Nobody in our party of four could believe a small town in the middle of Wisconsin wouldn’t have a bar open at noon on a Saturday. We kept driving through the main drag of Thorp, which feels about halfway between Minneapolis and Green Bay but also feels much farther away.
Almost out of hope but not confidence, we found Cindy’s, an inconspicuous enough place with lights on. Walking in was a record-scratch moment, with the five or so locals inside immediately knowing we weren’t from around there. But there we were: four guys on the way to Green Bay for the Packers/Lions game on Sunday — an ambivalent fan; a Vikings fan; a fan who roots for the Vikings and the Bears somehow; and a Packers diehard.
The seeds for the trip were planted last New Year’s, when two of the four of us (myself included) said we had never been to a game at Lambeau. The conversation was rekindled in June, and plans were made. For my part, I was all-in for the experience. Lambeau is a bucket list venue to see a game, and besides: even the CEO of Coca-Cola should drink a Pepsi just to see how it tastes.
The deviation to Thorp was a tone-setter for the day. The driver remained responsible; the three passengers remained less so. The bar was the kind of place where a guy could get a round of drinks and change for a 10 dollar bill. And the natives, naturally, wanted to talk about the Packers. Conversation shifted to the end of the Carolina game.
“I think Favre should have just run it in,” one of the locals told me, when it wasn’t his turn at the pool table. “I mean Rodgers.” This would be the start of a theme that I’ve turned into a hypothesis. We’ll work our way through that as I work my way through the weekend.
In Marathon City, our next stop, we met an 86-year-old man nicknamed “Nubs,” who thought the idea of us traveling from Minneapolis to Green Bay for a Packers game was exotic. Nubs was snowmobiling until a few years ago, and riding his motorcycle up until last year, the bartender told us. Turns out, Nubs is the bartender’s father-in-law.
And this is Wisconsin: familiarity. A slower pace. A lot of decisions made with the sentiment, “Why not?” A drinking culture that is hard to define but is clearly different than the one I have found in Minnesota. And the Packers. Everywhere, green and gold.
Our tailgate at Lambeau started around 8:30 a.m. Sunday in a perfect spot thanks to a local connection. I was in my American flag jumpsuit, trying to appeal to the masses while still staying team-neutral. The day turned out to be 55 and sunny; last year, two members of the same group made the trip at the same time of year and it was 30 degrees colder. We were exceedingly fortunate.
Pork tenderloin was on the menu and was a perfect antidote to any lingering effects of Saturday’s tour of Wisconsin. The mood across the vast lot was one of optimism from any Packers fan I encountered. Sure, Green Bay had lost two in a row. But this was the day Rodgers would snap out of it. The Lions, after all, are a bad team this year and had last won at Lambeau Field in the pre-Favre 1991 season. I agreed, predicting a 35-10 Green Bay victory. It really felt that easy.
Once inside the stadium, however, it was clear that a different kind of game was on the menu. The 78,000-plus at Lambeau – a gorgeous place, it goes without saying – went from festive to nervous to grumbly to angry in the span of a dull first half that ended with the teams tied 3-3.
I recorded a video of the Packers getting booed off the field, complete with one fan in our section imploring the team to remove their collective heads from a delicate place.
But in the second half, it was more of the same: Rodgers dancing in the pocket and skipping passes. A fan actually shouted at Rodgers, “Quit making all those commercials and complete a pass.” Again, more on this later.
The Lions tried desperately to out-Lions themselves and hand the game to Green Bay. Just need to make this extra point to ice the game? Sure, a kicker who had already missed one extra point but had also kicked two long field goals would be happy to mess that up. Just need to recover this on-side kick to ice the game? Sure, one of the greatest receivers of all-time would love to bobble that. Seated in the end zone where Mason Crosby was lining up to kick a game-winning field goal that would put a bandage on an ugly game for Green Bay, I was certain it would end 19-18. And then it didn’t. Not even close. And I walked out with 78,000 sad fans — many of whom went back to the parking lot to eat and drink some more as the cold reality of a three-game losing streak set in.
I still had rational discussions with many of them postgame, coming to the agreement that next weekend’s game at TCF Bank Stadium between the Vikings and Packers now has an even greater potential impact. If the Packers lose, they’ll be two games behind the Vikings. With two division losses to Minnesota’s none (if Green Bay loses), it would put their division hopes in great peril. A Packers victory would flip the script to a large degree.
What was particularly fascinating in a lot of these conversations, though, was how on multiple occasions Packers fans slipped up and said Favre when they meant Rodgers — and how so many of them, even if Rodgers jerseys rival Clay Matthews jerseys as the most popular at Lambeau, still have plenty of complaints about a quarterback I consider the best of the last 20 years (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Favre included).
Rodgers has caution as both a virtue as a fault. He improvises well, but his real strength is the ruthless efficiency of his precision passes.
Having spent a fresh weekend not only in Wisconsin but specifically Green Bay, I can tell you that caution, efficiency and precision are not the hallmarks of the local culture — not after bearing witness to two drunk female Packers fans running across a freeway and tearing their pants while jumping a fence to get to a bar. (Yes, this really happened).
Peyton Manning keeps passing Favre in a lot of all-time categories, including touchdown passes and the freshest, just accomplished Sunday, all-time passing yards. But I don’t think anyone is ever going to overtake the ol’ Gunslinger in career interceptions. At 336, he leads Manning by 85. No other active quarterback is within 100. Aaron Rodgers has just 60. Total. In his career.
So Favre, in spite of how it all ended, in spite of the good with the bad, is still the heart of Wisconsin. He made decisions at quarterback the way Packers fans make decisions in the tailgate lot: coming from the premise of “why not?”
If the Increasingly Lost Road Trip reinforced anything, it’s that a Packers fan’s heart wants what it wants.