Thursday, November 19, 2009

Warm Heart in the Frozen Tundra

We left Chicago at 7:00 am on a Sunday. We drove north along Lake Michigan, into Wisconsin. By the time we hit Milwaukee, every radio station was fixated on one thing. Kickoff was at 1:00 pm. We were in Packer Nation. When we arrived in Green Bay, the town was painted in green and gold and I was wearing red and black. I was a long way from home, but the Atlanta Falcons were much further from theirs.

It is truly remarkable that a city, population only 100,000, and its team can captivate NFL fans around the continent. It felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. Green Bay, the mecca of American football, and the winner of the first two world championships after the merge of the AFL and the NFL.

Up until that year, I had never seen the Atlanta Falcons win a game on the road, or even at home in Atlanta. People at home in Ottawa had warned me about being a visiting fan in Lambeau Field. I scanned the crowd of over 72,000 people for my fellow cheer section. We looked like a thin string of red Christmas lights on a towering green tree. The friends I travelled with were rooting for the Packers. To keep us in good rapport with the locals, they claimed.

My quarterback, Matt Ryan, was a rookie and the leader of a team deep in the rebuilding process. I wondered what it might feel like to come to a field such as Lambeau, as a rookie, to play against a storied team with fans as loyal as Packer Nation. Could it be the American equivalent of a young Canadian boy dreaming of lacing his skates to play in the NHL? Could it be the same as walking into Maple Leaf Gardens or the Montreal Forum to play a team that’s humble beginnings were over a century ago?

Ten minutes into the scoreless first quarter, while I’m making friends with the cheeseheads surrounding me and the Falcons are marching up the field, they score a touchdown on a goal line pass. The Falcons are on the board first and the game is on. A field goal for us and a 44-yard touchdown for the Packers ended the first half with a score of 10-7. Leadership was proven for the Falcons with a 90-yard, 9-play touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter. The Packers answered with a field goal in the same quarter and a touchdown in the 4th, to tie the game with only seconds more than 10 minutes to play. Though Packer penalties and special teams errors were the demise of their game, the Falcons proved themselves winners with strong defense and vision from their rookie quarterback and offensive line who kept possession of the ball throughout the end of the game to score the winning field goal.

After 60 minutes of trying to ruffle the Falcons’ feathers, it was over. I stood up, clapped, and took it all in. I looked around at the famous names on the stadium boxes: Vince Lombardi, Willie Davis, and Curly Lambeau, among others. There I was, 87 years later, watching the Falcons win for the first time. As people started filing out of the stadium, a man tapped on my shoulder. I turned and he was standing with a boy maybe 10 years old. They were dressed in green and gold and holding their Packer flags that staff had given to every person entering the stadium. He said, “Good game.” I smiled and replied, “Thank you, yes it was.” “We’re from Green Bay and it’s my son’s first time at Lambeau Field. It’s hard to get tickets, you know.” I looked at the boy and pondered the idea that he likely lived a walk or short drive from the field and had never been inside. “Are you from Atlanta?”, he asked. I laughed and said, “No, I’m from Ottawa, Canada.” “Well, we’re glad to have you. Do you mind if I get a picture of you with my son so he can remember his first game?” You can imagine my amazement. I sat and posed and got a shot with my camera as well.
We carried on with the festivities surrounding the stadium that day. I was happy to be getting back to urban life in Chicago, and then home, when we left. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that I was leaving the Frozen Tundra with a warm heart.

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