By Rick Firfer
There are many things that we all do that, at the time, seem perfectly rational, but then, in retrospect, we ask ourselves if we were completely out of our minds for doing them.
You know, things like walking on hot coals or bungee jumping off the highest suspension bridge in North America. Well, you can now add to that list attending a Green Bay Packers fanfest in the city of Chicago.
If someone held a Packers rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the newsworthiness of that event would be something like dog bites man, ho hum. But when that rally is held in Chicago, about ten blocks from Wrigley Field, then all of a sudden you have something like man bites dog. In other words, a story worth telling.
In fact, if you listen to Kevin Cruse, the general manager of an obscure neighborhood tavern in Chicago called Wills Northwoods Inn, this story actually began a long time ago, when, for some inexplicable reason, expatriates from the great State of Wisconsin started showing up at his place in Wrigleyville on fall weekends to watch the Wisconsin Badgers and the Green Bay Packers on his big screen TVs. Considering that Wills is located in the heart of Chicago Bears country, not to mention territory belonging to the fans of the Fighting Illini and the Northwestern Wildcats, it took some kind of courage for all those people to show up and risk scorn and ridicule from local residents of the neighborhood.
As time went by, however, the Wisconsinites became bolder and bolder, dragging more and more of their fellow travelers to Wills, all decked out in their Badgers red and white, or their Packers green and gold, and soon Wills began advertising their events. Before you knew it, Wills was expanding its facilities and menu and holding outdoor barbecues, all designed to give the Wisconsin folks a place to hang out with others of their kind. It was hog heaven for them, and right under the noses of Chicago sports fans.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, came word that Packers icon Brett Favre was actually, for real, going to retire from the NFL. Favre’s legion of fans in Green Bay and around the rest of the country were heartbroken, but perhaps none more than the die-hard Packers fans in Chicago. They remembered the glory days of Favre in his green and gold Packers jersey and wanted to have a special celebration of his vaunted legacy.
Enter the folks from Wills, who decided this would be their chance to take a quantum leap forward for Packerhood. And so was born the idea for FavreFest, which brought fans of Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers from all over the region to Chicago for one mighty celebratory afternoon. It turned out to be a great success.
Given all the warm feelings, and wanting to ride the wave of their success, the folks at Wills decided to hold the event again the following year, but this time it would be dedicated to the entire Packers team. This greatly enhanced event became known as PackerPalooza, and literally hundreds of Green Bay fans descended on the Wills Northwoods Inn and turned it into a sea of green and gold jerseys and ingenious Cheesehead costumes, complete with all manner of Packers paraphernalia. Like FavreFest before it, PackerPalooza became an instant success, meaning that the folks at Wills were now looking at holding an annual event well into the future.
So, what to do next? It seemed obvious to Wills that in order to sustain this great new event, they were going to have to communicate with actual Packers players, to see if any of them could be coaxed into enemy territory for the purpose of making an appearance at PackerPalooza and mixing it up with the fans. Much to everyone’s delight, it turned out that quite a few players, past and present, were willing make the trek, and not just for the food. They wanted to see for themselves what their Chicago fan base looked like, and, according to Cruse, they were not disappointed.
PackerPalooza got even better.
That brings us to the recent, cold, miserable, rainy Saturday afternoon of April 29 and the ninth incarnation of PackerPalooza. Beginning at noon, and running until 5 p.m., hundreds of Green Bay Packers fans managed to stuff themselves into every nook and cranny of Wills Northwoods Inn. And, although the weather outside was atrocious, inside the tavern it was warm, friendly and totally crazy. It was a sea of green and gold, where no one over the age of twenty-one seemed to be feeling any pain.
Naturally, there were vendors on site selling all kinds of Packers memorabilia, including jerseys, footballs and pennants. The big draw, however, was the opportunity to get up close and personal with Packers legend Jerry Kramer and several current players, including Mike Daniels, Lance Kendricks and Jayrone Elliott.
Kramer was there from noon until about 2:30 p.m., while the current players showed up at 2 p.m. and stayed until the end. Kramer, as loquacious as ever, held sway with the older crowd, telling stories about, and reliving the glory days of, the Lombardi era in Green Bay. The younger fans tended to gravitate toward the current players, who, much to their credit, spent considerable time mugging for selfies with the fans and signing endless autographs. The $45 admission fee got you no food, but it did get you as many autographs and posed photos as you wanted, as long as you were willing to keep circling back through the line so that everyone got an equal opportunity to hang with the players.
One of the things that Cruse pointed to with pride was that no one was hurrying the fans through the autograph line. You could chat with the players, tell stories, get your items signed and share your onion rings with them if they were hungry. It was the most relaxed celebrity event you could ever imagine, if a little bit on the noisy side.
Elliot said that he did not know what to expect when he came down to Chicago for this event, but that he was more than pleasantly surprised by the reception he got and would not hesitate to come back again. When asked if he wasn’t shocked to find an event like this in the heart of Chicago Bears territory, he said that he was not really concerned about hanging out in enemy territory.
“You just have to show a little common sense,” he said.
And then he added that because fan loyalties change all the time, you can’t take that stuff too seriously.
“Look at me,” he said. “I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan, and now I am a Packer through and through.”
Daniels agreed that PackerPalooza was one of the better fan events he had ever participated in. He further commented that he was not surprised by the fact that the event was held in Chicago because, he said, “There are Packers fans everywhere.”
“After all,” he continued, “isn’t Green Bay America’s team?”
Well, maybe that would come as a shock to Dallas Cowboys fans, but given Daniels’ size, no one was really going to argue with him. Daniels also said he was very happy to see Kramer at the event because Kramer is one of his all time favorites.
“Jerry put his paws on me earlier, and you could just feel the strength he still has. He is, after all, a living legend,” Daniels added.
For his part, Kendricks just kept shaking his head at all the craziness and hamming it up for the fans. When asked if he would ever come back to this event, he said all they have to do is ask and he would be there.
The person having the most fun, however, was probably Kramer. When he was originally asked to come to PackerPalooza, he said he had some trepidation.
“After all,” he exclaimed, “what if Ditka or Butkus came looking for me. I would be in a heap of trouble.”
Kramer went on to tell a bunch of Vince Lombardi stories to the fans crowded around him, all of which were designed to convey just how tough a guy Lombardi really was. Kramer left everyone with the impression that if a player broke a bone during one of Lombardi’s practices, the coach would send him to the medical tent to get a Band-Aid put on it and then expected the player back on the field before practice was over.
Most of the fans at PackerPaloozas, as exuberant as they were, were respectful of the players and one another. One fan, in particular, a firefighter from Kenosha, Wisconsin, had come to the event to blow off a little steam with other fans, but also to do a favor for his dad.
“My dad,” the firefighter said, “always wanted to be a football player, but that never happened. He is a pretty tough guy, though, and usually does not engage in hero worship or like to get autographs. But when I told him that Jerry Kramer was going to be here, he got a little choked up and said, well, if I got a chance, please bring him back a Kramer autograph.”
I think my dad is going to be very happy when I get home because I’ve got that Kramer autograph right here in my pocket for him.”
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.