I've covered a ton of games. Been to my fair share of practices. Recognize a good scrimmage when I see one. But it was my first foray into Family Night. It was also the first time I took my sons, Hayden (9) and Cole (7), inside Lambeau Field for an up-close look at the team they've been hearing about since their first days of life and only seen on TV. It's hard to say which of us was more excited. My wife, Amy, and 22-month-old daughter, Reese, even came along as an extra bonus — Amy may argue that point since she had to keep her entertained all night — making it a true family affair.
Football always has been about more than X's and O's, and wins and losses. It's America's greatest game because of the plays and players, the stories, collective memories and shared experiences that go along with being a fan. Especially with being a Packers fan. This night was full of those.
My boys had been asking with increasing frequency about when they'd be able to finally go to a game. My pat answer of "someday" became "someday soon" as they got older. After explaining that didn't mean sitting with me in the press box or talking to the players in the locker room, I did reveal that we have Gold Package season tickets. But did I really want to spend $74 a seat for three hours of "I'm hungry / I'm tired / I have to pee (separately, not at the same time, of course)" along with the general squirrely-ness while I remind them that they need to pay attention because it's third-and-8? Possibly not. But $10 a seat to see Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews at a scrimmage where they give away jerseys at the end of the night and shoot off fireworks? Oh, yeah, that sounds perfect.
And it really was.
Cole (in Packers hat), Hayden, Keith (leaning back) and Reese enjoy their first Family Night.
We were off to a good start for the day with a trip to the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary (it finally has wolves again, its golden eagle is the largest bird I've ever seen, and it's free admission) and a trip to Kroll's West across from Lambeau Field. I strongly recommend both to anyone heading to Green Bay for a Packers game. How good is Kroll's? Hayden declared it the best burger he's ever had (and I think he's right) and wondered why we had never taken him there before. The crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside buns and that dollop of butter dripping down when they cut that burger in half are pure perfection. And Amy and I split the hoagie that "Man vs. Food's" Adam Richman declared to be one of the best in the Midwest. He was right, too.
So with Green Bay's best in our bellies, we walked across to the stadium and got in line. Apparently, I took the NFL's new security regulations more serious than many fans, insisting my wife not take her usual purse and questioning the snacks in our pockets. I did make it through in my Tony Mandarich/Guns ‘n Roses T-shirt from 1989 that maybe should've been on their list of banned items, and we packed Reese's diapers and wipes in a clear Ziploc bag. Stealth diaper changes are perfectly acceptable at Family Night, as it turns out, and Reese barely noticed in between banging her thundersticks and swaying to the music. It's likely she had no idea what was happening on the field, but we've got time to work with her on that.
Our seats were in the north end zone, not far from the Gold Package seats I used to sit in with my dad. It was a slow start with the special teams and position drills, but gave the kids a chance to take in the view with wide eyes and wider smiles.
The start of the scrimmage was what they had been waiting for. And Bryan Bulaga's knee injury aside, there was no shortage of entertainment. from Aaron Rodgers' initial scoring strike to James Nixon's interception return for a touchdown that Cole dramatically re-enacted, to Eddie Lacy's bulldozing of the defense, and a kicking competition to close it out.
My sons don't know the all the nuances yet, and my oldest admitted that he'd like football more if he understood it better — but that's one homework assignment we'll be looking forward to, sitting on a couch with popcorn on a Sunday breaking down the action.
The jersey giveaway is an underrated part of the evening, but it's amazing the twisting and turning and gut-churning that goes on as kids cross their fingers and hope against all odds to be the seat number that wins one of those sweaty, smelly, game-worn tops. And if they even call out your section — as they did for the jersey of defensive tackle Mike Daniels, Hayden's favorite player whom he met him last winter in Wausau — it's almost more than they could bear.
I say "almost" because as the sky above grew dark, it was time for the fireworks to begin. To be honest, I was expecting a few dozen or so to be shot off from the newly expanded south end zone. Instead, we got a pyrotechnic Lollapalooza that rivaled any July 4 experience you'll see. Fireworks encircled the entire top rim of the stadium, synching up to music like the oh-so-appropriate "My Songs Know What You Did in The Dark" aka "Light ‘em Up" by Fall Out Boy, that had both boys singing in between the blasts.
It was our first Packer Family Night on Saturday. But it will be the first of many.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.