The Green Bay Packers

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The Green Bay Packers

As the National Football League's most successful franchise, with 12 titles since 1929, the Green Bay Packers overcame early financial hardship and a location in a city smaller than any other professional sports team to become one of the most popular teams in all of American sport. In addition to their 12 league titles, the Packers have placed 19 members into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, and they are the only NFL franchise to win three straight league titles, having done so twice (1929 to 1931 and 1965 to 1967). With this long history of amazing success, the Packers have even given a nickname to their hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin—Titletown, USA. However, the city has undoubtedly earned its strong connection to the club, as city leaders and citizens have aided the team many times since it was founded.

Founded by Earl L. "Curly" Lambeau and George Calhoun in 1919, the Packers owe their team name to the Indian Packing Company, a meat-packing firm in Green Bay. The company, which employed Lambeau at the time as a meat cutter, provided the initial funds for necessary equipment, and allowed the club to use their private athletic fields for practice sessions. Due to the strong debt initially owed to the packing house, the team chose to use "Packers" as their name, Calhoun was named club president, and Lambeau was elected as vice-president and coach, a position he would hold for 30 years. In their first season the Packers won 10 of 11 games against other club teams in the Wisconsin area, but after this auspicious start even bigger things were on the horizon.

In 1921, officials of the company encouraged Calhoun and Lambeau to secure a franchise in the new national professional football league that had formed a year earlier, and would later become the modern National Football League (NFL). Following this grand leap, a long string of financial troubles beset the team, the first of which allowed Lambeau to take full ownership of the club in 1922. The financial difficulties continued throughout the 1920s, however, and it was during this decade that Lambeau sought citywide assistance for the club and formed the Green Bay Football Corporation with financial help from business leaders throughout Green Bay and the surrounding region.

Once the corporation was established, and with it a more stable financial base, Lambeau was able to secure the services of better players and acquire first-rate equipment, allowing the team to become more competitive in the growing professional football world of the late 1920s. By 1929 the Packers had won the first of three consecutive NFL titles during what is commonly known as the Iron-Man Era of professional football, when players commonly played both offense and defense for the entire game. Following these early championships, legal problems in the mid-1930s led the club into financial problems once more, but the local business community again came to the rescue with an infusion of capital, and the team was saved.

In 1935 a new weapon was added to the Packers' arsenal of great football players, a young end from the University of Alabama named Don Hutson. He became an immediate star in the fledgling NFL, so great that he would be named to the 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, 50 years after his retirement. Hutson led the league in receiving seven times, scoring five times, and also set an all-time record in 1945, personally scoring 29 points in one period. In the Hutson era, the Packers won three more NFL titles (1936, 1939, and 1944). During this period the Packers gained national recognition with their success on the gridiron, and fans throughout the country began to follow the team and the legendary Hutson.

Following Hutson's retirement in 1945, the Packers' fortunes on the field began to decline, along with their gate receipts. By 1949 the club was yet again struggling financially, this time nearing complete bankruptcy. The situation led Lambeau to search for greener pastures, and he left the club to become coach of the Chicago Cardinals. However, the community would not forsake their beloved Packers, and in 1950 a giant public stock sale was organized that raised $125,000 to save the club from dissolution. This sale, the third such effort by the club since 1923 and the first to be open to the general public, formed a stable financial base for the franchise that has continued ever since. While the club was only moderately successful throughout the remainder of the 1950s, the ground had been laid to set the course for the greater success yet to come.

In 1959 the Packers hired Vince Lombardi, an assistant coach from the New York Giants, to become only the fifth head coach of the team in 40 years. Over the next nine years, Lombardi became a legend in Green Bay and throughout the country, both because of the success to which he led his teams, and for the unswerving loyalty he demonstrated to his players, friends, and colleagues in Wisconsin and the pro football community. By Lombardi's third season as coach (1961) he had transformed the Packers from a mediocre club to NFL Champions, a feat the team would repeat four more times under his (1962, 1965, 1966, 1967). Within this span the Packers won the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967, setting in motion the development of the Super Bowl as America's premier one-day sporting spectacle. The team's dominance was so commanding during this era that the NFL named the Super Bowl Championship trophy after the Packers legendary leader, the Vince Lombardi Trophy. This honor could be attributed in part to Lombardi's phenomenal success as a coach in Division and League Championship games alone, winning nine out of ten such games in which his teams participated.

