Ode to Green Bay: Packer passion runs deep all year

We fly Badger and Packer flags in Madison, but I know of no one who decks out the lawn in bright gold and green, complete with fake goalpost and hand-printed signs declaring absolute allegiance to the home team.

When I saw this during a summer visit to Green Bay, it wasn’t game day attire. I’d call it, at minimum, a dress rehearsal for football season because summer training camp had barely begun.

Such signs of devotion seem like business as usual in this city of 104,000. We love the Packers on game day in Wisconsin, but in Green Bay the loyalty runs deeper and clearer. Evidence is everywhere.

How does Titletown Brewing Co. snag attention? With a gi-normous statue of an arms-outstretched Packer receiver. The 22-foot-tall fiberglass model used to sit in front of the Packer Hall of Fame. What a calling card.

Inside the new Green Bay Children’s Museum is a Lambeau Leap practice area, a miniature tailgating play area and little lockers that make it easy for kids to grab oversized clothing and pretend to be a sports announcer, football coach or quarterback (curiously, the jersey says “Favre”).

On a 90-minute Foxy Lady Cruise, captain John Michkowski sprinkles his narration with a few Packer facts, like the location of the team’s first corporate headquarters and Vince Lombardi’s office.

Even the McDonalds on Oneida Street is full of green and gold. Framed and hung on walls are Ray Nitschke to Reggie White jerseys and newspaper clips. Bring a camera and stand behind the headless football player cutouts.

Now the new, downtown Hagemeister Park restaurant enshrines another part of team history. The name is the same as the Packers’ first playing field, from 1919-22, and that Hagemeister Park also drew crowds for harness racing, dancing, bowling, roller skating and more.

How logical that history repeats itself with a new reason to gather. Hagemeister, as a restaurant, serves a smooth booyah, fat burgers and a sassy ginger-peanut dressing for salads. The lineup of tap beers is among the longest I’ve seen anywhere.

Warm weather draws patrons onto cushiony, outdoor seating that faces the Fox River. A funky, painted piano is within reach, presumably for anybody to play. The backdrop is bigger-than-life photo enlargements of bygone gridiron time.

What could be a better addition in Green Bay? The National Football League’s smallest city and only publicly owned team also makes room for the Packer Heritage Trail, 22 bronze plaques at key and historical locations.

The free attraction is a new and good reason for fans to veer away from Lambeau Field for a while. See where Vince Lombardi attended daily Mass, where Curly Lambeau was born and feel the team spirit that runs deeper than the mark that any individual has made.

You can’t walk all of the self-guided tour, but only one stop is not within two miles of downtown. Look for the trailhead at Neville Public Museum, 210 Museum Place, where the interactive “Football: the Exhibit” remains (indoors) until Sept. 9.

How fitting, but there’s more. On permanent show at the Neville is the feel-good “Hometown Advantage: the Community and the Packers,” whose video clips demonstrate – over and over, in heartening ways – what makes Green Bay, its team and residents both unusual and valued.

“Hometown Advantage” has been in place for years, for good reason. It’s a reminder of the unique treasure that is Green Bay. For more about tourism in the area: greenbay.com, 888-867-3342.

Not all autumn Packer productions occur in Green Bay or require a football field.

Peninsula Players Theatre, W4351 Peninsula Players Rd., Fish Creek, presents the play “Lombardi” from Sept. 5 to Oct. 14. It is based on the book “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” by David Maraniss. The playwright is Eric Simonson, a Milwaukee native, and the plot confronts the values and relationships that were a part of the legendary coach’s life.

“Lombardi” is the last play of the outdoor and garden-rich theater’s season. Tickets are $33-42. For more: peninsulaplayers.com, 920-868-3287.

“Vince: the Life and Times of Vince Lombardi” comes to Sheboygan on Oct. 13 and Whitewater on Oct. 16-17. Actor John Pinero, who also is a motivational speaker, presents the one-man show.

Tickets are $30 at Sheboygan’s Stephanie Weill Center, 828 N. Eighth St., and $19-29 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Young Auditorium, 930 W. Main St. For more: weillcenter.com, 920-208-3243 and uww.edu/youngauditorium, 262-472-4444.

Last: Watch lastdayatlambeau.com for film screening locations and dates for “Last Day at Lambeau,” a documentary film about the slow and painful divorce between Packer fans and quarterback Brett Favre. The engaging film made its debut to appreciative audiences at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Excellent but obvious matches for Packer fans are stadium and Packer Hall of Fame tours at Lambeau Field Atrium, 1265 Lombardi Ave., Green Bay. For more about both: lambeaufield.com, 920-569-7500.

When you’re hungry, eating the Lambeau Heap – a one-pound burger with fixings, fries and a shake – will earn you a T-shirt at the atrium’s Curly’s Pub. Here are three less-known but worthwhile detours from Green Bay:

Chives Restaurant, 1749 Riverside Dr., Suamico (just north of Green Bay). The owner, J.R. Schoenfeld, for years was executive chef for meals provided to the Packers and at Lambeau Field. Chives’ setting, a century-old building, is historic. The menu is gourmet but hearty and unpretentious. The vibe is classy-casual. For more: chivesdining.net, 920-434-6441.

Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse, inside the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, 333 W. College Ave., Appleton. More than 400 artifacts from the legendary coach’s estate – trophies, game plays, handwritten letters, photos – are under glass at the dinner-only and multi-room restaurant. Dining here is like getting admission to a nifty museum free with your meal. Visiting NFL teams have made this hotel their pregame base since the late 1980s. For more: vincelombardisteakhouse.com, 920-380-9390.

8-twelve MVP Bar and Grill, 17800 W. Blue Mound Rd., Brookfield. The new, suburban Milwaukee restaurant is a venture that involves the well-respected SURG restaurant group and two Wisconsin superstars: the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. Menus lean more toward fine dining than sports bar food, and I’ll let you know more about it after finding time to dine there. For more: 8-twelve.com, 262-641-5600.