Monday, September 18, 2006

My Sunday Lambeau Sojourn

Last week, my buddy Gooch called me to tell me he had an extra ticket to the Packer game for me this weekend. We used to go to at least one game per year together starting about a decade ago, but he’s moved out of state, so it’s been a while.

He didn’t have a car, so I had to drive from Madison to Milwaukee to pick him up, then up to Green Bay. Seeing as how it was a noon game, I got up early, fired up for the day ahead.

I woke up at 5:45 and slinked out of the house, careful not to wake anybody. When I hit the road, I stopped for gas and breakfast. The woman in the gas station asked me if I was going to the Packer game, seeing that I was decked out in my gear. I told her I was. “I’m a Bear fan,” she chuckled, then added, “but I hope the Packers win.” This not only made her a bad liar, but may have been the first time that I had actually been shown pity by a toothless woman working the 6 AM Sunday shift at a Kwik Trip.

Back on the road, I drive by three dead raccoons on I-94, all side by side. I wonder if they all formed some kind of suicide pact. There were probably four of them, and one raccoon said, “okay, let’s all run into the road on three,” then chickened out.

As I get to Waukesha County, a highway patrol car pulls out right in front of me and flips on its lights. I see it pull over, but there’s no car there. Instead, there’s a disoriented man standing on the shoulder that looks like he’s going to wander out onto the highway. Probably another Bear fan wanting to wish me well on my trip.

I get to downtown Milwaukee, and need to head north on I-43, which seems like a challenge, given the sea of orange construction signs. With summer road construction in Milwaukee, you’re just as likely to plunge off a 50 foot cliff than actually get where you need to be on time.

I acquire Gooch at 8 AM, and we begin the drive up to Green Bay. On the drive, he tells me that he’s considering ordering a mail order bride from a former Soviet country. I told him that if I were a Ukrainian woman and my choices were to be ethnically cleansed or pick up his dirty socks, it really was a toss up.

Gooch is a big time gambler, known around the U.S. for his 72 hour power weekends in Vegas where he’d be too cheap to get a hotel room, instead sleeping in the casino bathrooms. He recounted one time where he went into a stall to take a nap, and actually pulled his pants down around his ankles to sell the story. It didn’t work, as he had a security guard kicking his feet when he woke up. He casually mentions that after the Rose Bowl this year, he bet $100 in Vegas that neither Reggie Bush, nor Matt Leinart, nor Vince Young would be the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. Of course, it was Mario Williams, and he won $10,000, seeing as he was getting 100-to-1 odds. He also mentions that he won $3,000 on some African soccer tournament that he picked Zimbabwe to win. Crazy.

We chat about my uncle with down syndrome that is cheating death at his advanced age. It’s a miracle that at his weight and age (45), that his heart has held up, since people with down syndrome are prone to heart conditions. “You could get some pretty good odds if you threw him in a parlay,” says Gooch.

Every other time we had been to Lambeau, we had taken U.S. Highway 41 up from Milwaukee, but today we took I-43. I told him I wasn’t sure how to get to the stadium from 43, and he said he thought we had to go over some big bridge or something. It occurred to me after we crossed the bridge that we had gone too far, but I could see the stadium. It was only 9:45, so I told him I thought I could get us to Lambeau by gametime. “If you can’t get us there by noon, then I think I can deem you an honorary Polack,” said Gooch (he’s Polish, so he can make those jokes. I think that’s how it works).

We drive through city streets to make our way to Lambeau, just kind of eyeballing where we are versus where the stadium is. We’re held up temporarily, however, by an old man with a walker. I tell Gooch to get out and ask the guy if he can give the Packers a few snaps at left guard today – they may need him.

We finally park on a side street, eschewing numerous offers to pay $10 to park on someone’s lawn. I think we parked near Oneida and Raleigh. As we walked towards the stadium, I saw a woman wearing a Samkon Gado jersey. Thus began the most fun part of Packer games – spotting the most ridiculous jersey. We’re not even to the stadium yet, and we may have a winner.

We get right up next to the stadium, and see an SUV pull up into one of the lawn spots going for $25. I tell Gooch that there’s a 100% chance that a woman is driving that car, since no seasoned male Packer fan would ever pay $25 to park, when two blocks away, you can park for free-ninety nine. Sure enough, it was two young women who probably special ordered their Packer gear from Banana Republic. Newbies.

