A Love Affair : Other Cities May Have a Business Relationship With NFL Teams, but in Green Bay, They Keep Packers Part of Their Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crumpled sugar packets are piled as high as the snow outside. Sitting in his favorite diner, Mike Blindauer fingers the lapel of his faded jacket and ponders the question.

How do the Green Bay Packers survive in a world of Dallas Cowboys?

How does a team from a quiet northern outpost of 96,000 compete in an arena of giant cities, bank accounts and egos?

How does a team with no lucrative sponsorship deals, no international marketing plan, no national television commercials, no parking space that costs more than $7. . . . How does this team keep with the Jerry Joneses?

"You know, it must be because of who owns the team," Blindauer says.

Which brings up another question, one that has baffled the sports world for years.

Exactly who does own the team?

Blindauer looks down, shuffles his work boots and smiles.

"Well, uh, among others, me," says the owner of Blindauer Sheetmetal and Roofing Inc., excusing himself to go spend another Wednesday climbing ladders.

*

To understand the difference between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, who meet Sunday in the NFC championship game, is to understand what the Packers saw when they landed in Green Bay last weekend.

Porch lights. Christmas lights. Miles and miles of lights blazing along the Fox River.

At 1 a.m.

A town waiting up for its team.

"Back in the 1930s, when the Packers arrived home by train, people would line the tracks with torches," said James Van Matre, Green Bay vice president of tourism. "I guess some things around here just don't change."

To understand the difference between the Packers and Cowboys is to understand that millionaire oilman Jerry Jones owns the Cowboys.

While Mike Blindauer and 1,897 other mostly local bus drivers, truckers, shopkeepers and businessmen own the Packers.

Which might explain why green-and-gold ribbons have been wrapped around trees and telephone poles here, and will remain until the Packers lose.

And might explain why the big game will be shown on a grand old downtown theater known as the West Pitcher Show. Like a movie. For free.

And which also might explain the ghosts.

The night before Sunday's game, don't be surprised if something trips the motion detectors and sets off an alarm in the Packer Hall of Fame. It has happened before.

Outsiders have explained it as an electronic malfunction.

The locals wonder if it isn't the spirit of Packer greats who could never quite bring themselves to leave a town that loved them like sons.

Van Matre, who runs the Hall of Fame, shrugs.

"All I know is that when Marie Lombardi was alive and visiting here, she used to ask to be allowed inside the museum alone," he said of the widow of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. "Twice she asked us to clear the place out so she could be with her late husband. So, you tell me."

To understand the difference between the Cowboys and Packers is to understand that the Cowboys and Dallas are a new-age business partnership.

While the Packers and Green Bay are a decades-old embrace.

*

A few things you see in Green Bay that you will never see in any other NFL city:

The starting quarterback and league MVP dashing home from work for lunch.

Brett Favre lives about a mile from the stadium, just a couple of left turns away. The city is so small, nearly all of the Packers also live around the corner from Lambeau Field.

Which makes it a hangout. On Tuesdays, the players' only day off during the season, many of them stop by the stadium on their way to the hardware store, or coming back from breakfast, or before seeing a movie.

"That is how this team gets so focused," said Keith Jackson, who has played in Philadelphia and Miami. "Every Tuesday, it seems everybody is here at least once. On other teams, nobody shows up on Tuesdays. Never."

The Hall of Fame linebacker listed in the phone book.

Ray Nitschke of 410 Peppermint Court can be found right there between Tery Nitsch and Marshal Nitti. You can look it up.

A locker-room speech from a former coach is bronzed and hanging next to the cafeteria in a middle school.

The place is the Lombardi Middle School, named after you-know-who.

The sign out front reads, "We are inVINCEible."

The school's mascot is a man who looks much like Lombardi wearing a spartan-type helmet.

The speech is called "The Lombardi Credo," in which the late coach stated that "Leaders are made, they are not born."

Sort of like football towns. Are you listening, NFL?

A bar where the owner is a former guard who is so grateful to locals who once supported him, he buys them bratwurst and chili on game days.

