The Packers, Beer, Brats and Polka: A Wisconsin Love Story

Oct 7, 2011 by

When French explorer Jean Nicolet first stepped foot in north-central United States in 1634, little did he know that a mere 377 years later this piece of land would be the home to the best sports fans on the planet.  Snuggled between Illinois and Minnesota, this Midwest state has as its capital one of the best small cities in America. There are a shit load of farms, bars and cows.  Every teenager looks as if they stepped off the set of That 70’s Show.  Its climate for ten months out of the year is:  grey and cold, or windy and cold, or cold and rainy, or extremely cold with a ton of snow, or bone rattling freezing cold –  with snow, of course.  I once witnessed someone wearing a t-shirt and shorts on a day in July but the apparel was quickly stowed away because it snowed the next day. I can only be describing the state of Wisconsin, were ice fishing and deer hunting commence as soon as a toddler takes his or her first steps.

Wisconsin was the backdrop of many firsts for me.  It was the first, and only, time I saw a girl chew tobacco.  It wasn’t a bet or dare, she just liked to chew and spit.  I ordered a Bloody Mary at a bar in Oshkosh when the bartender came back with my drink it came with a half pint of beer.  I loved that and still prefer to enjoy my Bloody that way.  After a long night of drinking, I stumbled into a 24 hour diner and was blinded by a sea of the brightest orange; it was like staring directly at the sun.  4:00 AM in Wisconsin is when you eat waffles before passing out after a long night or when you begin your day deer hunting.   It was a bitter cold snowy night in Minocqua when I first rode a snowmobile.  Within ten minutes of hopping on I wrecked into a tree.  Wisconsin is the only place in the world where it is totally acceptable to begin your day of tailgating funneling three straight beers…..at 6:00 AM.  I did not throw up.

Wisconsin has a population of over five and half million, all of which are Green Bay Packer fans.  If you were born in Wisconsin you are a Packer fan.  If you were born in Connecticut, which by the way from my last account is still considered New England, you have a choice between being a Giants or Patriots fan, families are often divided.  Do you know what happens if you reside in Wisconsin near the Illinois border and think it would be cute to support the Bears?  You are either shipped off to relatives in Illinois or shot outside your home in a so-called “accident.”  No one bats an eye to either scenario and to date there has never been a single arrest.   Packer season never ends, it’s year round.  Packer fans are simply the most passionate fans in the world and yes, even a little off their rocker.  Oh, and many wear replica cheese hats made of foam while watching Packer games.

My favorite Green Bay Packer story is the story of the late great Max McGee.  In his second to last season before retiring, the Green Bay packers advanced to the Super Bowl.  It was the inaugural Super Bowl of the NFL.  McGee due to his age and injuries saw little playing time that year.  He caught a total of 4 passes for 91 yards all season.  Knowing full well he wouldn’t see a second of play, McGee did what any other seldom used reserve player would do the night before a Super Bowl; he violated his team’s curfew policy and spent the night out on the town.

The next morning, as he stumbled into the locker room to suit up, he told starting receiver Boyd Dowler, “I hope you don’t get hurt. I’m not in very good shape.” Dowler, of course, went down with a shoulder injury on the Packers second drive of the game, forcing McGee to enter in his spot.  McGee, having not bothered to bring his helmet to the field, had to borrow a teammate’s.  Miraculously, he had one of the better Super Bowl appearances ever for a wide receiver.  He made a one-handed gem of a reception and ran 37 yards to score the first touchdown in Super Bowl history and ended the day with seven receptions, 138 yards and two touchdowns.  The Green Bay Packers went on to win over the Kansas City Chiefs by the score of 35-10, in large part due the little used hung-over wide receiver.

My worst Green Bay Packer story began in a crowded living room at a friend’s home in a small town north of Milwaukee for Super Bowl XXXI.  I was amongst twenty or so Packer fans, the only Pats fan within a thousand miles.  The third quarter rolled around as I sat quietly in front of the television thinking the Patriots had a slim chance of pulling the game out.  Then, all of a sudden, fucking Desmond Howard runs a 99 yard touchdown kickoff return, ending any chance of redemption for watching this game with all Packer fans. Immediately following Howard’s touchdown, the win all but sealed for the packers, a girl with 3 foot high hair decked out in flannel and stonewashed jeans yelled as loud she could in the loveliest of Wisconsin accents, “THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE, I LOVE YOU BRETT FAAAARVE!!!!” Highly annoyed, I stepped out for some alone time.

