You’ve got to see what Cliff is doing!” a classmate e-mailed last year. She sent me a link to an article about a Packers Heritage Trail proposed for downtown Green Bay. The project was the brainchild of Cliff Christl—longtime Wisconsin sportswriter and author of several books on Packers history—and his wife, Shirley.
I immediately fell in love with the idea. Like most people who grew up in Green Bay, I feel that the Packers’ heritage is part of my heritage. As a young teen, I spent Saturday afternoons staring into the windows of the club’s downtown offices. There I found pictures of every team since the Packers’ birth in 1919. I’d marvel at the leather helmets and memorize the faces of Johnny Blood, Don Hutson, and the others who put our town on the NFL map. When I wasn’t at the office building, I’d hang out at the Northland Hotel, where the Packers’ opponents stayed and Packers founder Curly Lambeau occasionally stopped in for lunch. A few years later, I ran track at Old City Stadium, which became East High’s stadium after the Packers moved out in 1957.
Christl recently announced that the trail will open in mid-June. It will consist of 22 commemorative bronze plaques, each in or near downtown Green Bay in places that are vital to the history of the Packers and their fans. Focus is on the 50 years that covered the legendary reigns of coaches Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. Centerpiece of the trail is a 4½-mile walking tour. Sites on two additional spurs are accessible by bike or car.
I love that this is something for downtown. People from my generation who revisit Green Bay all complain about the same thing: The old downtown is gone. The five-and-tens, soda fountains, and mom-and-pop stores that we frequented were torn down and replaced by a center-city shopping center and a pedestrian parkway. These failed and, in their turn, have disappeared. The big center, Port Plaza Mall, was demolished last month. These days, as the saying goes, there isn’t much “there” there.
The Heritage Trail isn’t going to instantly turn downtown Green Bay into a tourist mecca. But it helps. Oh yes, it helps.
For me, there’s yet another dimension to this story. Cliff Christl was my classmate at Allouez School and East Green Bay High. And for all of these years, we were notorious enemies. I wrote in Incomplete Passes about my chagrin at visiting Green Bay in my thirties, dissatisfied with the path my life was taking, and finding out that Cliff was covering the Packers for the Press-Gazette. “My old nemesis—who didn’t even work for the high school paper I edited—now had my dream job.”
Decades went by, and I rarely thought about Cliff, and I’m sure he didn’t think about me. Then the Internet happened. By this time Cliff was a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and I discovered that I could read his writing on line. I thought of becoming a gadfly who would argue with his opinions, maybe even correct his grammar. But I read his stuff—and who knew, I enjoyed it. At the next class reunion, I told him so. Our relations have been cordial since then. When I told Cliff I was writing Incomplete Passes, he was courteous and helpful. It got me wondering what our relationship might have been if, back in school, we had taken time to recognize what we did have in common.
And then “my old nemesis” had this idea, this absolutely marvelous idea …
I can’t wait to get back to Green Bay this fall for the annual Incomplete Passes trip and check out the Heritage Trail for myself. Of course my IP friends Pam, Del, and Carla are anxious to explore it with me. Pam normally hates walking, and Del has been plagued by bone spurs on her heels, but this is too special to pass up. (Segway vehicles are available if we need them.) “You’ll have to stop and let me read all the plaques,” Pam said.
My first reaction was, “Well, yeah.” But then I remembered. When Pam doesn’t travel with girlfriends, she travels with her husband, Andre. And Andre—well, he just doesn’t get it. Pam told me about a trip the couple took a few years ago. They were driving through Georgia. Pam’s a devout Catholic, and she knew Conyers, Georgia, was home to a number of alleged sightings of the Virgin Mary. She wanted to see that holy place, so she asked Andre if he’d detour through Conyers. Dutifully, he did—but refused to stop the car or seek out the actual locations where Mary is said to have appeared!
So yes, Pammy, we’ll let you read the plaques. And we’ll read them with you, and think about those historic 50 years from Lambeau to Lombardi, and our own years together in Titletown. And maybe we’ll laugh and cry a little, there on the Packers Heritage Trail.
If you’d like to know more about the Packers Heritage Trail, go to their website at www.packersheritagetrail.com. Nobody asked me to tell you this, but there’s a link where you can make a tax-deductible donation to help complete and maintain the trail. I did.