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Photo of Steve Tate by the author.

The Green Bay Packers Are the NFL's Great Rural Anomaly

Katie Bain

We hung with 7,000 of the team's owners at their annual shareholders' meeting.

Photo of Steve Tate by the author.

On January 26, 1997, my uncle Larry Willems sat in the Louisiana Superdome and wept. The Green Bay Packers, led by Southern-fried MVP Brett Favre, had just beaten the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Larry hadn't planned on being there. He didn't have the money to go. A week before the game, however, his best friend Ron called to say if anyone was going to see the Pack compete in football's biggest event it was Larry, a Green Bay–area native who had missed only five home games in his 40 years of fandom. Ron bought him a ticket.

And so Larry flew to New Orleans and watched the team he had cheered for since childhood through crushingly bad seasons in the 70s and 80s receive the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which is named for the messianic coach that led the Pack to victory in the first two Super Bowls. Larry wept because he thought he'd never see it happen. Twenty years later, he still tears up retelling this story.

Adults crying over the power and glory of sports isn't unique to the Packers or to football. The thrill of victory and deflation of defeat binds fans around the world regardless of team affiliation. But the Packers remain the NFL's great rural anomaly. Home to roughly 105,000, Green Bay is essentially a mill town surrounded by farmland. It's not only the smallest city in the league but the only professional sports team not owned by one or two rich tycoons with the power to fling their franchises to new cities in the search for profit and glory.

All photos by the author

The Packers are owned by the people. The team's 361,060 shareholders have saved the organization from financial collapse more than once during its nearly 100-year history. This group forms the fanatic core of the famously fanatic town, and today they are gathering at Lambeau Field for the annual shareholders meeting.

On this perfect summer morning, the massive clock at Lambeau points to 9 AM. Lombardi told his players that if they weren't 15 minutes early for a meeting, they were already late, which means it's actually 8:45 since Lambeau runs on Lombardi time. The stadium will open soon, and hundreds of people are lined up in the parking lot. They've come from Fargo, Madison, Chicago, DeKalb, Thiensville, Palmyra, and other tiny Wisco towns you've never heard of. Some are tailgating. They wear cheeseheads, green and gold tutus and jerseys bearing the name of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose soulful gaze emanates from billboards from here to Milwaukee. Nearly 7,000 people will turn out today. Previous meetings have drawn more than 20,000 true believers.

Photo of Gerda Philipp by the author

Inside I meet Gerda Philipp, who is 92 and had her neighbor Jerry drive her up from Madison this morning. Born in Germany, Philipp and her husband moved to Wisconsin in 1952 because "everything was bombed so badly" in their home country and they heard factories here were hiring. The couple and their two sons became fast Packers fans, eventually buying shares in the 1997 sale. Her husband and one of her sons have since passed away. Philipp makes the two-hour trek north every year to represent her family.

"I don't remember not being a Packer fan," says Steve Tate, who bought in during 1997 and 2001 sales and today wears a custom cheesehead reading "God, Family, Packers, Owner." "We grew up really poor in the Madison area and moved almost every year when I was a kid. As we moved around, there was my core family and the Packers," he says. "They were my extended family."

Around the atrium shareholders stand in line to have their photo super-imposed next to an image of wide receiver Jordy Nelson. They stand in line to enter to win a Chevy. They stand in line to buy T-shirts, sweatshirts, and mugs that say "I Own a Piece of the Pack." They stand in line to drink beer at 1919, the restaurant named for the year the Packers were founded. The spacious, sunlit atrium was built as part of the massive overhaul of Lambeau Field that began in 2000, when the charming but dinky stadium was transformed into a nexus of modern NFL luxury (i.e.: heated bathrooms) with a budget raised partially through the sale of stocks. You can get married at Lambeau, and many do. The new Packers Hall of Fame is fun and emotional. On any given day—even when temperatures dip below zero—license plates from around the country are represented in the parking lot as fans arrive to explore one of the most fabled stadiums in professional sports.

Co-founded by Green Bay newspaperman George Whitney Calhoun and Green Bay–born football prodigy Curly Lambeau, the Packers were originally sponsored by the Indian Packing Company, which dealt in canned meats and bestowed the team its name. Acme Packing purchased Indian and sponsored the team for two months at the end of the 1920 season, a period in which the Packers became a franchise in the newly established American Professional Football Association, now the NFL. The team was taken over by a pair of brothers, the Clares, when it was discovered Acme was deep in debt.

"I always tell people the Packers were perpetually on their deathbed, from the day they were born until this stadium was built," says the team's official historian Cliff Christl.

A 1922 fundraising game against Duluth was planned to help get the Packers in the black. Officials considered canceling due to rain, but Andrew Turnbull, a co-owner of the Green Bay Press Gazette, said if they didn't play it would be the end of pro football in the city. Turnbull would help the team raise money if they went through with it. The Pack won ten to nothing in the downpour, and Turnbull kept his word, co-founding the Green Bay Football Corporation and installing himself as president. Five dollar shares were sold to locals, and $5,500 was raised. The team was saved.

