More than a Bucket List

A trip to Green Bay exposes COVID-19's impact on NFL towns

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Oxford Dictionary defines a “bucket list” as “a number of experiences or achievements that a person hopes to have or accomplish during their lifetime.” For many sports fans, seeing a football game at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc. makes the list. 

For Jacksonville Jaguars fans, Nov. 15, 2020 provided a chance to check it off the list—after an 8-year wait. But for many residents of the Badger State, their current bucket list contains only one item: survive COVID-19.

Leading up to the game, the White House released a report identifying Wisconsin as having the fourth-highest rate for new cases of COVID-19 and the sixth-highest rate for test positivity in the country. Nearly 89% of hospital beds in the state were occupied with beds in the ICU at almost 91% capacity. And growing. In Brown County, alone, there were 19,865 cases of COVID-19, most of which coming from Green Bay’s population of 104,057. 

These figures were even more alarming considering the state was already under stringent restrictions at the time with businesses becoming more and more vigilant in their attempts to stop the spread of the disease. 

Unfortunately, most businesses in Green Bay were already struggling, some dying faster than its residents.

Throughout the pandemic, the Packers’ official stance has remained the same: an indefinite hold on hosting fans at Lambeau Field for the 2020 NFL season with team leadership continuing to re-evaluate the decision in consultation with local medical and public health officials.

In other words, your bucket list can wait on our ability to function as a community.

I consider myself a Jaguars loyalist, but I’ve also been a fan of the Packers ever since Brett Favre signed my program at the 1991 Senior Bowl in my childhood home of Mobile, Ala. And what’s not to love about the history of Green Bay, a small city by NFL standards that often leads the league in big ways? 

Considering the current state of the Jaguars franchise, there’s something to be learned from Green Bay about viability. 

Football fans often debate which comes first, viability or a team’s commitment to getting out of its own way. And the actions of Jaguars owner Shad Khan—both on and off the field—have created a conundrum. 

In Khan’s relatively short tenure, he’s already earned a dubious distinction: the second fastest to reach 100 losses in league history as an owner (Khan actually shares the “honor” with former New Orleans Saints owner John Mecom).

Despite the recurrent dismal results on the scoreboard, many Jags fans remain loyal and undaunted. And a long-overdue  trip to Lambeau could have brought excitement to a fan base desperately in need of positivity. 

In 2012, I missed the journey to Green Bay for the second match-up between the Packers and Jaguars, due to the birth of my son. But 2020 was going to be my makeup year. Then COVID hit. 

I was undeterred this time. Loaded up with extra masks, filters and sanitizer packets, I made the trip to Green Bay only to eventually find myself alone in a press box designated for Jacksonville-based media. While other members of the press decided the trip wasn’t worth the risk, especially when they could cover the game from home, I had a greater goal: to safely experience the impact of COVID on the town and to try and better understand the business of sports in the age of a pandemic. 

I arrived Saturday night, checked into the hotel and grabbed an Uber to Titletown Brewing Company, one of the “hottest bars in town.” Or at least it was before COVID.

My driver Al B. told me, “You will enjoy whomever you meet in this area. That’s guaranteed.” But added I shouldn’t expect the usual atmosphere around games, which he likened to Mardi Gras in New Orleans—contained within a footprint comparable to Mayberry. More than just a massive economic loss to the city, COVID changed the whole lifeblood of the Green Bay community. He compared the difference between the game experience in previous years and today to being promised a “full light show” and having to “settle for a candle.

Pre-pandemic, he said, I would have met people who have been coming to the area for 10-20 years simply for the tailgating and don’t even go to the games. I would have experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic to get across town, he went on, as opposed to the desolate roads I was seeing. He told me bars would have been “one-in and one-out,” referring to capacity guidelines, but now owners wonder if they will even be able to stay in business.

To the people of Green Bay, it’s way “deeper than the bucket list,” he explained. It’s all about history and tradition. Tickets are handed down from one generation to the next, like a sacred ritual. 

When we finally arrived at the bar, he waited for me to get inside because we weren’t quite sure if the largest bar in town was even open.

Titletown Brewing Company opened in 1996 and is soon approaching its 25th year anniversary. The current general manager, Aleks Herrscher, has been there for almost a decade, working his way up from barback to bartender to GM. Titletown has consistently been ranked as one of the top 20 brew pubs in the country based on sales volume. But today, it’s struggling to stay open.

