LeRoy Butler wasn’t thinking that his 1993 touchdown celebration would turn into a hallowed sports tradition. The Green Bay Packers cornerback had scored after accepting a lateral from teammate Reggie White, and instead of spiking the ball or casually tossing it to an official, Butler launched himself into the end-zone crowd.
One small step for man, one Lambeau Leap for mankind’s most cheerful sports fans.
When it comes to sheer boisterousness, I rank Raiders fans No. 1 in the NFL. Steelers fans probably lead the league in traveling miles. Redskins fans are the edgiest, Eagles fans are the grumpiest. Fans of Da Bears are the easiest to lampoon.
As for Seahawks fans, their ability to sustain a noise level that distracts the opposition gives the team its famous advantage of a 12th man.
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But Packers fans, it seems to me, have the most fun. For Packers fans, game day is a delightful event that elevates football from an athletic contest into something resembling a secular spiritual revival.
When the Seahawks take on the Packers at 5:30 this afternoon, CenturyLink Field will rock and roll for the national television audience tuning in to ESPN. But there will be some fans in the crowd whose faces are painted green and gold, and whose heads are decorated with a slice of costume cheese. Their residence might be in the Seattle area, but their hearts belong to the Packers.
“We kind of think of ourselves as Lambeau Field West,” Jerry Garner, president of the Northwest Packer Backers, said over the phone the other day. “There’s a huge amount of transplants from the Midwest in the Seattle area – from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa – and most of us grew up following the Packers.”
The Northwest Packer Backers, formed in 1990, gather weekly to watch Green Bay games at the Mustard Seed Bar and Grill in Newport Hills. Even though cable packages nowadays enable fans to hand-pick a season’s worth of TV games to watch at home, there’s something about the camaraderie of a community within a community that’s impossible to replicate.
“We had about 125 show up for the last game, against the Bears,” said Garner. “Which is pretty good, considering kickoff was on a Thursday afternoon at 5:30. It’s a great atmosphere. We’ve been meeting at the Mustard Seed for the past 12 or 13 years, and, win, lose or whatever, there’s a mutual respect between us and the customers who aren’t Packers fans. They know how avid we are.”
The Northwest Packer Backers, working through secondary ticketing outlets, secured what amounts to a 100-seat cheering section for the today’s game against the Seahawks. A climate of mutual respect isn’t always prevalent for fans rooting for the opposing team in any NFL stadium, but Garner isn’t worried.
“There’s safety in numbers,” he said. “If you’re wearing a Packers jersey with a friend, and it’s just the two of you, there’s a chance you’ll hear some smack talk. But if you’re surrounded by 20 other people wearing Green Bay jerseys, you’re fine.”
For Packers fans, game day doesn’t begin with the kickoff. Game day begins when the parking lots open for the tailgate party. Garner has reserved three lots within a short walk of the Clink. He’s planning to fire up the grills at 11 a.m. The menu – brats, burgers, sauerkraut, cheese, German potato salad – is distinctively Wisconsin.
Which poses a question: How does a proud Cheesehead, born and raised in Green Bay, end up in Seahawks country?
“I was stationed here in the Navy,” said Garner, “and I met my wife, who’s from Seattle. We’ve got a 20-year-old daughter who was born in Wisconsin, and a 13-year old son who was born here. One of our first photos of him, he was in a Packers outfit. No question who his football allegiance was going to be.”
The Northwest Packer Backers, Garner points out, is a fan club that acknowledges that football isn’t life and death. It donates to Seattle-area food banks, and last Christmas, the club sent 20 packages to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where Garner’s brother Brian is serving in his sixth tour.
An Afghanistan-bound package sent from the Northwest Packer Backers, you’d figure, might contain green-and-gold scarves, a video of Brett Favre highlights, a miniature statue of St. Vincent of Lombardi, and an autographed snapshot of LeRoy Butler’s original Lambeau Leap.
“Actually,” Garner said, “my brother had only two requests: For soap, and for socks. The basic necessities, that’s all he wants.”
Brian Garner sounds like one tough dude. I’ll be thinking of him and his brave colleagues tonight, and how it’s been my blessed fortune to live in a land so free that Green Bay fans can wear Packers jerseys at a Seahawks game.