Noie: Losing Lambeau Field as Notre Dame football venue cuts little deeper

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

This one was beyond another late night/early morning hammering out of another column in a college football press box.

This one was personal.

Cover Notre Dame, and every football stadium should look and feel and sound the same. It’s just an office. Eliminate any emotion from the equation. Get in, do your job and get out.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a home game right down the road or a trip to Michigan Stadium. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a warm late-November evening with the Olympic flame burning at the building’s east end or in Sanford Stadium for a “Saturday Night in Athens!” Well, those places do get the heart pumping quicker, but those are different columns for different days.

This one for this day centers on a place that Notre Dame planned to play at this fall — Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., — where Notre Dame and Wisconsin were scheduled to meet Oct. 3.

Home to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, Lambeau has meant something special to our family since it opened in 1957. Before that, the Packers played in old City Stadium. A next-door neighbor of my paternal grandfather served on the team’s board of directors. When Lambeau was built, my grandfather was among the first 1,000 individuals offered a chance to purchase season tickets. He bought ‘em.

Come Sundays, he’d likely pack his lunch — but not his Cheesehead — and make the 25-mile drive up U.S. 41 from his home in Kaukauna to watch the Packers. Those original tickets — section 132, row 5, seats 8 and 9 — remain in the family. The waiting list for Green Bay season tickets sits at more than 115,000 names. The wait’s somewhere around 30 years. But for the last 63 and counting, we’ve had section 132, row 5, seats 8 and 9.

They were the family tickets for the Ice Bowl in 1967. They were the family tickets for the Vince Lombardi-coached championship years. For the Bart Starr playing and coaching years. For the Brett Favre years. Now for the Aaron Rodgers twilight years. The seats have seen lean times (Lynn Dickey under center, anyone?) and happier ones. They’ve seen games that have long been forgotten. They’ve seen games that never will be.

Like the NFL season opener on Sept. 7, 1980 with the rival Chicago Bears in town. It was pro football at its finest.

Not quite.

It was this guy’s first game in Lambeau. The first NFL game. The teams were tied at 6 after four quarters. It was a snoozer, especially on a hot day after a three-hour ride up from the Chicago suburbs. But when it’s your first time in Lambeau, the score doesn’t matter. The atmosphere does. Look around. Soak it all in. Take a mental snapshot that you still can see and hear and smell 40 years later.

It’s all still there.

Lambeau Field kind of appears in the neighborhood out of nowhere. Imagine walking down a South Bend street in a nice and neat area near downtown. Take Peashway in Harter Heights. Now drop an NFL stadium at the end of that street. That’s Lambeau. Right there at the end of Valley View Road. Right there at the end of Blue Ridge Drive. Pay a resident a couple bucks, park the car on their front lawn and walk across the street to the game.

Lambeau 2020 probably feels a lot like Lambeau 1980. The stadium’s been expanded and remodeled and ballooned to a capacity of 81,441 to keep up with NFL standards, but the feel remains. It’s the town’s team. It’s their place.

There was nothing small-town about the Bears-Packers game that day. It went to overtime, or “sudden death,” the words that flashed on the CBS screen for viewers who listened to Lindsey Nelson and Sonny Jurgensen call the game.

Green Bay was in position to win with a 35-yard field goal. A guy wearing a single bar facemask and black eye glasses lined up for the kick. Chester Marcol was on the verge of his 15 minutes.

Marcol attempted his kick. Alan Page batted it back. The ball bounced to Marcol. The kicker with the single-bar facemask and the black eye glasses ran 25 yards and into the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Game over. Packers win 12-6. Lambeau went up for grabs.

Marcol could’ve attempted the first “Lambeau Leap” in Packers history, years before it was made famous by former safety LeRoy Butler. Instead, the guy wearing the single-bar facemask and black eye glasses skidded into the padded green wall before being mobbed. He continued to cradle the ball like a newborn in his arms.

Over the roar of 56,263, my father screamed something about how we’d never see something like that again.

He was talking about the play; I was thinking about the place.

Lambeau hooked me that day. Has me still today. These days, after covering high school football on Fridays and Notre Dame football on Saturdays, you’re footballed out. Quiet Sundays are solid Sundays. But if there’s a game on TV from Lambeau, I’m watching. I’m thinking about Chester Marcol and my dad and about section 132, row 5, and seats 8 and 9.

Would’ve again dreamed about all that early autumn evening in the Upper Midwest. The sun would be setting. A chill would be in the air. Leaves on the trees would be about to turn and fall. Grills carrying the smells of burgers and hot dogs and brats (gotta be Johnsonville soaked in beer, right?). That night was sure to be special as Notre Dame and Wisconsin met in football for the first time since 1964.

Now that’s not happening. What was an Irish home game is no more after the Big Ten bolted Thursday for a conference-only schedule. This one never really had a chance in today’s coronavirus pandemic world. Can’t take the risk as college football scrambles for any semblance of a playable schedule. Again, another column for another day, one that might be closing quickly.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has promised that he and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez would revisit a Lambeau game somewhere down the line. But that’s likely a long line.

Notre Dame will fill that Wisconsin void on its 2020 schedule, probably with an Atlantic Coast Conference team. The Irish plan to play a game that weekend, but it won’t be that game in that place.

That hurts, for reasons that have little to do with football.

No game against Wisconsin for the 2020 college football season means no “home” game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., for Notre Dame.
Parking for football games at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., often means parking in the front yard of the houses in the nearby neighborhood.