Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Magical Day at the Old Ballpark

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — For the first time since the "Terrell Owens game" in San Francisco after the 1998 season, all four members of my family attended a playoff game together last Saturday, along with our friends Myles and Jordan Abbott. We met our friends Dick Karth and Cathie Sunday after the game and went to dinner together. We could have had an even bigger reunion, since my brother Bruce was also in the crowd, although we unfortunately were not able to figure that out until too late. I credit my daughter Sarah for pushing hard for us all to go to this game. We had originally planned to go as a family to the Minnesota game in November, but the trip fell through at the last minute. When that happened, she insisted that, since we had to cancel that trip, we simply must go to a home playoff game if the Packers got that far. I also credit my wife Judy and my son Ben for resolving some tricky schedule problems to make sure we could all go to what turned out to be a vividly memorable experience.

I have been to a home playoff game that was cold - I almost said too cold, but of course there is no such thing for a Packer fan (NFC Championship game vs. Carolina) and to a game that was too warm (SF @ GB, after the 2001 season) and to the only two home playoff games that ended in defeat for the Packers (Atlanta, after the 2002 season, and Minnesota, after the 2004 season). But every time I go to a home playoff game, I dream of a game like Saturday's game. Light snow, getting heavier and heavier during parts of the game, until the field is covered. Snow, accumulating on top of the hats of the fans and the coaches; snow causing players to slide 5 or 10 yards when tackled. Snow, just light enough to make it possible to see the action on the field, but just heavy enough to affect everything and everyone in the stadium.

It was magical out there. The beauty of the snow falling against the dark sky. It brought back memories of snow falling when we were kids. It is remarkable that watching some of the best athletes in the world playing for their playoff lives can evoke memories of childhood games in the snow, but that was the unique thing about this game.

There were great story lines, too. The fact that the Packers could come back from their 14 point deficit and win the game convincingly. The remarkable story of Ryan Grant's redemption, in that the coach didn't bench him after his fumbles, but instead believed in him enough to stick with him and to allow him to set Packer playoff records for rushing yards and touchdowns in a game. It just doesn't get any better, and this game will be unforgettable to anyone who was there (and to many who were not).

Of course, the forecast did not call for this much snow, so when it started to snow lightly hours before the game, we decided it was time to head for the stadium. By game time, the weather was foreboding enough to cancel the flyover by the Navy pilots, which was disappointing not only because the flyover is such a great event, but because we had met the parents of one of the pilots at our hotel, who had flown in for the game and for the chance to see their son fly.

Still, expectations were high as kickoff approached. And then - those two critical turnovers by Ryan Grant, leading to a quick 14 points for the Seahawks. Could anyone in the crowd be blamed for thinking that things would only go downhill from there? Think, in particular, of that St. Louis playoff game after the 2001 season. It is all too common for a team in a hole to keep digging deeper and deeper. And (as he admitted in his press conference) Brett Favre has a history of trying to get it all back at once. Thankfully, QB coach Tom Clements came over to remind Favre that there was plenty of time left, and not to try to do it all immediately. From that moment on, the Packers just dominated this game, and won the game without difficulty.

Flying home Sunday evening was also part of the Green Bay experience. I of course know that there are a lot of Packer fans in the San Francisco area, because we used to see them in sports bars, and they buy up lots of tickets whenever the Packers play either the 49ers or the Raiders. But I was still surprised by the number of Packer fans on our plane flying out of Chicago. The Giants-Cowboys game had just started when we took off, so I had made arrangements for people to leave us phone messages with the final result. To our pleasant surprise, the pilot gave us several updates on the game. There were only two problems. First, at least part of the crew was from Chicago. Could the pilot be a Bears fan, just toying with the Packer fans on board, or were we just paranoid? And second, at one point he reported that the Giants were ahead, 27-17, but then later he came on to announce that the Giants had won, 21-17. Obviously, something was wrong with at least one of those scores, but we didn't know what.

When the pilot announced that final score, a huge cheer went up from the passengers. The guy across from me immediately started making plans to come back for this week's NFC Championship game, which got me to thinking that maybe I should do the same. The NFC Championship game is a very special game, and it doesn't come around very often. When you stop to think of the fact that the Packers have only hosted one other NFC Championship game since the end of the Lombardi era 40 years ago, you realize how historic this game Sunday will be, win or lose.

The Giants are playing some great football right now, having beaten the Buccaneers and the Cowboys, and having given the Patriots a run for their money in the final game of the regular season. So they are not pushovers by any means. This is actually the 6th NFC or NFL Championship game between these two teams, and the Packers lead the series, 4-1. Included among these championship games is the 1961 matchup, the very first NFL Championship game held in Green Bay, in which the Packers clobbered the Giants, 37-0. Can they do it again, or will the upstart Giants pull off another upset on the frozen tundra? My money is on the Packers.