Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 3, 2006

The ultimate Packers fan

When I traveled to Wisconsin in September to meet my husband Art and his mother Donna at our cottage in Three Lakes, I joked that I would wear my green and yellow Green Bay Packers hooded sweatshirt to fit in with the local "culture."

I was only half kidding. Wisconsinites can't seem to get enough of their beloved Packers - even now when they are 1-4. Newspaper pages, TV reports and online sites are filled with every bit of trivia imaginable to feed their fans' insatiable appetites for information.

And at 96, Donna is probably both one of the team's oldest and most avid fans. On the days we were at the cottage, Art checked out Packer news online from newspaper sites and read it to his mother for her morning "fix." Later in the day, she devoured the daily sports pages and, at noon and in the evening, she watched the TV sports broadcasts.

Her interest developed in 1930, when then-boyfriend Tom took her to her first game in Green Bay. He had played football in high school and once drove with two friends 20 miles to see a movie about Notre Dame's famous backfield, the Four Horsemen. He said they were surprised to discover that "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was a Biblical story!

Tom had met some of the Packer players when he worked in Green Bay and the team was looking for locals to serve as opposition players during scrimmages. He decided to give it a try. At 5-foot, 11-inches and 200 pounds, he was a good-sized man for that day. But he said he was no match for the burly Packers, describing his experience as a "mauling." He said he was a "boy amongst men."

Donna married Tom in 1931 and, while he was never a big football fan, she was, listening to all the games on WTMJ-Milwaukee. Donna's sister Ione, who worked in Green Bay, dated several of the players. And letters from Donna's pilot brothers Art and Pete during World War II were often peppered with comments about the team. Son Tommy was influenced by Donna's passion. To this day, when you ask him what he recalls about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he answers, "I heard the announcement when they broke into the Packer game. We were playing the Chicago Bears."

By the late 1950s, the family had seven tickets on the 40-yard line for all home games. Donna recalls it was not a successful year and the next was even worse, with Coach "Scooter" McClean's team winning only one game. No one but a Packer fan like Donna would recall his name, but even many non-football fans recognize his successor, Vince Lombardi. In his eight years, Lombardi's Packers won five championships - in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967 - and Super Bowls I and II.

The most memorable game for Donna was the 1967 championship game dubbed the "Ice Bowl" because of the below-zero temperatures. At the beginning of the game, the temperature was 13 degrees below zero. By the game's end, with the temperature around 18 degrees below zero, the football field had frozen solid and some areas had become a sheet of ice.

"You can't imagine how many layers of clothes we wore," Donna said. We were packed in like sardines. If one of us fell, we would have all fallen. I don't remember suffering from the cold because the wind was to our backs."

Perhaps the peppermint schnapps her brother Art had brought to the game helped her and the others forget the bitter cold.

"Every now and then, we'd take a few nips to warm our insides," Donna said.

In that New Year's Eve game, Packers quarterback Bart Starr made the winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining, making the final score 21-17.

Other games, although not quite as exciting as the Ice Bowl, were fun events, complete with picnic lunches and conversation with family members and other nearby fans, who had also attended games for many seasons.

But in 1991, Donna and Tommy stopped attending the games.

"When the game became secondary, I stopped going," Donna said. "There was too much tailgating, too many interruptions for advertising and too many people drinking and tossing balls around."

Now, Donna watches every Packer football game on television, but she keeps the sound off so she won't be annoyed by the constant chatter of the announcers who have a need to fill every moment of air time.

After Lombardi left, Donna said she'd never live to see another Super Bowl for Green Bay, but quarterback Brett Favre and his teammates surprised her with a Super Bowl win in 1997.

"I'm not sure I'll live long enough to see the Packers in another Super Bowl - maybe when I'm 114 or 115," Donna joked, while we were out eating with friends in Sugar Camp, Wisconsin.

A woman at the table next to ours, amazed that Donna was still so lively at 96 and such a fan, said, "God bless you, sweetie!"

Then the man with her shook Donna's hand and said, "I'll meet you at Gate #4 when the Packers play in the Super Bowl again. And I'll buy you a beer!"

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