The Pack chugged along until 1931, when a fan fell from the stands during a game against Brooklyn. He sued and was awarded $5,000. It was the Depression, and the team's insurance company was bankrupt and couldn't pay the sum. Twenty-five dollar shares sold to keep the team alive until 1950, when another sale dispensed $104,000 worth of stock to residents including my great grandfather, bringing the number of shareholders to a thousand.

"At this point," Christl says, "the Packers really become owned by the masses."

All photos by the author

This ownership structure has helped instill football fervor deep into the collective local psyche. Houses are painted green and gold and infants are put on the waiting list for season tickets at birth. Most of these now adult children still haven't gotten seats. You can drive down local streets named after Packer stars—Lombardi Avenue, Holmgren Way, Brett Favre Pass, and Reggie White Way. Larry was once on the news for grilling bear meat in the parking lot after a victory over Chicago. More recent sales have been instrumental in modernizing the stadium in a way that has allowed Green Bay to keep up with the NFL joneses. In 1997, roughly 120,000 shares were sold at $200 a piece. More than $24 million was raised. In 2011, $67.4 million was raised through the sale of 270,000 shares at $250 each, with online sales vastly expanding the number of people buying in.

Today, inside Lambeau, Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy welcomes us to "the most unique business meeting in the United States." We remove our hats and cheeseheads during the national anthem before settling in for speeches by Murphy, members of the board of directors, and executive VP and general manager Ted Thompson, who delights with facts and figures. He tells us next season players will get shoes made by lasers to ensure a perfect fit, and tells us about various Packers efforts to raise money for charity over the off season. He's pleased the team just won a few ESPY awards, including the one for play of the year (in any sport!) for the Rodgers-thrown, Jared Cook–caught pass that pushed the Pack into a thrilling fourth quarter playoff victory against the Cowboys. This play is then shown on the Jumbotron and the crowd cheers as though it is actually happening on the unpainted field in front of us.

Thompson says the relocation of teams is a major issue this year, with the Raiders moving to Las Vegas and the Chargers going to LA, following the Rams departure from St. Louis there just last season. A team leaving is perhaps the concept most foreign to Green Bay, because it could never happen here. A majority vote would be impossible.

In a league-wide poll, the Pack was rated second in overall game day satisfaction, and Thompson says they're working hard to secure the number one spot. We are told our loyalty will never be taken for granted. The meeting ends with a collective "Go Pack Go" and then Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" is blasted through the speakers, because we just did.

Photo of Gretchen and Ben Kirklewski by the author

Back in the atrium the Miller Lite is flowing. Donna and Randy Hoffman, wearing matching Ray Nitschke T-shirts, tell me they make a day trip to Green Bay each year for the meeting and have plans to stop at a brat fry on their way home tonight. Gretchen and Ben Kirklewski made their annual ten hour drive from Fargo to be here. "It gives you a sense of pride," Ben says of being an owner. Matt Anderson brought his two sons Kai and Cormac from DeKalb, Illinois, and Kai will have you know he was born the day Green Bay won the 2011 Super Bowl.

Green Bay is the team people from other small towns love rooting for. The city makes sense to them. Green Bay and the Packers are built on values of tradition, family, working hard, and being aggressively kind to strangers. Even Favre acknowledged how well he and his family were taken care of by the people when his wife Deanna had cancer. ("You brought us casseroles," he noted during his Packers Hall of Fame acceptance speech.) The Packers are the team many would want to have in their own small town, and without them, Green Bay would be just another blue-collar city most people have never heard of.

Photo of Matt, Kai, and Cormac Anderson by the author

Buying Packers stock pays no financial dividends. The only rewards are the certificate of ownership you get to hang on the wall, access to the meeting, and the pride in knowing you're part of a worldwide community with a homespun heart. Shares can only be transferred between immediate family members.

Some say the franchise isn't like it used to be. In the old days, my uncle could ride his bike into Lambeau and zip around on the field. Shareholders could call former CEO Bob Harlan to express their concerns, and he would actually answer. Tickets didn't cost $129 a game, and the lot across the street from Lambeau was home to a K-Mart rather than the sprawling Titletown District currently under construction. When completed, the area will house shops, restaurants, a sledding ramp, and apartments. Hotel rooms here during game weekends start at $500 a night. They are not for the people of Green Bay, but those who come from out of town to spend money, experience the magic, and help keep the franchise financially viable.

And that's OK. Things change. Favre, forever etched in our memories running down the field of Superdome clutching his helmet overhead in victory, made of fool of himself during a season in New York and then played for Green Bay's rival Vikings before prodigal son-ing it back last year to have his number retired. Larry's best friend Ron passed away in a car accident. After five decades of Lambeau home games and legendary tailgate parties, Larry says the upcoming season will be his last. He wants to watch the games at home and spend more time fishing.

But as life shifts, heroes become human and friends come and go, the ties that bind the people of Green Bay to the Packers remain strong, perhaps because in the face of these changes the Packers have remained a constant. They are the extended family, the providers of some of the best moments of our lives, and the way we connect to home and ideas of home that no longer exist. They are our lineage, they are our unifier, they are ours.

Katie Bain is a proud owner of the Green Bay Packers. She's on Twitter.