Professional Football Tailgating Traditions
Talk to those who game after game and year in and year out enjoy the tradition of “tailgating” at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin and instantly you’re swimming in legend, history, and folklore. And should you be as fortunate as we were August last to visit Green Bay and stroll through the Lambeau Field parking lot before a pre-season game between the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles, don’t be surprised if you find a beverage (often a brew from one of the local craft breweries) being thrust into your hand as we did. Handed and empty plate we also enjoyed filling it with brats, steaming hot crock-pot goodies, grilled burgers, chips and dips, and of course the quintessential Wisconsin “cheese curd”. This is typical traditional fare served at Packer tailgate parties and we found it was matched only by the super-sized serving of hospitality that went with it.
At the Green Bay Packers’ training camp (preseason game) we found ourselves embraced by friendly folks who we had never met before and probably will never see again. We discovered in the southeast corner of Lambeau Field’s parking lot (on the Oneida Entrance side of the stadium) tailgating fans who have been coming for generations to renew the good-times, relive again historic wins, and mourn old losses. However another thing making this experience totally unique was that it appeared to be immaterial whether we were Green Bay Packers fans or fans from the visiting team (and that includes their arch rival, the Chicago Bears). Today across America tailgating is enjoyed at all kinds of sporting venues and is a recognized pillar of fun, but on game day at Lambeau Field “tailgating is truly special.” Retired Green Bay fireman Jeff Jacobe who has been tailgating in this parking lot since 1988, told us tickets for the tailgating area of the Lambeaur Field parking lot are practically impossible to get. These passes are treasured and passed on from generation to generation much the same as Packer football game season tickets are treasured. Those who have an annual pass to this tailgating area of the parking lot have first-opportunity to purchase a parking lot ticket for the next season (and they do). The Lambeau Field parking lot does not open until 4-hours before kick-off but when it does an instant boomtown rises up out of the asphalt. Tailgates on pickup trucks, SUV and vans go down, and trunks are opened on family sedans. Tents and awnings appear along with tables and chairs. Smokers and BBQ are set in place; coolers are located for ease of access to food and beverage; and flags and pennants that show that so-and-so’s tailgate group has arrived and is ready to party, penetrate the sky above. Packer “tailgaters” have reduced “set-up” time down to a science and the four hours that follow it total “celebration.” Add to the mix a Packers band that roams the tailgate party area, performing favorites tunes that fans request.
The history of “tailgating” at Lambeau Field goes back to 1957, the same year that found Eisenhower being sworn in for a second term as President. This was the year Elvis Presley bought Graceland for his family; and the year the Brooklyn Dodgers deciding their future lay in Los Angeles. However 1957 also saw the Green Bay Packers built Lambeau Field, with only 20 rows of bleacher seating initially completed. Prior to Lambeau Field the Packers played games at a city stadium downtown (circa 1925) but even back then fans partied out of the backs of family vehicles. Legend has it that it was during the mid 1920’s that Packer fans first introduced “tailgating” to Pro-Football. In 1957 when the first of the several stages of Lambeau Field was completed, the stadium was located away from the City of Green Bay. Lambeau Field was surrounded only by corn and soybeans fields and when Packer fans drove out from town to cheer on The Pack they brought with them all the makings for a feast and party. Fast forward now sixty years to 2017 and at this same location on what today is Lombardi Blvd, the history of the Packers becomes even richer. The Blvd was named after Vince Lombardi who won 5 NFL Championships and 2 Super Bowls, with one of the most famous of his wins becoming known as the “Ice Bowl (1967 playoffs). During that game temps fell to -13 degrees F with the wind chill factor taking the temperatures down to an unbelievable -47 degree F. Before Lambeau Field and up until the time of the Ice Bowl the league scheduled regular season Packer Games early in the season to avoid these kinds of frigid conditions. However, today that has all changed.
Lambeau is still an open air stadium, but now it seats 81,000 fans and features luxury boxes, restaurants, a Hall of Fame, a huge Green Bay Packers gift store, and a glass enclosed multi-story high atrium that tames even the harshest winter weather. The original 20 rows of bleachers remain a permanent fixture, a legacy fixture from Lambeau Field’s rich past. Offering guided tours that take you up to luxury boxes and suites and then down onto the playing field, this experience also takes you past the team locker room and training facility before taking you out through the same tunnel and onto the playing field that every Green Bay Packer has walked through for the last half century. The Lambeau Field tour is nothing less than awesome!
One of the true-delights that are unique to Packer pre-season training camp is a tradition that started just a few years back. As the players leave the locker-room to walk over to Ray Nitschke Field where practice is held, a very unique thing takes place. Kids with their bicycles line up outside the locker room and as the players exit and head over to the playing field they randomly select a kid with a bike and as the Green Bay Packer rides the bicycle the kid carries his helmet. It’s a hoot and one of the greatest PR moves that could be made. Each time this happens a new generation of future Packer fan is created. The photo ops are excellent!
We talked with tailgating fans about what to expect if they come to “tailgate”. First of all we were in Green Bay in August, with summer temps hovering in the high 70-degree range. There are those who still remember the “Ice Bowl” however even those who don’t today relish the opportunity to take on Old Mr. Frost and defeat him along with whoever the visiting team is. One group of tailgaters told us that during the winter months it gets “so cold” that when you pop the top on a beverage it turns to slush in 15 seconds. In fact, one fan explained the best way to keep a “brewski” from freezing is to keep it inside a cooler (go figure). Hey, these are “cheese heads.” They’ve figured it out. Dressing for the cold is both an art and a science. Layering is mandatory with the best outer-ware often being bib-overalls that allow for multiple layers of clothing to be worn underneath them. Many tailgaters also bring along portable propane patio heaters to fight back the cold. Yes, December and January game days are unique.
Folks we talked with had come from North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. One full-timing motor-home couple told us that soon they would be heading south to Lake Havasu to spend the winter. One tailgating family from Illinois admitted their allegiance was to Green Bay (and not the Chicago Bears), but it was a cross they were willing to bear back home in Illinois, for “they love the Pack.” One couple from a town 60 miles south of Green Bay stood sautéing jumbo shrimp while listening to the Beach Boys recording “Wish They All Could Be California Girls”. What a melting pot America is! In the venues surrounding Lambeau Field are there are empty lots and even front yards where first-come first-serve tailgate parking tickets sell for $35 to $50 a pop. Across Lombardi Blvd. are any number of these private properties and they do a brisk business. Four blocks east of Lambeau Field on Tony Canadeo Run is a huge lot that accommodates RV parking. It’s pricy, but it’s an option ($150 for a day and a night - no hook-ups – prices can change).
The Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field are the center piece of Green Bay, Wisconsin. About 350,000 shares of stock are individually owned by fans and there is a waiting list with 130,000 names on the list to get season tickets in the unlikely event one becomes available. Today Lambeau Field is ranked among the top revenue generating complexes in the NFL but it hasn’t always been that way. Until Lambeau Field was built and even immediately after the Packers spent a good deal of time in or near receivership. Today Lambeau Field is a “destination” unto itself even during off-season and one that’s meant to be enjoyed by the entire family.
Open 363 days a year, in addition to guided tours of Lambeau Field there is fine and casual dining, such as the 1919 Kitchen and Tap. If you’re fascinated with Green Bay Packer history (a history that goes all the way back to 1919 when Curly Lambeau formally organized the Packers), the Hall of Fame inside Lambear Field is a “must visit”. The pantheon of gods the Packer fans worship is legion and the Hall of Fame reflects that. Enshrined are Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Bret Farve, Reggie White, Paul Horning along with so many others, and with the each passing season the Hall of Fame continues to grow.