When in town, visit Fuzzy's Shenanigans, a joint big enough for one bartender, owned by former Packer guard Fuzzy Thurston.

Check out the back wall for the copy of Thurston's Super Bowl I check, worth $15,000. Check out the autographed refrigerator.

After the Packers' victory over the favored San Francisco 49ers last week, sending them to the NFC championship game for the first time in 28 years, you should have checked out the atmosphere.

Ghosts, again.

"The game ended, and there was a real hush in here," said Dick Boyle, a local who sells T-shirts and caps. "For some reason, nobody played the jukebox like they always do. It got real reverent, like a catharsis had just taken place.

"Real quiet, we were all like, 'Is this happening again? Is it possible?' "

Free parking on city streets within four blocks of the stadium on game days. And homeowners who, on snowy days, will allow fans to park in their garages.

A green-and-yellow structure amid tree-lined blocks of modest homes, Lambeau Field could be the box of Crayola crayons left outside by the neighborhood giant.

But you've never had somebody so nice living next door.

The most expensive seat is $28 per game, which perhaps accounts for the season-ticket waiting list of nearly 20,000 for the 60,790-seat facility.

Order now, and you may see your first game 25 years from now.

It is also one of the few stadiums in the country that employs city police as security guards, with the Packers paying for the overtime.

It certainly must be the only stadium where that security force will eject you for swearing.

And no other place has a scoreboard that also serves fans outside the facility, with displays of time and temperature and annual schedule.

As if the Packers are always watching over their people.

"It seems like everybody in this town goes past that stadium one or two times during his daily routine," said Ray Cousineau, truck driver. "It's a part of our life."

Move to Green Bay, and you can soon be telling some tourist to "Make a left on Lombardi Drive . . . the Don Huston Center will be on your left . . . go straight on Packerland Drive. . . ."

*

"You ask me, those cheese heads make us look like goofballs and hicks," Boyle said on a recent night at Fuzzy's.

Two stools down, store manager Joe Micheau looked up and said, "Well, aren't we?"

Real Packer fans drink coffee and tell lies. Every morning at a local diner. For 30 minutes, and not a second longer.

They are the several dozen members of Martha's Coffee Club and have been meeting to discuss the Packers for 48 years.

They no longer meet at Martha's. One of the founders has passed away. They are even letting women join these days.

But a buzzer still rings after 30 minutes. Fines are still assessed for conversation involving something besides football. The theme is still the same.

"Green Bay is a drinking town with a football problem," retiree Bill DeNoble said.

One recent day their stories, as usual, were peppered with enough big names to fill a wing at Canton.

Maurie Robinson, one of the club's co-founders, told of the time he and co-founder Howie Blindauer were thrown off a team bus by Lombardi.

"It was the sixth bus back, and it was an exhibition game in Chicago, and we had been invited by the players to join them . . . and Lombardi still saw us and screamed, 'No civilians on the bus!' "

Others told of visits to the restaurant by Bart Starr, and of long train trips with Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, and of recent trips to the airport to join thousands of others in meeting the team in the freezing early morning.

Watching Favre lead the Packers this weekend, it might be easy to forget that this team endured a stretch of 13 years during which it enjoyed only one nonstrike winning season.

"That's the great thing about this year. . . . It's like for all these old fans, the hard years never existed," said Robert Brooks, the Packer wide receiver who jumps into the stands after touchdowns to show his appreciation. "It's like they have gone from the glory days to these days and not missed a beat."

At least three members of Martha's club are stockholders, who can never make money on their holdings but do elect a board of directors that runs the team.

Which brings us back to Mike Blindauer. Howie's boy.

Jerry Jones thinks he comes from tough stock. Listen to this Packer owner tell of how his father, who was also a roofer, once placed a lien on Vince Lombardi's house because the coach wouldn't pay him.

"So Lombardi called my dad into his office, and I guess they screamed at each other for 20 minutes," Blindauer said. "But he finally paid my dad."

The punch line is, Howie Blindauer never cashed the check. Something about being so proud of a hard-fought battle won.

Just as Lombardi has his credo, so do the people of Green Bay, where real men are heroes, and the spirits are watching.

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