We immediately made our way to a port-a-potty, since my bladder was about to explode. In line, we discuss what the statute of limitations for wearing the jersey of an ex-Packer is, after spotting a Vonnie Holliday jersey. We decide on three years, unless it’s a legendary Packer. I argue that Tony Mandarich is legendary.

As I look down the row of port-a-potties, I remark that it must be an intrinsic human trait people have that tells them exactly how far away you have to stand from the door of the urinal while you’re waiting in line. I don’t believe that anyone has ever written a law on this, but for some reason, everyone just seems to know naturally that you stand between 10 and 12 feet away from the door while someone is in there. People are just born with this knowledge - like fear of snakes.

Gooch wants to go to some official Packer tailgate where you pay $25 for all the food and drink you want. We make our way over there, pay and get in. When you walk in, you’re standing right next to a DJ stand, where he’s blaring lame 80’s music like “Mony, Mony,” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and yelling along in a microphone. As Gooch gets a beer, I take a moment to contemplate what would be worse: Listening to this DJ for an hour, or a compound skull fracture. I conclude that the DJ is only slightly less painful, but I at least want my theory tested on monkeys. I decide drinking will just make me tired and irritable, so I stick to Orange Crush.

To get away from the music, we go inside, where it happens that Fuzzy Thurston and Antonio Freeman are signing autographs. Fuzzy is selling copies of his book for $40, which I believe was his annual salary with the Packers. I’ve always been a Freeman fan, so I measure up the odds of being able to talk to him. I hang back, waiting for my chance, thinking about what I’m going to say. But then one of the event organizers whisks him away to the DJ booth where he conducts a raffle drawing, then disappears. I am kicking myself for the rest of the day for not having the stones to go talk to “Free.”

Gooch, on the other hand, has had a couple beers, and seems to be harassing Fuzzy, asking him question after question. I though Fuzzy was going to file a restraining order against him. Granted, in college, I occasionally got drunk and woke up next to a girl that looked like Fuzzy Thurston, but I would never actually bother him in public. Keep in mind that Fuzzy now speaks through a hole in his throat, so he wasn’t exactly thrilled to be answering his series of questions. I finally took a picture of them together, which succeeded in getting Gooch to leave him alone.

On the way into the stadium, I am surprised by how many people already have A.J. Hawk jerseys. Green Bay fans are heavily invested in this guy already. Just an observation.

We get to our seats, and watch the pre-game contest where they fire footballs into the air at fans, who have no chance of catching them. This thing is obviously fixed – they give these people oversized helmets that cover their eyes, and they pick people that are less athletic than crippled nuns to do the catching. Of course, both contestants botch their chances, while Gooch boos them lustily, yelling, “that’s pathetic!”

As fans continue to file in, some guy walks in wearing a Vikings Darren Sharper jersey. This guy deserves whatever fans decide to do with him. I mean, the Vikings aren’t even playing, and to wear the jersey of an ex-Packer is excessively provocative. It would be like walking into an AA meeting wearing a Jim Beam t-shirt, just to get everyone worked up. Shame on them.

Game time is upon us, as the captains make their way to the middle of the field. I rhetorically ask what the hell Ahmad Carroll is doing out there with the team captains for the coin flip, then joke that that’ll be the closest he gets to a Saints player all afternoon.

Ex-Packer offensive lineman Frank Winters is also out there as the ceremonial coin-tosser, and he looks like sit-ups haven’t exactly been a regular part of his daily routine since his retirement. Gooch tells me that when the Packers cut Winters, he actually sat down and wrote Winters a heartfelt letter telling him how much his contributions meant to the Packers throughout the years. For a moment, I am actually legitimately touched. Of course, Winters never wrote back, so it’s unclear whether he ever got the letter. I told him to guarantee receipt of the letter, he should have sent it taped to the top of a box of Krispy Kremes.

The game gets off to a fast start, with the Packers getting points out of three first quarter turnovers, making the score 13-0. For the first score, Brett Favre throws a perfect touchdown pass to rookie receiver Greg Jennings, who catches it in the part of the end zone right in front of us. While most fans are excited about the Favre touchdown pass, I am especially happy to see the Dave Rayner Extra Point Era begin.

During each turnover and score, I happily high-five the guy in the Nick Barnett jersey in front of me. This is the beauty of sports – under no other condition would I probably ever meet this guy, yet we are almost in full embrace. If he ran out of the hospital, screaming because his AIDS test came up negative, it’s unlikely I would provide him with a high-five. Yet when Aaron Kampman knocks the ball out of Drew Brees’ hand and recovers the fumble, suddenly we share an unbreakable physical bond. Societal priorities, I guess.

