A look at the enthusiastic NFL tailgating fans who follow Green Bay, Wisconsin’s NFL team from preseason to postseason.
By Lazelle Jones
Most of us likely know — or are — avid sports fans who thoroughly enjoy spectator sports. Among them are RV enthusiasts who use their vehicles as rolling base camps to get close to the excitement, be it a NASCAR race, a rodeo, a tennis or golf tournament, or a whole host of other competitions in every season.
Though the spectrum of spectator sports is broad, many would argue that the holy grail of the American sports scene is professional football. Beginning each July, National Football League training camps commence across the country, drawing passionate fans who come to worship their favorite teams and turf heroes. Fans witness a culling process designed to whittle down large numbers of athletic hopefuls with each passing week. In the end, only the very best remain standing. Their names fill team rosters on opening day of the regular season.
The fun isn’t just on the field, either. Parking lots and venues surrounding NFL stadiums fill with football fans caught up in the excitement of tailgating before and after the game. The RVers seem to have it made.
Looking to explore this slice of sports so attractive to the RV lifestyle, this past August I visited Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the Green Bay Packers. Packers training camp is held at Lambeau before the regular season begins. I talked with fans who had come from around the United States and elsewhere to be part of the training camp experience. I also witnessed the festivities and fun at the venue where legend says the “tailgate party” began.
The Green Bay Packers are publicly owned. Five times over the last century, stock has been sold to the public. Today there are approximately 5 million shares of stock and approximately 364,000 stockholders. Many of these shares are handed down from generation to generation.
Lambeau Field opened in 1957. Today the state-of-the-art stadium seats nearly 81,000 spectators. Packers training camp is free, open to the public, and seating is first-come, first-served. The stands fill up quickly.
“Railbirds” arrive early to get a bleacher seat or to place their lawn chairs near one of two practice playing fields, such as Ray Nitschke Field, which was named after the Packers’ NFL Hall of Fame linebacker. An endearing Packers tradition began years ago with young fans lining up with their bicycles near a parking lot the players walk through in hopes that a Packer will choose their bike. Each fan whose bike is selected carries the player’s helmet and walks alongside the bike as the player rides it to the practice field. Today the bike ride covers two blocks, and along the way, fans of all ages line up to watch the procession.
RV parking is available three blocks east of Lambeau Field. It costs about $150 for two days and one night. This is primitive RV camping (no facilities), but that’s okay, for this is what makes a self-contained vehicle a good fit for such occasions. Here I met several die-hard Packers fans who travel to the games in their motorhomes to cheer on the team.
They included Denny and Jean Peterson, FMCA members who are now into their second year of full-time RVing. They say they enjoy this newfound freedom of the open road. The Petersons were invited to join their friends, fellow FMCAers Bob and Jeanne O’Brien, for the first preseason Packers game. With their coaches parked alongside one another and their flags and banners unfurled, Packers life was in full swing. (A piece of Packers history: Jeanne O’Brien’s late uncle, Dr. Eugene Brusky, is in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. He was the team physician from 1962 to 1990.)
Tailgating thrives before and after Packers games. Lots teem with motorhomes, towable RVs, pickup trucks, SUVs, vans, and sedans. Usually an awning, a table, and an outdoor grill are set up. Food and drink are set out buffet-style, footballs are tossed, and music permeates.
The festivities in this football fraternity are fun, relaxing, and sometimes amusing. Sharing good food, seeing old friends, and making new ones are the essence of tailgating. Tailgaters relive a particular play in some historic game, wear the jersey of a favorite player past or present, and enjoy the warmth of the late summer sun.
Later in the season, warm days change into wintry ones. Bundling up under multiple layers of clothing to brace against the frigid temps is an accepted part of the Packers fan experience.
Those who tailgate season after season at Lambeau Field accept the fact that temps in Green Bay may hover at zero on those wintry days; with the windchill factor, it feels even colder. Several fans I talked to testified that once a canned beverage is popped open, the contents often can’t be finished before they turn to slush. A caveat for those who bring coaches to Green Bay and other northern NFL venues during the winter months: Make sure the unit is winterized and know what actions you need to take for primitive camping in such conditions.