I began listening to some really interesting music during my stay in Wisconsin, however the state had no influence on my new tastes, it was more about the times.  Even sitting Indian style next to Ravi Shankar as he plucked away on the sitar couldn’t have swayed me from the tunes I’d already settled on, so I certainly wasn’t going to be influenced by the culturally stimulating music the Badger State had to offer .  Like jazz of New Orleans, the blues of the Delta region, or rock of the Motor City, polka is to Wisconsin.  Through most normal functioning ears, polka sounds god awful.  I assume like jazz of today, it still has a small cult following, which resides only in Wisconsin (Maybe in some pockets throughout Cleveland).  It typically features a collection of overweight musicians wearing weird traditional Polish costumes.  There’s usually an accordion, a tuba, and a trumpet all blaring away as other overweight people of Polish decent gleefully dance around them.  Outside of polka, most people from Wisconsin listen to 80’s hair metal or Journey and not much else that came out after 1987.   Fortunately, Justin Vernon, a Wisconsin native, had some girl troubles, moved to a cabin in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin and created the beautiful album, “For Emma, Forever ago.”  At least not all is lost in the musical landscape of the state; there is a glimmer of hope.

I don’t recall when I first took an interest in baseball.  I have faint memories of watching the 1980 World Series.   I vividly remember watching Freddy Lynn’s all-star game grand slam off of Atlee Hammaker.  By the time I reached the fourth grade I had already read (or at least attempted to read) Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn and Ball Four by Jim Bouton.  I collected baseball cards, read box scores religiously, and knew most of the starting lineups from each MLB team.  The Milwaukee Brewers played a large role in expanding my passion for this game.

In the fall of 1982, my family traveled to Milwaukee to visit my Aunt.  I remember it was a brisk cold overcast day.  Large doors opened and my brother and I were whisked onto the field of an empty baseball stadium.  It was County Stadium, home of the American League champs, the Milwaukee Brewers.  Mike and I ran the base paths, pretended to make diving catches in the outfield, and simulated throwing fast balls to Tommy Herr from the pitcher’s mound.  Let’s just say it was a very good day for two young boys.

Later that evening, Mike and I were presented an autographed baseball signed by Cecil Cooper.  I still have it.  My Aunt had a small connection to the Brewers.  She dated Paul Molitor for some time.  They eventually called it a day; Paul had a slight problem with some white powder.  They remained friends and 10 years later, sitting at Fenway, watching the Brewers play the Sox; my dad gave a note to a batboy addressed to Molitor.  He came by after the game and took pictures with my brother and me.

The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers are one of my all time favorite teams.  They were the perfect bunch of characters for the state.  Their stars were future hall of famers-Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Rollie Fingers.  Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglive and Stormin’ Gorman Thomas were the sluggers.  Only a Wisconsin based sports franchise could have a player by the name of Moose Haas.  I figured if pitcher Pete Vuckovich hadn’t made the show, he would be a bar owner in some small shitty Wisconsin town.  Because of this team, I would often cheat on my Red Sox during a down year hoping for a Brewer to hit one out, so some guy would slide down into the replica oversized beer mug that was located in the centerfield bleachers at County Stadium.

The Brewers now play in the National League and have a new state of the art stadium.  I have to admit I miss County Stadium immensely.  County Stadium was the hotel equivalent of a Super 8, there was nothing sexy about it, and I could have cared less.  You could purchase a ticket in the 1990’s for five bucks and watch Brewer and White Sox fans fight each other all night throughout the bleachers.  Only at County Stadium could you see baseball fans tailgating, and I mean all of them, no matter how far down the Brewers were in the standings.  We would drink beer, stuff our faces with brats and cheese, while listening to Uek on the radio…..pretty much a perfect afternoon in the parking lot of County Stadium.

The University of Wisconsin’s football program is a powerhouse.  Prior to 1994, success was few and far between.  That all changed when Barry Alverez arrived on campus as head coach.  Within four he had the Badgers heading to bowls games and competing for Big Ten titles.  In 1994, they went on to beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl.  That game had Wisconsin fans heading out to Los Angeles in droves.  The 1994 Rose Bowl weekend was the only time in the history of Los Angeles that the city ran dry on beer since the days of prohibition.

Man, are there bars in this state, there is a bar or twenty in every small town.  I believe there are a million bars or so but that is surely not enough, every Wisconsin household I have ever stepped in had a bar.  The state leads the nation in per-capita alcohol consumption, binge drinking, and driving under the influence.  Germans can’t even hold a candle to the fine drinkers of Wisconsin.  It’s their art form and it’s a masterpiece.

You will never be as loyal to a team as they are with theirs.  So when you are out and about this fall at your local tavern, throw a few back for the good people of Wisconsin.  …..and cheer for a deep Brewer playoff run….

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Wisconsin sports team allegiances in order of importance:

  1. Packers
  2. Deer hunting
  3. Packers
  4. Packers
  5. Packers
  6. Packers
  7. University of Wisconsin Badger football
  8. Milwaukee Brewers
  9. University of Wisconsin Badger hockey
  10. Milwaukee Bucks

I don’t know anyone from Wisconsin who can’t recite, drunk or sober, the following lyrics to the state song below:

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Grand old Badger State!
We, your loyal sons and daughters,
Hail thee, good and great.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Champion of the right,
“Forward”, our motto,
God will give thee might!

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24 Comments

  1. Melinda Nelson

    Matt Man, you have made me so homesick!!

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