It’s NFL regular season again (WooHoo!) and, following the Thursday night opener which saw reigning Super Bowl Champions the New England Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (Boo Hiss!), tomorrow sees my perennial favourites the Green Bay Packers take on the Chicago Bears in the latest game in the NFL’s longest running historical inter-team rivalry that dates back to 1921. Obviously I’m hoping that the Packers add to their recent run of success against the Bears, 21 wins from 31 games since 2000, but what does football and Green Bay have to do with bicycles?
Every year during the Packers pre-season training camp as the players leave the locker room for the training field they’re met by the Bike Brigade, young Packers fans who stand there with their bicycles hoping that one of the players will pick them and their bike to accompany them on the two minute trip to the field. If the bike is big enough the players will ride it, the fan hitching a lift or running alongside. If the bike is too small the players will carry it to the field with the diminutive owner.
For the fans it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet and spend some time with their sporting heroes. For the players it’s an opportunity to bond with their fans in a unique way that often forms lasting relationships. Many players pick a different kid each time, while others will choose the same boy or girl on each occasion.
It’s a lovely tradition, and one whose exact origins are lost in time. It appears to have started organically in the late 1950’s when a few players would ride the bikes of children who gathered outside the locker room and to watch the training sessions. Though the exact year in which it began is unknown we can definitely trace the tradition back to at least 1961 when this photograph was taken.
The Packers are unique in the NFL, indeed in major sport in the United States, as being the only publicly owned team and Green Bay remains the smallest city, with a population of around 104,000 people, to boast an NFL franchise. Throughout its history the team has played an important part in Green Bay both as a generator of revenue and a focus for civic pride and identity. Connecting with the city has always been important to the Packers and what seems to have started as little more than a spontaneous act by a few players has evolved over the decades into a central feature of this relationship.
Perhaps it began as an off the cuff decision by a player who came out of the locker room and spotted a fan with their bike and decided on the spur of the moment to ask if he could borrow the bike. Pete Pisani, a water boy in 1960, offers a different origin story, recounting how tackle Bob Skoronski, guard Fuzzy Thurston and linebacker Bill Forester were late to practice one day and borrowed bikes to beat coach Vince Lombardi to the field and avoid a fine. Whether this was the occasion on which Lombardi suggested the entire team take part is unknown. It probably wasn’t, but what seems certain is that it was Lombardi who realised the public relations benefit to the Packers of riding fans bikes.
Since the 1960’s successive generations of players and fans alike have enjoyed the annual tradition and from the 1970’s Lambeau Field has seen the numbers of young fans we see gathering outside the locker room today. Like the Packers unique status in the NFL as a publicly owned team, the Bike Brigade tradition is unique within the NFL, with no other team doing anything similar. It’s a great tradition, and one that speaks volumes about the importance of the Packers within the community of Green Bay and the robust relationship the team has with the people of the city.
Grown men on kids bikes may be an incongruous sight but, regardless of the size of the player, the kid, or the bike, this tradition gives the teams youngest fans an experience they’ll remember forever and helps directly connect the players with the community they represent on the playing field. Another reason for fans to shout “Go Pack Go!”
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