“The population of Green Bay doubles during home game weekends,” Herrscher said, with more than 200 people filling the same room we were in and remaining at capacity most of the night. Prior to COVID restrictions, other area bars would also be serving full crowds for the full weekend. Lately, however, it is a question of what businesses will literally survive—financially and fundamentally. (The restaurant owned by Titletown just across the street, for one, had already closed its doors.)

“Brown County is like the worst in this country,” Herrscher said, putting it bluntly. “Businesses are hurting, but everyone is trying to make it work and help each other out.” 

After offering that dose of reality, Herrscher gave me a full tour of the building, then sent me on my way to walk around near the stadium.

There was a little more activity down there with a handful of people spaced out in different bars. As I grabbed a beer in one of them, a couple asked if I was from Jacksonville (apparently, the Jaguar logo on my mask gave me away). They introduced themselves and told me the story of what brought them to this once-hopping area.

Chris Cox hails from Lake Wales, Fla. but grew up in Jacksonville. His girlfriend Kelly Flanigan is a Packers fan, who got tickets to the game from a friend before the NFL’s COVID restrictions were in place. The tickets were now unusable, but rather than challenging the refundability of their travel arrangements, they decided to turn the trip into a vacation. It was the first time Kelly flew on a plane and the first time she had ever seen snow. While they planned to just experience as much of the city as possible, they couldn’t help but be disappointed they weren’t able to attend the game. 

Eventually, I headed back to the hotel with Daniel Bins as my Uber driver. He told a story similar to what I’d been hearing all night but in more desperate terms. 

Bins said he went from making a good supplemental income by parking cars on game weekends and doing airport-only runs for Uber to driving during bar and restaurant hours to basically not having enough business to be viable anymore. More trips, after all, present more risk. “Green Bay is not really going on,” he apologized. “When the heartbeat isn’t beating, nothing is really going on.” 

The next day was game day. 

As I got closer to the famed Lambeau Field, I realized I was talking to myself in the rental car. “And there it is,” I uttered. “Wow.” I pulled over to snap a photo and post it on Twitter. I then parked and walked around the stadium, part-fan and part-credentialed photographer. 

I was first stopped by security near the tent where all outsiders had their temperature checked. “Sir, the stadium is clos… oh, wait, you are media, go on through,” the officer said. 

It was at the gate where the players enter that I spotted my first fans. Three people cheered wildly every time a car drove by. They seemed to know which player drove which car and would tell me their names, then stop talking to wave at them wildly. One fan, sporting a decorated cheese wedge atop his head, said he was from Marietta, Ga. but came to Green Bay for a game and liked it so much he moved there. He, like others before him, apologized for the circumstances not allowing me to experience the full magic of a Packers game, the kind of experience that made him uproot his life in Marietta and become a full-time resident of Green Bay. 

The group directed me to the way-larger-than-life statues of Packers co-founder, player and namesake of the stadium Curly Lambeau and beloved Packers coach and namesake of the Super Bowl trophy Vince Lombardi. It was only appropriate they were both wearing masks. 

I felt like a kid walking up to them, not just because both are more than 14’ tall and weigh 2,000-plus pounds each, but because the men they represented were giants in the world of sports. As I took a selfie, two more fans, decked out in Pittsburgh Steelers regalia, walked by. They said they drove to Green Bay hoping to get into the game but didn’t find out about the stadium lockdown until the night before. Still, they wanted to see the famed Lambeau Field in person before heading off to find a sports bar.

Lambeau Field ordinarily seats 81,441. For big games, they will squeeze in a few more. But on that day, there were zero fans in the seats. It was quiet. And eerie. But also spectacular. The game came down to the final minutes, and the home team pulled it out. 

As I walked out of the stadium, I reflected on my conversation with Herrscher and the symbolic emptiness of Titletown, the 140 people who lost their jobs and Al’s candle analogy. And then it dawned on me: the Packers may have gotten the “W” that day, but when it comes to living in the midst of a pandemic, there are no winners, only communcal sacrifice. 

Though Coach Lombardi wasn’t referring to a pandemic at the time, the feelings behind his quote still ring true: “Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

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