A One Day Green Bay Getaway (continued)
by Mike Conklin
June 6, 2012
After the Hall of Fame, I went across the street to where the practice was going to take place. I actually drove over there and parked because I wanted to get there quickly to scout out a good seat, but I am guessing that it would have probably been about a 5-10 minute walk if I had chose to do so. The reason I mention that at all is because even though as you look across the parking lot toward the Hutson Center it all seems so close. But the sheer size of the stadium and the Hutson Center itself are deceiving, and these things are further apart than they first appear.
When I walked into Ray Nitschke Field, it was about 40 minutes before practice would start, and there were probably 200-300 people there already. I learned later during the Stadium Tour that the bleachers at the practice field hold about 1,500 people, and the setting was absolutely perfect. The bleachers are right up to the edge of the field, and you are surprisingly close to the players...the ones who are practicing in your part of the field, at least. The length of the field is actually 170 yards long. There is one full length football field, and then there is another partial field. This allows for plenty of room for the offense to do positional drills on one end, defense on the other, and there can still be room for special teams work if necessary.
Before I left for the trip I had printed out a team roster from the Packers official website, so I would be prepared to watch practice. I hadn't really thought it through, however, and I didn't realize until later that the roster lists the players in alphabetical order. When you are watching 90 players, with a third of them virtually unknown, it would be much easier to have a roster sheet in numerical order. I was shocked when a Packers staff came up into the stands with a giant stack of roster sheets, printed in numerical order, for anyone that wanted them. Working for a large corporation myself, I think it would be a stretch to think that my company would be willing to provide a resource like that at no cost. Even though they are just photocopies, when you consider that the Packers print 1,000-1,500 double sided pages, (2,000-3,000 total pages) it is a considerable expense. I do not know if that is common with other teams in the NFL, but I really thought that was a fan-friendly gesture.
Practice itself was everything I had imagined and more. Even though I did not know it was going to turn out this way when I chose my seat, I was situated right in front of the defense for most of the practice. This was perfect because I wanted to get a good look at all the new draft picks. After stretching for a few minutes, they started out doing positional drills. There are scoreboards at each end of the field and they count down the allotted amount of time for each drill, at which time a horn sounds and someone calls out on a loudspeaker what the next segment of practice would be. For example, a large portion of practice consisted of ball security drills. For the group of defensive backs directly in front of me that I was watching closely, the coaches would put them through a variety of takeaway drills. Just to give an idea, one of the drills would have a player backpedal at full speed, then when a coach signaled they would flip their hips and run forward. As soon as they turned around, there was already a ball that had been thrown at them and they would have to catch it. If a player dropped a ball, he would have to do push-ups. That is just a small example of one of the positional drills, and there were many others.
There were other portions of defensive drills that looked like teaching sessions that were part of the installations they were working on. In these drills, some defensive players played the role of a scout team offense and actually ran some plays. It looked like the coaches were wanting to make sure that the defensive players were reading and recognizing what they should be doing in live action, and it wasn't really done at high speed or with high intensity. There was a lot of hands-on instruction by the coaches during this period, and I took special note of the interactions between Kevin Greene and Nick Perry. Greene would be in Perry's ear after almost every play, most of it positive. One of the great things about how close you are to the players is that you can sometimes hear what the coaches are saying. Most of the audible things I heard were encouragements after good plays. When a player was coached to do something different, the coach usually got next to him and talked with him more one-on-one, out of earshot from the fans.
After that, another portion of practice was designated for game situations. For example, the special teams would have to be ready to run out on to the field and kick a punt from the shadow of their own goal line. It was interesting to see how they actually coordinate the group on the sideline to make sure everything is in perfect order, so they can run in and line up for the snap with plenty of time left on the play clock.
After a variety of game situations they started to do 11-on-11 drills, which is probably always the fans' favorite part of practice. It is fun to watch which players are lined up with the starters, and you can get a feel for the depth chart. Fans cheer loudly after pass completions, and the players seem to be having fun out there. It is undoubtedly difficult to get any kind of feel for line play, but they really do practice pretty hard out there and try to make plays. Because of the lack of tackling it is hard to take the running plays they practice very seriously, but you can get a feel for how players pursue. Overall, the 11-on-11 segment is the part of practice that you wish lasted longer because it is just so much fun to watch them play, not to mention interact with each other.
