GREEN BAY, Wis. | They came with their beads, brats and beer. They came with their jerseys, their capes and, of course, their cheese heads.
The Green Bay Packers faithful rejoiced Sunday afternoon, jamming this tiny city's bars and braving freezing temperatures to tailgate in front of a deserted Lambeau Field and celebrate their beloved team taking the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
"I can't even say what I'm feeling right now. I'm shaking," said Brittany Heller, 23, of Brodhead, Wis., as she watched pre-game programming at the Stadium View Bar & Grill about a block from Lambeau Field. "It's an 11 out of 10."
The entire state of Wisconsin has been bursting with anticipation since the Packers defeated their archrival, the Chicago Bears, two weeks ago to earn their first berth in the title game since 1998. But here in the Packers' hometown, a blue-collar, industrial city of about 100,000 people slogging through another bleak northern winter, the excitement approached frenzy-like levels.
On Sunday, Packer banners hung from almost every other front door. A giant sign on the roof of St. Vincent Hospital proclaimed the facility loves the Packers. People used green-and-gold spray paint to decorate snow drifts with "Go Pack Go!" Everyone on the streets was decked out in Packer gear.
Kick-off was almost a catharsis. Titletown Brewery literally shook as Packer fans stomped the floor, chanting "De-fense! De-fense!" They erupted as Packers receiver Jordy Nelson scored on a touchdown pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and shot to their feet as safety Nick Collins intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and returned it for a touchdown to take the Packers to a 14-0 first quarter lead.
"It's a relief we're up by two touchdowns," said Emily Abeyta, 24, a University of Wisconsin-Madison medical student. She was at Titletown with several other students on a six-week rotation at Aurora BayCare Medical Center. "Otherwise we get nervous. We're girls."
Three hours before the game began, Green Bay was a veritable ghost town. The streets were empty as residents gathered in front of their televisions, but dozens of die-hards descended on the Lambeau parking lot, braving snow flurries to grill, sip beer and hurl footballs to each other. To them, it might as well have been September. They grilled brats, drank beer and thrust their fists in the air as passer-bys honked.
"We're just taking in the aura. Where else would you rather be?" Steve Rasmussen, 24, a Green Bay native who is attending medical school at the University of Iowa, said as he sipped a Hamm's beer in front of the stadium.
Next to Rasmussen's group, Charles Wolfe, 45, of Meeker, Okla., stood drinking with a group of Packer fans he had just met minutes earlier. He said he had to come to Green Bay for business on Monday, and decided to come up early for the Super Bowl. He drove by Lambeau and Tyler Chrisinger of La Crosse, Wis., and his buddy, Geoff Warner, of Menomonie, Wis. — both decked out in matching green-and-gold pinstriped overalls — waved him over and gave him a beer.
"I've never seen these people before, but the one thing we have in common is football," Wolfe said.
"We're all friends now," Chrisinger said, toasting him.
Hundreds of people jammed the Stadium View, creating a sea of green. One fan was dressed in a full-scale navy blue-and-brown Packers throwback uniform, complete with an old-school leather helmet.
Robbie Ludwig, 29, of Quincy, Mass., made the journey to Green Bay with his girlfriend, Kerry Bowles, 25, and his buddy, Roger Audet, 32. Ludwig, a lifelong Packer fan, made the reservations two weeks before the season began for just such a Super Bowl scenario.
"We wanted to party with Packer fans. It's not too often you get to party with team owners," he said, referring to the fact the public owns the team.
Heller was decked out in a Packers T-shirt, green-and-gold beads and a yellow headband. She wore a weightlifter's belt around her hips emblazoned with the word "championship," a nod to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' signature touchdown celebration in which he mimics buckling a championship boxing belt around his waist.
Heller said she was in third grade when the Packers last won the Super Bowl in 1997. She shouted to a reporter as the crowd erupted in a rowdy "Go Pack Go!" chant, "If you can't be in Dallas, where else would I be?"
Where else, indeed.