air under the wings of Curly Lambeau's football career. From the time that Curly's eighth grade Whitney School squad defeated the East High ninth graders to Curly's last swat of a prep hardball, his exploits had been well-documented in the Press-Gazette sports pages. Calhoun's new post would assure that it was always front and center.
Going forward, the pairing of Lambeau's athletic penchant and Calhoun's documentation and celebration of the same would factor mightily in the ensuing drama that gave Packers Nation its focus.
1917 City Team
Organizing a town or city team on the local sandlot each fall was no small feat — not if it was going to play winning football or answer the opening whistle more than a couple of games.
First, you had to have the football guys. Not only guys who could win, but guys who could juggle jobs, families and other commitments and show up regularly. A line of paying customers at the gate depended on it.
If those guys had established their reputations at the local high school, prep fans might show up to see what this “town team" brand of football was all about.
If the team's huddle was rumored to be “loaded up" with one or more imported “crack" players that only a few had ever heard of, then the element of intrigue would put a few more seats in seats.
If the team had a reputation for more than simply running the ball — the stock and trade of most elevens of the day — than that razzle-dazzle would be ballyhooed as a “tent-full of circus plays" and even more fans would turn out.
A recipe of local guys with high school laurels; local guys who'd left town, distinguished themselves on the college gridiron and were returning with college-training; and a “ringer" or two was a tasty mix for football fans. Stir in the hype of an impending clash with the “hired thugs" playing for the team the next town over or in the nether regions across the state and a town could buzz for two work weeks with scoops and rumors.
But a town team also required organization and money. A local businessman might volunteer to oversee its meager coffers and a former player with a few years on him might step forward to draw out some plays and gesticulate from the sidelines.
If the player's wives got behind them with a bake sale or a dance and the local fish wrap gave them some love in the sports column, then most of the ingredients were in place to at least field a team.
A winning tradition didn't hurt a town team's chances either. While Green Bay's town team action had flickered after 1903, it had burned semi-brightly since 1910 — thanks largely to an influx of former high school stars.
With most of those pieces in order, things looked good for the 1917 Green Bay City Team. Actual football action started slowly however. It wasn't until November 7, that a whisper of a “semi-pro" game appeared in the paper — a Thanksgiving Day clash with the Marinette Badgers.
Thanksgiving usually marked the end of the area football season, not its first game. Fans were often eager to catch the last grid action before the snow flew in earnest and turnouts were typically strong. This particular game would benefit the Red Cross.
Parallel elements comprised both teams as the boys from Marinette and Menominee, MI — traditional sports rivals — buried the hatchet to do battle against guys with their own past clashes from Green Bay East and West high schools.
Lambeau had returned to Green Bay as much as a month earlier when freshman football at Madison was canceled due to a lack of numbers. He would join the lineup as would high school buddy, Nate Abrams.
The game ended decidedly in Green Bay's favor, 27-0 — Lambeau much the star.
In 1918, thanks to Abrams, Green Bay's town team was back with a vengeance. While Lambeau still wasn't available, having transposed his college career to Notre Dame, the huddle was strong.
Next month, our story picks up with the “1918 Packers" [sic].
As summer passes, author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson battles the rain to bale hay, leads the Green Bay Theatre Company in a number of projects — including a reprise of “The Vagabond Halfback" the first weekend in November — and readies for the start of another school year.