As we watched the Green Bay Packers unsuccessful march towards a fifth Super Bowl title, it is interesting to observe the effect of the team’s successes and failures on small towns like La Farge. Of course this story is being played out in nearly every small town in the state of Wisconsin. From Lena to New Diggings and from Clayton to Caledonia, the small towns of the Badger State don their “Green & Gold” as the success of “their” NFL team increases.
In the immediate area around the city of Green Bay, this allegiance to the Packers by small town Wisconsin has been around pretty much since the beginning of the storied franchise. For towns like La Farge and others that are several hours drive from Titletown, the connection to the Packers is a product of the NFL coverage on television. When CBS began covering all NFL games in the 1950’s and when LaCrosse opened a TV station (WKBT) that would carry those Packer games, the good people of La Farge who had access to television sets and good rooftop antennas could start following the team from afar. I was growing up in the village during that heady time.
Now all of this; the NFL exposure on CBS, the coming of the television age to La Farge, and me becoming a Packer fan, would not be nearly as significant without Vince Lombardi also coming to Green Bay during this time to coach the team. That coaching decision worked out pretty well for the Packers, didn’t it? (After all, there is a good reason why that Super Bowl hardware bling is called the Lombardi Trophy.) My generation was spoiled absolutely rotten by the Packer’s success while Lombardi coached them. NFL championships piled up for the Packers during those wonderful times and the new generation of Packer fans watching on television (like me) came to expect nothing but finishing first each year in the NFL.
The first television that I ever watched when I was a kid growing up in La Farge was at Stan and Marge Hollenbeck’s house. It was an evening potluck supper TV gathering as Stan had purchased a new Zenith from Major’s TV and the whole neighborhood was invited in to see the new contraption. The kids sat on the floor in front of the TV while the adults watched from the chairs and couch. Every available chair in the house was in that living room that night and Freddie Major was there to make sure the new Zenith TV housed in a beautiful blond oak console would get Channel 8, the new signal from LaCrosse. I remember the snowy screen, the WKBT test pattern and then a show actually coming on around seven that evening.
I have no idea what that TV program was, but I was hooked on the new medium of communication. Soon it was “Fury”, “My Friend Flicka” and “Mighty Mouse” (Here he comes to save the day!) on Saturday mornings and Ray Scott and Tony Canadeo bringing us the Packer games on autumn Sunday afternoons. What was not to like about the Packers in those days?
By 1960, Lombardi’s second year at the Packer’s helm, Green Bay played the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFL championship. They lost that game played at Philly that day (Remember Packer fullback Jim Taylor deciding to try to run over Chuck Bednarik near the goal line at the end of that game instead of attempting to run around him in the 17-13 loss?), but Green Bay went on to win five NFL titles over the next seven years. That run also included the Packers winning the first two Super Bowls, although at the time, those games took a back seat to winning those great matchups with the Cowboys to win the NFL. It was ridiculous how good the Packers were during that run of success (Don’t forget that one of the years that Green Bay didn’t win an NFL title was in 1964 when the Pack had an 11-2-1 season record, but finished behind the hated Chicago Bears in the Western Division.) and it remains an era of excellence not repeated since in the league.
But after Lombardi stepped down as Green Bay’s coach after the 1967 season, the Packers only had two winning seasons over the next decade. During that time, Green Bay won one division title, but was bounced out of the playoffs in their first game. It was not a very good time to be a Packer backer. Which brings us to the 1978 season, after which some Packer players ended up playing some basketball in La Farge.
By 1978, Bart Starr, the quarterback of the glory days of the Packers’ 1960’s title teams and a two-time Super Bowl MVP, was coach of Green Bay. Everybody liked Bart Starr in Packerland and hopes were high when he started his coaching career in Green Bay. That 1978 season started great for the Packers as they had a 7-2 record after nine games. But then Green Bay finished badly, going 1-5-1 down the stretch to tie Minnesota with 8-7-1 records atop the North Division of the NFC. Since the Packers had not beaten the Vikings during the regular season, they finished second and did not make the playoffs once again. But optimism had returned for the Packer faithful, including their many fans in La Farge. It was with that renewed spirit that the La Farge Lions Club decided to bring the Packers to the Kickapoo Valley to play a basketball game.
It was not an easy decision for the local service club, which had been founded in La Farge in 1974. Bringing the Packers to town was not cheap. Up-front money to schedule the appearance of some players from the Packer team was substantial and the La Farge Lions Club at that time was nearly always broke. But Lions member Orval Howard, who owned and operated the Village Market grocery store in town, supported the event and stepped forward to make arrangements for the game to happen. And so it came to be that members of the La Farge Lions Club took on a team of Packer players in the local gym on Saturday, January 20, 1979.
Playing for the Packers that night was Johnnie Gray (#24), who was a starting safety on the team and a popular member of the team. He was joined by linebacker Michael Hunt (#55), who was a rookie 2nd round draft choice and had played his college ball at Minnesota. Eric Torkelson (#26) was a back-up Packer halfback who played that night in La Farge. Torkelson was a young good-looking guy and was a real hit with the ladies, some of who were able to sit on his lap that night. Steve Wagner (#21 and a former Badger player) was a back-up defensive back and good special teams player for the Pack that year, also made his way to La Farge. Rounding out the team for the Packers that night was Reed Giordana, who had been a little All-American quarterback at UW-Stevens Point and had been signed as a free agent by Green Bay in 1976 and took some snaps for the Green & Gold in a couple of pre-season training camps. Giordana brought a friend along with him to play that night and the friend looked remarkably like Packer kicker Chester Marcol, but wasn’t.
A crowd of nearly 600 people packed the La Farge gym that night to see the Packers players and they were not disappointed. Those four Packer players and one or two near Packers put on quite a show for their fans. They signed every autograph on every program, t-shirt, and football that was shoved their way. They held every local kid on their lap for every possible photograph that they could and had little skits to interact with the fans during the basketball game. Their easy access and interaction with the fans, especially the kids could not have been better. I think they beat the Lions in the basketball game, but it seems that a tie might have been worked out in the end. After the game, the Packer players hung out with fans for nearly an hour, continuing to sign autographs and have photos taken. Then they went to a post-game party with the Lions Club members hosted by Orval and Jan Howard at their house. If was after midnight when they finally left La Farge and headed towards home.
I’m not sure if the Lions Club ever made any money from that Packer game, but it was a rousing success in all other aspects. Several local men joined the club right after the game and others were drawn to join the Lions later because of the event with the Packers. Many of the youngsters in attendance that night became Packer fans for life. The smiles and memories of those La Farge youngsters who were at the game that night would last for generations.