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Green Bay keeps sharing Packers tradition through generations

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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DALLAS -- The Green Bay Packers, in many ways, can be symbolized by a woman named Gert Behnke. She's 86 years old. To many Packers fans, she's simply known as Aunt Gert.

She started attending Packers games in 1948 when the team played at Green Bay East High School. Then, the male Packers fans wore their suits and ties to games. Women went in dresses and high heels. Some purchased a different dress for each home game.

Aunt Gert and her family had season tickets and in the ensuing years a home game was rarely missed. The '50s came. Then the dynastic 1960s. There was the 1970s beginning with the death of Vince Lombardi as almost 4,000 people attended his funeral. The sun rose. The sun set. The Packers played. Aunt Gert was there. That was how the universe worked.

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The 1980s arrived and Aunt Gert decided her son and his wife would get her tickets. A new generation of Packers fans was born.

This was Aunt Gert's contract with the Packers and the Packers with Aunt Gert. And many others like her. It's a pact that travels back almost a century and it goes like this: the Packers try to win and the fans dedicate their lives to the team. It's a simple contract, a living organism, and one of the most unique in pro football history.

"I think there's a partnership between fans and Packers players that's unlike any other in football," Behnke said.

"They're respectful fans and knowledgeable fans," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "There are great fans all over the NFL but our fans go back a long time. I think it's a true community franchise."

Green Bay remains one of football's unlikeliest superpowers, the crown jewel of the NFL's hypnotic mantra that any team can win, no matter the market size. And win, a lot, is what Green Bay has done.

But how did the Packers, from a small city -- not in the media-bloated northeast, not from a mega-market, not a city of plastic-faced movie stars -- grow to become NFL royalty? How did the Packers develop into one of the NFL's powerful turbines?

Coaching and player talent, of course, are the primary factors. There have been odes, books and plays about Lombardi. But it's more than that.

The fan base has acted as a sort of rocket fuel for the franchise. They are clearly symbiotic. It's people like Aunt Gert. Or the fans who have their wedding receptions at Lambeau. Or are buried in their Packers jerseys. Or, soon after birth, are draped in a warm Packers blanket. It's the cycle of life in Green Bay. Birth, Packers, Lambeau Leap, death.

There are passionate fan bases all over. It's insane in Kentucky or Celtics-land. Roll Tide.

Gert Behnke, aka Aunt Gert, has been attending Packers games since 1948. (Cheesehead TV)  
Gert Behnke, aka Aunt Gert, has been attending Packers games since 1948. (Cheesehead TV)    
What makes the city of Green Bay different is that the fans literally own the Packers. They have a stake in them -- personally, psychologically, financially -- and it is this fact perhaps more than any other which has boosted an already intense following.

Proximity is also a factor. The city is 54 square miles with a population of approximately 100,000 people. Chicago is almost five times Green Bay's size. Manhattan has 16 times its population. Green Bay's fans feel perhaps an unmatched sense of intimacy.

"We are owners. Many of us are stock holders," said James Schmitt, mayor of Green Bay. "I know it's non-dividend, non-voting stock but it still makes us feel like a part of the team.

"We also feel close to the Packers because we see the players and coaches all the time around town. We see them at the grocery store, the mall, the gas station. There is constant interaction."

Schmitt recalls contacting the Packers to get a signed Aaron Rodgers jersey. Later, that night, Rodgers called the mayor at home. Still need the jersey, he asked? Absolutely, the mayor responded.

Rodgers told the mayor to drop by his house. Schmitt drove over, got the jersey and had a nice conversation with the quarterback.

Sure, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could drop by the home of Mark Sanchez or Eli Manning, but the logistical craziness and high-tempo lifestyles of the three men would hamper it. In Green Bay, there are few walls between city, fan and player.

When Aunt Gert answers the phone she says "Go Pack Go" instead of hello. In her basement are framed public shares of the Packers franchise she's purchased. She's a typical Packers fan in an atypical -- translation: great -- football city.

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