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Mystique of Lambeau Field welcomes Raiders to Green Bay

GREEN BAY, Wis. — If you squint hard and look toward the south end zone from your sideline seat, imagining the breaths of thousands wafting through the frigid air, you just might see quarterback Bart Starr sneaking past Dallas Cowboys defenders and into the famed chronicles of Lambeau Field.

They say history is written by the victors, and as owners of 13 world championships dating to 1921, the

Green Bay Packers certainly hold a firm grasp on professional football’s celebrated past.

But just as distinctive as the team for its rich and unique background is its home since 1957, as much part of any sports bucket list for fans as Wrigley Field or Madison Square Garden or Augusta National and so on.

The Raiders continue a string of five straight games away from Oakland when engaging the Packers on Sunday, when 80,000-plus will converge on the same iconic place that Starr’s sneak in what was a near minus-50 wind chill overcame the Cowboys in the 1967 NFL championship game that was later dubbed the “Ice Bowl.”

Las Vegas will welcome the Raiders as its NFL team in 2020 while opening Allegiant Stadium, sure to be a wondrous domed structure of the most contemporary resources and technological amenities.

It won’t lack for modern-day magnetism.

It’s different for the league’s oldest continually operating stadium, whose remarkable charm and profound archives of prominent teams and those Hall of Fame players who have led them still extracts a stirring reaction from those seeing it for the first time.

“Once we knew Green Bay was on the schedule this season, we knew this had to happen,” said Dave Martin, a season ticket holder in Oakland since 2006 who, after Sunday, will have seen a Raiders road game in every NFL stadium except Soldier Field in Chicago. “It’s pretty emotional, because the tradition here reminds me so much of that with the Raiders. I have so much respect for that.

“The only thing that makes me sad is that they fought so hard to keep their team here, and we as Raiders fans were shipped out to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland and now are being shipped out again to Las Vegas. That hurts.

“But everything about Lambeau Field is more than I thought it would be. I love this.”

Amazing. It was almost never built.

A town’s team

What you might already know: Green Bay is the only publicly owned franchise in the NFL, held by more than 360,000 stockholders in which no one is allowed to hold more than 200,000 shares.

What you might not: If not for such offerings in 1923, 1935 and 1950, there is every chance the franchise would have gone bankrupt and what is arguably one of sports’ most famous David vs. Goliath tales never would have been written by the smallest major league professional sports market in North America.

How close did it come to folding?

Before there was Lambeau Field, the Packers played across the Fox River at City Stadium, basically an old wooden box of a place at East High School where, in 1931, a fan fell from the stands and sued the team for $20,000.

Such a price tag would have ruined it.

“The guy who fell was the brother of one of the original shareholders and a prominent businessman in town,” said Cliff Christl, a Green Bay native and team historian who spent 37 years in Wisconsin as a newspaperman. “Well, the one who fell was the bad apple of the family — never had a job, a drunk with a bad case of syphilis.

“The jury awarded him $5,000 and the Packers were saved.”

Talk about burying the lead.

The river separates east from west, Montagues from Capulets, Sharks from Jets, parts of town that for decades loathed the other in the most vile of ways.

But a referendum was passed in 1954, and eventually enough east-side Aldermen agreed the best place for a new stadium was across the river, dreadful as the notion seemed.

It cost $1 million and was built in nine months, opening in 1957 as a then-32,000-seat structure surrounded by a chain-link fence where the most expensive ticket that first season cost $15 and children under 12 were charged 75 cents per game.

It began as City Stadium, and in 1965 was renamed in memory of Packers founder, player and longtime coach Curly Lambeau.

“I was 10 years old and remember going to that first game,” Christl said. “Matt Dillon from ‘Gunsmoke’ arrived in his convertible, and Miss America was there. I didn’t care that Richard Nixon was there and he was the vice president. Matt Dillon was huge to a kid back then.

“It still has much of the same feel today. What separates us from any city is that the people truly saved this team. A lot of old money dug into their pockets and kept it alive through the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, through depression and war, when the Packers were always near death.

“This is the greatest story in team sports history. You couldn’t make up a story this good.”

But time passes and bones, no matter how classic and beloved, become old and creaky.

Which is why Lambeau Field, while respecting all its ghosts of past glories, needed a makeover.

Past and present

This was the challenge: Starr. Ray Nitschke. Reggie White. Brett Favre. Herb Adderley. Forrest Gregg. Jim Taylor. Paul Hornung. Jerry Kramer. Aaron Rodgers.

Vince Lombardi.

Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas will be the newest of NFL palaces to include all cutting edge revenue streams, but when the Packers began a $295 million redevelopment project in 2000 that took three years to complete, the goal was to bring Lambeau Field up to current-day standards while not losing its extensive history.

To ensure fans still could close their eyes and see LeRoy Butler scoring a touchdown in 1993 and completing the first Lambeau Leap by jumping into the stands and being grabbed by the crowd, but in a more fashionable existence.

“We have the best of both worlds now,” said Aaron Popkey, director of public affairs who has worked for the Packers the last 27 years. “You can still sit in the same seat that someone did watching the Bears and Packers in the 1960s while also enjoying the sorts of amenities newer stadiums now have. We have constantly maintained what (Lambeau Field) is known for while also upgrading it.”

The bowl remains primarily used for football — pro and college — and some concerts, but there are 7,000 new seats and a new video board and sound system and a beautiful Hall of Fame and new concourses and better concessions and a restaurant and atrium and new suites and a massive team store.

All of it helps deliver a local economic impact of $300 million annually.

More than 1,000 events take place at Lambeau Field each year, and more than 130,000 people cross off a spot on their sports bucket list by taking one of several daily tours.

More than a million visit it for nonfootball activities in a 12-month period.

“Lambeau Field is a living piece of history in terms of the NFL,” said Popkey, born and raised in Green Bay. “It still has more aura and mystique than any other stadium. They had 50,000 people at the Ice Bowl and yet 300,000 will tell you they were there. It’s that kind of special place.”

Which means no matter how many shiny bells and whistles are added, no matter how much housing prices surrounding the stadium rise as out-of-town buyers arrive to build football-themed party retreats within a Packers sweep of statues depicting coaches Lombardi and Lambeau, there remains no feeling like one’s initial glimpse.

A few Raiders fans discovered such Friday.

‘Gives you chills’

Martin and Danny Trujillo have spent years cheering from the Black Hole at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, passionate and dedicated to no end for all that is silver and black.

Martin hails from New Jersey and moved to the Bay Area in 2006 just to be closer to the Raiders. He met a woman, they had a daughter, and now he’s figuring out how to afford season tickets in Las Vegas.

Trujillo has purchased four of them, a resident of Rancho Cucamonga, California, who attended his first Raiders game at age 8 in Los Angeles.

Both were not going to miss a chance at touring Lambeau Field and attending Sunday’s game.

“The history here is amazing,” said Trujillo, standing on the second floor of the Hall of Fame exhibit. “You can’t describe it when you drive up. I can’t wait to take my two daughters to games in Las Vegas, to show them what Raiders football is all about.

“But this is something really special. To walk out on the field at Lambeau and actually see it …

“It gives you chills.”

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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