This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL's past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport's history.
Outside of Illinois and Minnesota, there's a romanticism attached to the Green Bay Packers and the town they play in.
NFL fans talk about making a one-time pilgrimage to visit Lambeau Field. You'd have a hard time finding a story ranking NFL stadiums that doesn't have Lambeau at No. 1. There's an amazement over Green Bay, a place with a population barely above 100,000 that still fills more than 81,000 seats for every home game. There's something cool about the fans owning the team and about the old-school nature of the franchise itself — the Packers were born in 1919, one year before the NFL started. The Packers should have never survived as a pro sports franchise, and that's what makes the story great.
The fuzzy warm feelings are also a relatively new phenomenon. Today, the top national broadcasting crews carry on about how great a football town Green Bay is, showing the empty streets outside during games and explaining how for many years the 10-story St. Vincent Hospital was the tallest building in Green Bay, before recent additions made Lambeau Field the tallest in town. But 25-30 years ago Green Bay was considered an NFL wasteland and no broadcasting star was gushing over how quaint it was because the big crews wouldn't dream of covering a Packers game. There was no reason. The Packers were horrible.
People forget, after a couple decades of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, how low the franchise sank. It was mostly bad from 1968, the first year after Vince Lombardi, to 1991, the year before Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Favre started rebuilding the franchise. The Packers made the playoffs just twice in those years, and one was in the 1982 strike-shortened season. But the lowest point from that era might have actually been a magazine story.
In 1987, a story in Sports Illustrated went a long way in shaping what we thought of an athlete, coach or team. Frank Deford, a six-time sportswriter of the year award winner, was SI's top dog. And in May of 1987 Deford wrote about the Packers, who hadn't won more than eight games for 14 straight seasons at that point. It wasn't to wax poetic.
The story didn't reflect well on anyone. It explained how local support for the Packers seemed to be waning, on the field and certainly off it, where there were a few embarrassing, high-profile arrests. Deford even suggested that the best way for the Packers to survive was to pack up and move to Milwaukee. In the context of today's love affair with the Packers' story it's a startling passage to read, from Deford's 1987 "Troubled Times in Title Town" story:
"Actually, the answer to Green Bay's dilemma is simple. It should sell the franchise to Milwaukee for $60 million or whatever, and then take that money and pour it all into the athletic department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. With that kind of financing, UWGB could bring in recruits from everywhere to play on Lambeau Field, plus build a 20,000-seat basketball arena. So, in one fell swoop, Green Bay could trade a lousy football franchise for a first-class basketball and football program."
While Deford acknowledged a move likely would never happen — at that time there was a bylaw that stated if the Packers were ever sold, proceeds would go to a local American Legion post — that is what the Packers were in 1987. Even Deford asked in the story, "Can the Green Bay Packers and Green Bay, Wis., ever again be on the same team?" In 2016, that sentence makes no sense, not with the waiting list for season tickets that goes on forever. But in 1987, it wasn't crazy.
The Deford story lingered for a long time in Green Bay. It pointed out how few black people lived in Green Bay and how tough life was there for black players ("Black players—even those on rival teams, visiting for a day or two—profess to feel like freaks and are 'uncomfortable' (the word often used) just walking down the street in Green Bay," Deford wrote). The story detailed the ugly arrests of James Lofton, Mossy Cade and Charles Martin. Deford wondered, "has some fragile bond of trust been lost between team and town, one that can never be retrieved?" The story hurt, because Green Bay went from being mostly irrelevant nationally to shamed by sports' most influential magazine and writer at the time. Everyone could read just how lousy Green Bay and the Packers had become. It's one thing to watch the cherished local team deteriorate, it's another to have Sports Illustrated share that misery with the world.
Through the 1970s and 1980s Green Bay was just a small, cold town with a team that rarely had any star players and was never considered a contender. If people in Wisconsin talked about the Packers, it was usually to reminisce about the Lombardi days, because it wasn't a lot of fun to talk about the present. The old joke in Green Bay would go: "How many Packers fans does it take to change a light bulb? Four, one to change the light bulb and three to talk about how great the old one was."
According to a story on Wolf by Bob McGinn, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer who has been a full-time Packers beat writer since 1984, there were 15,000 no-shows for a December home game in 1991. In 1987, George Perles of Michigan State backed out of a deal to become Packers coach because he "decided 24 hours later he wanted no part of Green Bay," McGinn wrote. Longtime Packers writer and current team historian Cliff Christl wrote that in 1986 the team averaged 5,000 no-shows in Green Bay and Milwaukee (where the team played regularly from 1933-94). In 1988, the annual preseason scrimmage that now fills Lambeau Field to much fanfare drew only 2,000 people, Christl said. Christl also referenced the Deford story.
Packers tickets are considered precious today, but if you wanted to see the Packers play in the late '80s or early '90s you had no trouble finding a seat. And you'd probably see the Packers play terrible football. The Packers still got way more local support than any team that bad deserved, but it wasn't close to what it is now.
The franchise turned around, of course. Wolf did such a great job as general manager, he ended up being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. He was instrumental in signing Reggie White as a free agent, and that started to make Green Bay a viable option for other players. Holmgren guided the team to a Super Bowl XXXI title. Favre had a Hall-of-Fame career and handed right off to Rodgers, who won a Super Bowl himself and will go to the Hall of Fame too someday. There aren't many no-shows at Lambeau anymore. No major national media personality would dream of saying the team needs to move to Milwaukee to survive. The Packers have had just two losing seasons since 1992 and their fans are widely considered the best in professional sports. The Deford story was brutally honest and accurate in 1987, but if you re-read it now it doesn't even seem like he's talking about the same team or city.
The Packers simply existing is a miracle. There's no way the team, a relic of a simpler time, should have survived the boom in professional sports, but here it is. Another part of the miraculous story that gets lost with all the success of the last 24 seasons: The Packers were an irrelevant mess through most of the 1970s and 1980s, on the verge of becoming an NFL afterthought for good, and somehow survived it to become one of the league's model franchises.
Previous Shutdown Corner NFL throwback stories: Joe Montana's underrated toughness | Barry Sanders' long-forgotten final game | Jake Delhomme's playoff nightmare | Barry Switzer, outspoken as ever | Was Sebastian Janikowski worth a first-round pick? | How Jim Harbaugh punching Jim Kelly helped Colts land Peyton Manning | Jay Cutler makes the greatest throw ever | "Has anyone ever kissed your Super Bowl rings?" | How the Patriots once faced a fourth-and-63
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