Green Bay Packers tickets are prized possessions, because home games have been sold out for years. Season ticket holders offer their tickets for sale through authorized brokers (not scalpers). The waiting list to purchase a season ticket through the Green Bay Packers organization now numbers 130,000. (That’s right; 130,000 individuals are signed up and waiting.) It often takes years, even decades, for a season ticket to become available. Packers tickets become part of the ticket holder’s estate and are passed down from generation to generation; wills stipulate who receives them.
Game day is full: the pageantry; the electricity in the air; the pregame activities in the surrounding parking lots; and the friendliness of these Packers fans, who in good fellowship embrace even non-Packers fans who have come to cheer on their own favorite team. Packers fan Jeff Jacobe explained that it’s the fun, fraternity, and fellowship that reigns supreme in the Lambeau Field parking lot on the southeast side of the stadium.
Following the pregame celebrations outside the stadium comes the awesome experience of witnessing what takes place inside Lambeau Field. Thanks to Jeff Jacobe, I was able to attend the first preseason game, which pitted the “Pack” against the Philadelphia Eagles. Attendance was 75,000.
Jeff, who has been tailgating at Lambeau Field since 1988, let me use one of his tickets in Row 2, Section 133, near the spot where the tradition known as the “Lambeau Leap” was initiated. I extend a big thank-you to this Packers fan.
The Lambeau Leap first occurred in 1993 when Packers safety LeRoy Butler returned a recovered fumble for a touchdown and jumped up into the outreached arms of fans sitting in Row 1 in the end zone. Today the Lambeau Leap is a common occurrence when a Packers player scores a touchdown at either end of the field. Despite league rules banning excessive celebrations after a score, the Lambeau Leap has been grandfathered at Lambeau Field — so far.
Lambeau Field is closed only two days each year: Christmas and Easter. On the other 363, visitors can enjoy any number of activities inside the stadium, as well as the plethora of sights, activities, and fun stuff that take place around Green Bay.
Touring at Lambeau Field is a must for football fans. Visitors go behind the scenes and up into the luxury boxes for a bird’s-eye view of the entire stadium and the city. The tour guides are walking history books on Packers history. The team was formally organized in 1919 by player and coach Earl “Curly” Lambeau, for whom the stadium is named.
The guides talk in-depth about famous players over the last 98 years, as well as coaches such as Vince Lombardi, who won two Super Bowls and one of the most famous championship games ever: the 1967 NFL championship game when the Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys. It would become known as the “Ice Bowl,” because temperatures dropped to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit while the windchill made it feel like minus 48 degrees. With just seconds to play, quarterback Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown with a quarterback sneak.
During the tour, visitors walk past the team locker room and out the tunnel the Packers use to enter the field. The mouth of the tunnel contains a row of bricks that every great Green Bay Packer has crossed for decades. This is an awesome guided tour.
Inside the Lambeau Field Atrium, enclosed by glass windows, are several more must-see stops. One is the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Videos of Packer greats, oral histories, and myriad trophies awarded to the team and individual players will delight even a football novice.
If you want a particular Packers item, it’s likely sold at the Packers Pro Shop at Lambeau Field. And when you’ve exhausted yourself, the bistro reached from inside the Atrium, 1919 Kitchen & Tap, does not disappoint.
As you enjoy all that Lambeau Field offers, consider an interesting back story about Curly Lambeau. In 1918 he was playing football at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne. Unfortunately, he came down with a severe case of tonsillitis and could not return to college. Laid up for a lengthy recovery, and with his chance to play at Notre Dame having evaporated, he organized a football team in Green Bay with a $500 sponsorship paid by a local meat packing company. Eventually he cobbled together a football team, which in 1921 was granted membership in the American Professional Football League (now the NFL). And, as they say, the rest is history.
Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Automobile Gallery
Titletown Brewing Company