Packers are unique part of Green Bay's identity

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jim Schmitt abandons his official role for a moment and speaks from the heart.

The mayor's pride in the Green Bay Packers is evident. He wants everyone to know this is more than a football team on a roll. They are a vital part of this tight-knit community. He raves about the charity of the coaches and players and how they will remain to build a playground or help the underprivileged long after the cameras and media leave scheduled events.

While Schmitt talks from his second-floor office at city hall, less than two miles away, Karl Kinyon climbs into a chair at Electric Art. A few minutes later, over the hum of the needle, the 29-year-old from nearby De Pere shares why he wants a Packers tattoo on his right calf.

"I wear shorts quite a bit, so it will stand out," Kinyon said.

The mayor wears a green Packers tie and has the team's logo embroidered on the left inside flap of his blue blazer.

Kinyon has the Packers name embroidered on his skin, along with 60 or so other customers who made their way to Electric Art the day after the Packers beat Chicago to advance to Super Bowl XLV.

The Packers are more than a rooting interest. They are an ingrained part of the city's identity. This NFL team, with its historic stadium that sits in the middle of a neighborhood, belongs to everyone.

The love and adoration shown now is no different than what the team receives year round.

"Everybody knows and loves football here," said Tom Duval, who was in the restaurant business for 25 years but now helps out at Electric Art. "We're known for it. We understand football here.

"In so many ways, it infuses our normal lifestyle up here. It's special.

"That's why we would argue 'til the cows come home who is truly America's team."

The Packers returned to Austin Straubel International on Sunday evening after their victory over the Bears.

Homeland Security won't be happy to hear this, but airport director Tom Miller estimates more than 2,000 fans were at the airport to welcome the team home.

"We were leaving the tunnel and we hit the double doors, and I heard one guy scream my name," nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Then I didn't hear anything for about the next five or 10 minutes walking through the airport.

"It was an unbelievable feeling. I'm just happy that we could bring some joy to the city."

A few miles away — nothing is more than a few miles away here — long and short-sleeved T-shirts commemorating the Packers win are being printed. The NFC Champion caps, which arrive the next day, are made in Texas, flown to Chicago, then driven to Green Bay.

The Packers Pro Shop opened Monday at 8 a.m., one hour earlier than normal, to accommodate the expected crush. Before the doors to the 8,500-square-foot store at Lambeau Field closed, close to 3,000 transactions had been completed. Two more orders had to be placed on the shirts that go for $19.95.

Kate Hogan is the team's director of retail operations. She normally has 50 employees in the rotation this time of year. That number has been increased to 125 to handle the traffic in the store along with the flood of mail, phone and web requests.

The store has received merchandise requests from all 50 states, along with Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Hogan also expects to fill requests from Japan, Germany, France and Italy, countries that receive frequent shipments from the club.

"We have a robust mail-order list," Hogan said. "Fans are hungry for Packer things."

There are a few signs up around the city congratulating the Packers on their fifth Super Bowl trip in franchise history. But not as many as you might think for a place where a replica of the Lombardi Trophy carved out of wood sits in one homeowner's yard in the shadow of Lambeau Field.

Literally in the shadow. The home is located at the corner of Oneida and Shadow across from the stadium.

But the true sign of how much this team means comes in the daily conversations. Walk into the HuHot Mongolian Grill, which gave a 50 percent discount Monday on grill items to all males who had long, blond hair like linebacker Clay Matthews, and the first conversation you hear involves the Packers.

Everyone has a story. If you live in this city of 103,750, you have likely bumped into one of the players at the Copps grocery store on Lombardi or the True Value in De Pere. Maybe you sat at the table next to one of the coaches at Hinterland Brewery on Dousman Street or saw them out with their families in nearby Appleton.

The players and coaches aren't distant icons like they are in so many NFL cities. They're familiar.

They're neighbors.

There is excitement about the team's trip to North Texas to face Pittsburgh, but it's not over the top. Why?

It's impossible for many people in this town to care more about the Packers than they already do.

"We've been with them from Day One," Schmitt said. "It's not like, 'did you hear?' We track this team very closely through all 16 games.

"I think we're very, very pleased, but there's not a whole lot of fan fare. There will be when they win the Super Bowl.

"But right now, I think it's part of the journey."

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