The practice lasted two hours, and after it was over I hung around for a while longer, taking in the experience, snapping a few photos, and also watching the last few players make their way off the field. After I headed back over toward the stadium, I realized that I probably should have left right away if I wanted to be even closer to some of the players as they walked back across the street to their locker room. I am not an autograph seeker and don't actually want to bother the players at all, but it would be interesting to actually be standing there when they walked by just to get a better sense of how big they are. I was a little surprised to see a group of fans virtually camping out, with lawn chairs and all. These fans were waiting in the parking lot just outside of the stadium hoping for players to walk by, in hopes of getting something signed. There was actually somebody tailgating out there.
The last part of my adventure was the Stadium Tour. As it turned out, this was a highlight that surpassed my expectations as well. It was a guided tour that lasted about 55 minutes, and the guide for our group of ten was a retired school teacher and lifelong Packer fan who had attended the Ice Bowl game in 1967. He was great...he was both informative and fun, and a good tour guide makes all the difference in the world. We started out in the Atrium, where our guide talked about the fact that the expansive area on which we were standing was actually the parking lot before the 2003 stadium renovation. We learned just how much of a watershed moment that was for the Packers. Prior to that, Lambeau Field was open just a handful of days per year. Bob Harlan took a look at their business model at the time and believed if they continued on their financial path they could be headed for financial trouble. Now, Lambeau is open 363 days per year and is actually a convention center of sorts, hosting wedding receptions, business conferences, and a variety of other functions in addition to all the Stadium Tours and Hall of Fame visitors. As a result, the Packers gained other streams of income, which will allow the Packers to remain viable in the future.
Next, we took an elevator up to the sixth floor, and were taken to a private luxury suite so we could see how the other half watches a game. The box held 16 seats and had all the amenities you could imagine, including its own dedicated wait staff during games. After being fully amazed, we then learned that we were in the smallest of three different types of suites at Lambeau. The smallest costs $85,000 per season, while the largest goes for $160,000. These are important revenue generators that were all added as part of the 2003 renovation, and offer the Packers yet another unique source of income.
As fun as it was to see the skybox, however, I could not help but think to myself that you would miss out on much of the stadium experience when you watch the game from behind the glass like that. The Packers obviously understood that as well, and there is a section of premier seats that offer many of the same amenities as the boxes, including dedicated wait staff. These are the only outdoor seats that aren't bleachers. And as you may well know, Lambeau is the only NFL stadium that still has bleacher seating.
After our visit to the luxury suites, we took the elevator all the way down to a level below ground. Here, we visited the area just outside of where the locker room, training room, and all the classrooms are located. This is an area that is off-limits according to NFL rules, so the tour only takes you so far before you have to stop. From there, we walked from the locker room area up through the same tunnel the players use to enter the field. One interesting note is that when they renovated the stadium in 2003, they actually changed the layout so the players now use the tunnel at the opposite end from what had been used in decades past. At that time, Head Coach Mike Sherman thought it would be a good idea to move some of the slabs of concrete from the old tunnel over to the new one. Here, they also erected a plaque that states, "Proud generations of Green Bay Packers players, World Champions a record 13 times, have run over this very concrete to Greatness." The players have a tradition of clicking their heels on those concrete slabs, and touching the plaque as they walk by on their way up the tunnel.
In the last meaningful part of the tour, we got to go out on to the field. It was a great feeling to look up at all the names listed on the Ring of Honor around the stadium, and set foot on that legendary grass field. You can not actually go out on to the playing surface and had to stick to the edges, but it felt close enough. One other thing that was noteworthy was that we had a great view of the current construction project that is underway. The Packers are adding another 8,000 seats in the south end zone, and by the time construction is finished in 2013 the seating capacity at Lambeau Field will be third largest in the NFL. The only stadiums that will be larger are the new stadiums in New York and Dallas.
After the tour was complete, the last thing on the agenda was a trip to the Packers Pro Shop, located right there in the Atrium. Any branded item you could imagine was there. Some of the things that made me chuckle included Packers branded nail polish, garters, M&M's, Sharpies (for autograph seekers), barbeque sauce, and even paper towels for your tailgating pleasure. There was every article of clothing you could imagine. To give you an idea, I lost count of the different types of ball caps after I reached 41. Another thing I noticed in the Pro Shop is that for as many Packers-branded items as there were, there were also a lot of "Lambeau Field" branded items that did not have the Packers logo or NFL shield. I could not help but think that this was yet another revenue stream for the Packers that separate from what they receive from NFL revenue sharing. Once again, a smart business move.
At the end of the day, I could not have been happier with all that the Packers offer their fans. I felt like I had completed a pilgrimage that every fan should aspire to make one day. The access the Packers offer their fans is truly remarkable, and I know that this will not be my last visit to Green Bay.Tweet