GREEN BAY, Wis. » Fifty thousand Green Bay Packers fans filled Lambeau Field yesterday afternoon to welcome back not only their team, but also the Lombardi trophy.
Fourteen years is a long time to wait.
After coaches, staff and players were introduced to the crowd during the "Return to Titletown" celebration, Coach Mike McCarthy was among the last to walk out of the players’ tunnel now adorned with a "Super Bowl XLV Champions" banner. He held high the gleaming silver trophy as fans chanted, "Go Pack Go!"
Taking the Lombardi Trophy for a partial victory lap, McCarthy paused to let fans closest to the railing touch the coveted prize with gloves, mittens and very cold fingers.
Players emerged from the tunnel with smart phones and digital cameras aimed at the crowd to record the memories. The fan sound was deafening, and the stadium was a sea of yellow flags emblazoned with "Return to Titletown World Champions!" as team favorites walked out, including Clay Matthews and, of course, Aaron Rodgers, who turned to the crowd and did his trademark championship belt gesture.
"What’s up, Titletown?" Rodgers asked, wearing a green and gold knit cap and black wool coat. The crowd went wild. Rodgers said that until Sunday, his best day as a Packer was the day he was drafted in 2005.
McCarthy thanked the fans for their support.
"You just keep bringing that passion and energy and we’ll keep bringing the trophies home," said McCarthy, as fans roared their approval.
"We skipped school for this," said a giant gold-colored sign held by a group of students from Stanley-Boyd High School.
They went to school yesterday morning, like thousands of other Wisconsin youths. But by the second class period, they decided they had to make a pilgrimage to Titletown.
Brittney Klapperich, 16, started the Stanley-to-Lambeau Field exodus. She went to her boyfriend’s gym class and asked if he wanted to take a road trip to Lambeau.
"I wouldn’t miss it," said Josh Langiewicz, 17. After Langiewicz was in, she pulled friend Josh Nichols, 15, out of science class, and her brother, Hunter, 14, out of Spanish.
They cleared it with their parents. Then Brittney’s mom found scalped tickets to the celebration online for $35 apiece. By the time they left Stanley, there were eight kids in two cars, heading to Green Bay.
"My teacher is a big Packers fan, and she said she’d go if she could," Brittney said.
The subzero wind chills caught up with fans, many of whom arrived hours before the 1-hour event to hang out in the parking lot and tailgate. In heated restrooms, fans sat on the floor, taking off their shoes and rubbing their feet. The Packers, no strangers to cold weather, stayed warm at the 50-yard line by huddling around portable heaters.
"I’m just glad to be here," said Allison Hooper, 15, who drove with her brother from Milwaukee to be part of the celebration, and to see Rodgers and wide receiver Jordy Nelson up close.
Hooper sat on the floor in a women’s restroom with her shoes off, rubbing her white Packers sock-clad feet. Her hands were fine, she said, thanks to hand warmers. But the chemical warmers she tucked in her shoes did not do the job.
About 10,000 foot and hand warmers, courtesy of Fleet Farm, were handed out to fans at stadium entrances. They also were a popular item in the Packers Pro Shop, where fans snapped them up to stick in gloves and shoes.
The official temperature was 9 degrees, though the wind chill made it feel like 7 below, according to the National Weather Service.
Among the signs held up in the crowd: "Aaron Rodgers Will You Be My Valentine?", "Proud Owners of Super Bowl Champions Green Bay Packers," "Clay PLZ Sign 4 My B-Day" and "We Like to Repeat, C U in Indy" referring to next year’s Super Bowl, to be held in Indianapolis.
The crowd gave an extended cheer to wide receiver Donald Driver, who said that the fans were just as integral a part of the team’s victory as the players and coaches.
"Without you guys, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we accomplished," Driver said. "Guess what? We’re Super Bowl champions, baby!"
Earlier in the day Driver’s mother blended in with the crowd in the Packers Pro Shop. Faye Gray was standing in line holding an armful of Super Bowl Champions T-shirts when a reporter randomly approached her.
Asked what motivated her to come to Lambeau 4 hours before the party, Gray said: "I came up with my son."
Asked whether her son is a serious Packers fan, Gray just smiled." My son plays football here. I’m Donald Driver’s mom."
Fans within earshot went wild after realizing their brush with fame. One man yelled into his smart phone: "I’m in line with Donald Driver’s mom in the Packers Pro Shop!"
A few snapped pictures of her.
"This is as great as meeting one of the football players," said Ruth Bonner of Shawano, who couldn’t stop rubbing Driver’s mother’s shoulders. "This is as close as I’m going to get to Donald Driver. I’m in hog heaven!"
The Lambeau party felt like a football Sunday, even though it was a weekday, when fans would normally be at work or school. The parking lot quickly filled with tailgaters, as folks pulled out grills and coolers, tossed footballs and tried to stay hydrated with their favorite beverages. Several fans periodically jumped back in their cars and turned on the heat.
Many fans hung out near the team’s parking lot several hours before the party, waiting for glimpses and possibly autographs as players arrived to clean out their lockers. Among those signing autographs and waving at fans from their cars were Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.
Standing at the 50-yard line during the celebration, Packers general manager Ted Thompson, the architect who put together the Super Bowl-champion team and took a lot of heat when Brett Favre left, basked in the hard-earned moment.
"It’s a great day to be a Packer, isn’t it?" he said.
No argument there.