Happy campers flock to Green Bay
By Greg Seubert
Football fans have plenty of reasons to be excited this time of year.
High school teams began practicing this week and college teams are also preparing for the upcoming season.
Then there are training camps that give fans a chance to get up close and personal with their favorite NFL team.
The Green Bay Packers are no exception, as thousands of people are on hand to watch the team practice. While hundreds of kids line up outside Lambeau Field to offer their bicycle to a player to ride to practice at Ray Nitschke Field, other fans are more than happy to take a seat on a bleacher.
Larry Bittner of Oshkosh showed up July 28 on the second day of camp and watched practice through a pair of binoculars.
“It’s a great thing,” he said. “I wish they had more seating and more capacity. It’s a great way to see them.”
Bittner was back at training camp for the first time in several years. He recalled attending camps in the 1970s and 1980s, when practices were held on Clarke Hinkle Field along South Oneida Street.
“There were a lot of fights that broke out and a lot of taunting of the players,” he said. “There weren’t as many people here, but there was a lot of support, a lot of hard-core people that would come up and watch them.
“It seemed like the practices were longer and there were two-a-days,” he said. “You could watch them in the morning, go to lunch and come back and watch them in the afternoon. They don’t do that anymore.”
The Packers ended up one win away from a spot the Super Bowl earlier this year after losing to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson jerseys are a familiar site in the stands at training camp this year.
Bittner’s favorite players from the past include Ed West, a tight end from 1894-84, and running back Gerry Ellis, who caught a 56-yard touchdown pass from Lynn Dickey in the Packers’ 48-47 Monday Night Football win over the Washington Redskins in October 1983.
“Been a Packers fan all my life,” he said. “I probably get to two, three games a year. The year they won the Super Bowl, I happened to get to seven of the eight home games, but that was just a fluke. I don’t have season tickets, I just get them when I can.”
After winning Super Bowl II in January 1968, the Packers only made the playoffs twice – in 1972 and 1983 – until the team hired Ron Wolf as its general manager in 1991.
Starting in 1994, the team has made the playoffs 19 times, including the past eight seasons.
Before that success began, however, there was a sign of things to come.
“Certainly, one of the more entertaining seasons was the ‘89 season with (Don) Majkowski, when they beat the Bears on further review,” Bittner said. “It seemed like that sort of set the tone.”
Wolf joined the Packers two seasons later, signed Reggie White as a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles and traded a first-round pick to get quarterback Brett Favre from the Atlanta Falcons.
Favre took over as quarterback after Majkowski went down with an ankle injury early in the 1992 season and never missed a start for the Packers until Green Bay traded him to the New York Jets in 2008. Rodgers took over in 2008 after three seasons as Favre’s backup.
Wolf and Favre are now in the NFL Hall of Fame.
“We’ve been extremely lucky,” Bittner said. “I don’t think a lot of fans realize how lucky we are to have two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Most of these fans didn’t go through the unbelievable lean years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We’d be lucky to win four games, it was just terrible.”
The Packers haven’t had a losing season since they finished 6-10 in Rodgers’ first year as a starter.
They’ve made the playoffs every season since then.
“We were one of the jokes of the National Football League and a lot of players didn’t want to come play here,” Bittner said. “It was a very tough time.”