During the Lombardi era, Green Bay was not only blessed with exceptional coaching, but also with a collection of Hall of Fame caliber players seldom matched in the history of the NFL. Lombardi himself was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, and ten players who played for him in Green Bay are now also enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. These players are Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Paul Hornung, Willie Wood, and Henry Jordan. Starr led the Lombardi-era teams as quarterback, and later followed his legendary mentor as Packers Head Coach from 1975 to 1983. His successor in that position was his Green Bay teammate and fellow Hall of Fame member Forrest Gregg, who led the team from 1984 to 1987, having previously taken the Cincinnati Bengals to Super Bowl XVI in 1982. All of Lombardi's players praised their demanding coach for pushing them to give their very best, but also for his undying loyalty to those men who showed their dedication to him. The influence of Lombardi's charismatic leadership ability has remained evident in the way that many coaches and business executives have continued to follow his axioms, while some even continue to play taped speeches he made regarding leadership, effort and teamwork.

Following the Lombardi era, the Packers slipped into another period of on-field mediocrity, although the fans in Green Bay and throughout Wisconsin continued to support the team unfailingly with their attendance at games in Lambeau Field. During this period, some critics, skeptical of the Packers' location in a small, mid-western city, blamed the team's poor performance on their hometown. However, the residents of Green Bay, as well as Packer fans throughout Wisconsin and across the country, never lost hope that the team would return to greatness. Following the Starr and Gregg coaching periods, Green Bay hired noted offensive innovator Lindy Infante to coach the team, but nobody was able to emulate the success of coaching legends Lambeau and Lombardi. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, therefore, the Packers remained a second division team in the NFC Central Division, making the league playoffs only twice between 1968 and 1993.

In 1992 the Packers hired Mike Holmgren, the offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers as Head Coach, and a new era of success dawned. By Holmgren's third season new players had been brought in through the college draft, shrewd trades, and free agency, who would help lead the Packers back into the NFL elite. These players included a young quarterback acquired from the Atlanta Falcons named Brett Favre and a talented veteran defensive leader named Reggie White who was signed as a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles. These players would lead the Packers on the field as Holmgren and his coaching staff devised schemes that would confound opponents into numerous strategic errors, in a manner similar to the Lombardi era. In 1994 the Packers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1983, and by 1996 the team had risen to the top of the league, winning Super Bowl XXXI. In 1997 the Packers again reached the Super Bowl, but were forced to bow to the Denver Broncos in one of the closest and most hard fought battles the game had seen in many years. During this dramatic run of success, Favre proved the greatest beneficiary of Holmgren's coaching, moving from a reserve player with the Falcons to winning the League MVP award for three consecutive seasons from 1995 to 1997.

Through all of the team's successes and hardships, the citizens of Green Bay and fans throughout the United States have always supported the Packers. While playing in the smallest city to hold an NFL franchise, the Packers have enjoyed unparalleled fan support, ranging from consistent sell-outs at Lambeau Field to the financial aid of the stock sales that have made the team the only publicly held franchise in professional sports. The Packers have become an institution in American sport, and a "pilgrimage" to Lambeau Field is among the most cherished events for many professional football fans throughout the country. Legions of Packer fans have come to be known as "Cheeseheads" for their devotion to the club, and the comical cheese-wedge shaped hats they wear in honor of the state's most famous dairy product. The cheese-adorned paraphernalia, which Packer fans wear in concert with the club's green and yellow colors, are among the most popular souvenirs for NFL teams, as well as in all of sport. No other professional franchise enjoys the complete support of its community in quite the same manner as the Green Bay Packers.

—G. Allen Finchum

Further Reading:

Packer Legends in Facts: The Green Bay Packers 75thYear in the NFL Anniversary. Germantown, Wisconsin, Tech Data Publications, 1995.

Schapp, Dick. Green Bay Replay, The Packers Return to Glory. New York, Avon Books, 1997.