It must be added that this guy had a really good looking girlfriend with him. This is only noteworthy because spotting a hot girl at a Packer game is like spotting a sasquatch. Get your camera out and try to snap a grainy photo, because nobody will believe it.

One thing I didn’t count on was how hot it was. I actually showed up wearing long sleeves, but changed into a t-shirt, since it seemed like 90 degrees outside. By the middle of the second quarter, the DNR showed up and declared my butt crack a protected wetland.

New Orleans scores a touchdown on a Deuce McAllister run, making it a 13-7 game. The Packers can’t seem to get anything going on offense. Then, with about a minute left in the half, the Saints are driving again. Following a pass play, Ahmad Carroll drops to the ground in pain, causing the Packers to take a time out. After laying on the ground like he had been shot for two minutes, Carroll gets up…and then…stays… in the… game. I immediately stood up and started yelling in disbelief. Let’s see, if you’re the Saints, and you know there’s a terrible corner staying in the game after being injured on the previous play, what would you do? I was yelling “THEY’RE THROWING TO CARROLL’S GUY!” over and over, but sadly, Mike McCarthy didn’t hear me.

Sure enough, with 56 seconds left in the half, Saints receiver Devery Henderson blew by Carroll and caught an easy touchdown pass. I didn’t see the TV broadcast, but I would have hoped that the commentators brought this up, since it was so obvious. 14-13, Saints at the half.

In the second half, the Packers took the ball right down the field, and got to the Saints 7 yard line, where they were poised to take the lead. It looked like Favre was hit as he threw, and the Saints intercepted the ball in the end zone. I put my head in my hands and looked at the ground, as a curse word softly rolled out of my mouth.

If you saw the game, you know the rest. Saints kick two more field goals to make it 20-13, and the Packers tie it up at 20 with a quick pass to Robert Ferguson. Saints receiver catches a bomb for a touchdown, Ahman Green fumbles deep in Saints territory, and the Packers’ D lays down like dogs while McAllister moonwalks into the end zone for a 23 yard touchdown run. I can’t really give you much detail on what happened here, since I had my head in my hands most of the time. I did, however, catch the pass interference call on Ahmad Carroll that kept one of those Saints drives going.

Aiding me in watching the game was the guy directly behind me, who clearly has no filter between the “brain” portion of his head and the “mouth” portion. I love guys like this who don’t know anything about football, but who are more than willing to prove it to everyone with their nonstop commentary, where they detail the most obvious on-field developments. While I was quietly dying inside, I was privileged enough to hear insightful tidbits like, “They’re playing terrible! The whole team needs to step it up! That was an awful play!” For FOUR STRAIGHT HOURS. Next time, I’m taking a tape recorder to document this guy. Then, when I suffocate him with a cheesy grillwurst, I can play the tape for the court and get off scot-free. No jury in America would convict me – that I guarantee.

At the end of the game, it didn’t look like the Packers had a clue what they were doing. Favre was just dropping back and firing balls as hard as he could, while receivers ran routes that they perhaps learned on the Madden 07 video game. In the end, they fell 34-27 and I don’t think I said a word on the way back to the car. The only second half highlight occurred when new Packer Koren Robinson fielded a kickoff and appeared to get in a fight after he was tackled. A guy a few rows back yelled “Find him in the parking lot later and run over him with your car!” Hey, it passed for comedy at the time.

In our quest to take an already bad day and make it a truly disastrous one, we decided to wait out some of the traffic at the Oneida casino. It’s been years since I’ve been in a casino, but this was part of our routine years ago, so I thought we’d give it a try. I played for about an hour and ended up winning $20. Not much, but when you consider that every $20 in tribal money that I walk out of that place with is one fewer commercial Jim Doyle can run on the Food Network, I felt better about it. Gooch, on the other hand, got on a hot streak and won $330, which he used to pay for dinner and gas on the way home.

It (appropriately) rained pretty much the whole way home. I stayed awake by listening to the Jim Noir CD, “Tower of Love.” I can’t put it in stronger terms – you must purchase this CD. If you don’t buy this disc, the terrorists have won. I’m pretty sure that in the dark, I also saw the fourth raccoon. I started thinking that after watching the Packers today, the other three might have had the right idea.

I dropped Gooch off and pulled into my garage at 9:48. I changed shirts and started typing a long and crazy post, to blow off steam. I really need an editor. Maybe Fuzzy's free.