Residing in America’s Team’s back yard, I’m unwittingly raising an honest-to-goodness Green Bay Packers fan.
Gabe is 9. He traded his threadbare Aaron Rodgers jersey before the season for a Jordy Nelson. He gets tucked into bed underneath a gray fleece blanket emblazoned with a giant gold Packers helmet.
Before school he zips into an impeccably striped green-and-gold Packers jacket with a hood bearing a facemask and the unmistakeable Green Bay “G” on each side.
Last week’s snowfall finally brought out the Packers beanie with the colored pompom on top, the same one the sleeveless Packers players wore on the sideline during their wild-card win over the New York Giants played on one very frozen tundra.
The 38-13 victory set up Sunday’s tantalizing NFC divisional playoff between old rivals, the Cowboys and Packers, at AT&T Stadium. Tickets are selling at record prices as Dallas goes for its first conference title game berth in 21 years, and Rodgers tries to will the Packers back for a second time in three years.
This eighth postseason matchup between these classic NFL franchises ties the Packers with the Los Angeles Rams as the opponent the Cowboys have faced most in its playoff history.
It began the season before the Ice Bowl in 1966 with a Packer win in the conference championship game. Green Bay cut Dallas’ postseason series lead to 4-3 in 2014 by winning the infamous Dez Bryant no-catch game. Fast forward to Sunday and Gabe’s got the Pack, injuries and all, to tie it up at 4-4 just as the 34 regular-season confrontions are split 17 apiece.
Gabe strangely enough might identify as a Cheesehead, but he wouldn’t know curds from whey. Still, it hardly cheapens what seems an innocent and natural migration into Packer Nation considering neither myself, nor my wife, nor either of our families have ever had a connection to the great Badger State.
So how’d it happen?
“It was the first Super Bowl I remember,” Gabe recently said. “And the Packers won.”
He wasn’t even 4 yet when down the road at Jerry World the Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. Ever since for Gabe, who’d always been noncommittal toward Tony Romo and his forever .500 Cowboys, Sundays have been about Lambeau Leaps and Go Pack Go!
And on darn near any outing with Gabe, predictably wearing some Green Bay garb, grown Packers fans make a point to stop and talk and slap a high-five and inevitably kneel to eye level for a “this is the year” fist pump.
All-in-all, from Lombardi and Starr and Favre and Rodgers to the cold, cathedral-like stadium, the middle-America town and its townspeople who actually own the team, it seems Gabe is immersed in the most wholesome and likeable sports organization and fan base the world has ever known.
What’s to hate?
Which is kind of weird to say about a conference rival that’s gone head to head in the playoffs in four different decades. It’s easy to hate the San Francisco 49ers or the Pittsburgh Steelers and any despised division rival. But the Packers? What’s to hate — or even dislike?
“We’re a small-town community and our team takes on that persona also, where everyone’s in it together,” said Bob Watson, 36, who 10 years ago took over ownership from his parents of the 30,000-square-foot Stadium View Bar & Grille on Holmgren Way, one block from historic Lambeau Field. Some 2,500 fans are expected to pack the place for Sunday’s showdown.
“We don’t have any big personalities, we don’t have a villain, per se,” Watson continued. “I think that’s a big thing that Green Bay tries to hold near and dear where they are drafting that type of player also.
“We don’t like big-name people. We don’t like people who are going to make headlines.”
They’re the polar opposite of Jerry Jones’ glamour ’Boys. From the “White House” Super Bowl teams of two decades ago — which buried Brett Favre’s title dreams in 1993, 94 and 95 — to prioritizing flamboyance over substance and recruiting high-risk bad boys over blue-chip proven producers.
Yet perhaps this Cowboys team, led by the affable super-rookie tandem of quarterback Dak Prescott and NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott, are changing that narrative. These ’Boys are fun to watch, and easy to cheer.
Elliott and Prescott finished one, two, respectively in NFL jersey sales (and truth be told, even Gabe asked for and received a Prescott jersey for Hanukkah).
Still, Packers fans can name far more Cowboys villains than vice-versa, starting with Jerry, Troy, Michael and Emmitt — the guys who consistently crushed their hopes in the ’90s.
“I was actually at every one of those games, and it was terrible,” Watson said.
Even Pack fans say it’s a catch
Aikman responded during his weekly visit on DFW sports radio The Ticket, saying: “I could not care less about that … Last I’ve heard, we will be there on Sunday.”
Maybe if it was Favre in the booth, and Favre who had carved up the Cowboys, then Cowboys fans would be leading the charge to get him out of there. But Favre didn’t and after all these years and all the playoff games, it’s almost impossible for Cowboys fans to find a Packers player they just don’t like.
Take Dallas die-hard Ronald T. Bell, 35, and his most hated Packer.
“For whatever reason, I remember not liking Dorsey Levens. I don’t know why,” said Bell, referencing the Pack’s running back from 1994 through 2001. Bell traveled to Green Bay with three buddies for the 2014 playoff game at Lambeau and, by his own admission, they were treated like princes wherever they paraded around town in their blue Cowboys jerseys, carrying a Texas state flag and a life-sized poster of Wisconsin-born Tony Romo.
“After the game we went to a famous little restaurant and had some curds or something like that,” Bell continued. “There’s mainly Packers people in there and we’re expecting to get hammered by people throwing at us the point that we lost and the Dez catch.
“In fact, when we were leaving, people would tell us, ‘You know, he probably did catch the ball, but we’ll take the win.’ ”
And before the game, these people will literally give you the bratwurst right off their grill.
“It starts first of all with the gigantic tailgating that they have,” said Gil Brandt, the longtime Cowboys personnel guru who lends his expertise at NFL.com and on SiriusXM Radio’s Late Hits program. “You walk through and they offer you bratwurst and hamburgers, everything.
“It’s a more docile crowd, there’s no question about it. As many times as we played up there, I don’t ever remember, you know, them rocking the bus or anything like that.”
It’s a family affair
If the two teams’ managerial philosophies don’t exactly align, the fan bases are quite a bit more similar. Cowboys fans have a reputation for being hospitable. That’s good considering Sunday’s game is going to bring both fan bases together, not only at AT&T Stadium, but at bars such as Pluckers Wing Bar in Grapevine, which serves as Packers game headquarters during the season.
Eddie Zavala, the restaurant’s assistant general manager, is ready for a loud and packed joint, but his knowledge of Packers fans has him downplaying any disruptive raucousness or rowdiness.
“They’re nice people, and they take care of servers, too,” Zavala said. “Sometimes servers can get a little discouraged because somebody sits at their table for four hours, but they take care of them really well.
“They’re just good people. A lot of them bring babies and kids. It’s almost like a family event.”
It will be one at our house Sunday. At least now you’ll know where those cheers are coming from in Fort Worth whenever the Packers make a play.
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan