To the nation as a whole, 1996 was just another year of football in the NFL. Except if, like me, you’re from Wisconsin. That was the year the Lombardi Superbowl trophy returned to Green Bay. And what a year it was.
Growing up in Wisconsin wasn’t much fun in the 70’s and 80’s. Especially on Sundays. I knew I’d better behave for the rest of the week if the Packers lost because it undoubtedly put my father in a tremendously bad mood. So as you can imagine, my dad didn’t smile much when I was a kid because Green Bay didn’t win very often.
You see, during the sixteen weeks of season play, the whole state of Wisconsin’s collective consciousness is transformed each week according to the W or L column. The effect being intensified the closer you reside to the epicenter: Lambeau Field–our Mecca, or at least until ’96, the Wailing Wall. And the effects have only gotten more jagged with a gunslinger like Brett Favre at the helm for the past fifteen years. An interception, I’ve witnessed, can cause serious lake trauma.
How serious Wisconsin takes its football can be likened to soccer in Italy. Its a madhouse.
So you can imagine what it was like before the season started in ’96. Everyone in the sporting press was predicting Green Bay to go all the way. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was until my brother made a random statement which went, “Whuddya mean? Green Bay is the hottest team in the NFL right now!” Hottest team? Green Bay? Whaaaaa? The words just didn’t make any sense to me. I’d never heard such a phrase in my whole life. The words “hottest team” always had a “Cowboys” or “49ers” attached to it. Not the Green Bay Packers.
And yet, it was real. The first five or so games of that season are still burned in my brain as the epitome of dominance. Favre would throw 30+ touchdowns that year, get his second MVP vote, and put on a show nobody had seen in the NFL before. Finally football was FOOTBALL again. It had been a while since anyone had seen a quarterback just as apt to block a 300-pound lineman as he was to throw the long ball perfectly on target. The defense, with Reggie White as its leader, was the best in the NFL that year.
It was beautiful.
I particularly remember the Monday Night Football game where Green Bay faced the 49ers. Brett Favre called it the most physical game he ever played. The contest went into overtime, and the Packers drove down the field, but were stopped barely within field goal range. In stepped Chris Jacke, the kicker, and was about to attempt a 54-yarder. Now, in the past, Green Bay would have missed that score, and my dad would be Mr. Grumble for the rest of the week. But not that night. Jacke nailed it, the place went crazy, and our living room–consisting of my dad, my brother, and me–went crazy as well, prompting my mother, who had been awakened by the ruckus, to come downstairs and curtly ask, “What in God’s name just happened?”
“Go Pack” became the peace sign or a strong handshake to Wisconsinites. Even non-sportsfans could be seen wearing #4 jerseys.
The Green Bay Packers went on to win the division championship, defeating the Carolina Panthers in sub-zero, Lambeau Field conditions, and then moved on to New Orleans to face the New England Patriots. The Patriots had Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe, and were a formidable foe. But the domination of every aspect of the Green Bay team continued until the clock ran out. Favre had two touchdown passes (one of them the longest pass play in superbowl history) and a third rushing TD. Reggie White had three sacks–the most in a superbowl to that day, and Desmond Howard, the special teams runback specialist, returned the longest TD ever in a superbowl as well.
Needless to say, when the clock ran out, and the Green Bay Packers were on top, well…let’s just say every town in Wisconsin went ballistic. A friend of mine was driving her El Camino through town, and ended up giving a ride to a whole clan of drunken, crazy Packer fans, who had decided to hop in the back as she was waiting at a stop light. One big happy Wisconsin family.
Happy ten-year Superbowl Anniversary, Green Bay. Let’s hope it comes back around soon.