Packers couldn't take field without seamstress Florence Van Sistine
Florence Van Sistine sewed the numbers onto the jerseys of Green Bay Packers players for decades. (April 21, 2017)
GREEN BAY - Football is a numbers game. Nobody knew that better than Florence Van Sistine, who sewed thousands of digits onto Green Bay Packers jerseys for decades.
Before there was Nike supplying uniforms for the whole National Football League, there was Bertrand's Sporting Goods of Green Bay serving the Packers. And Bertrand's often meant Van Sistine.
Jerseys would show up at the Chicago Street house regularly for patching, alterations or new numbers. The NFL of those years was not the money-printing machine of today, so jerseys were not just replaced. They were fixed, reused and renumbered.
As was everything else. Van Sistine altered pants for players and coaches, modified hats, sewed on patches and worked on special gear for special problems, like bruised ribs, sore tailbones and, in Dan Devine's case, a broken leg.
Needless to say, Van Sistine had her small part in Packers' history.
For example, they knew before the 1967 NFL Championship Game that it was going to be cold — although no one imagined Ice Bowl cold — and asked Florence to figure out a way for quarterback Bart Starr to keep his hands warm. She fashioned a fur-lined muff inside the jersey, with slits to stick his hands through. She tried to keep it from being obvious because the Packers didn't want anyone to know about it, said daughter Sue Collins of Amberg.
Another time, Packers equipment manager Gerald "Dad" Braisher asked Florence if she could help the team cut down on fumbles, son Gary Van Sistine of Allouez said. She sewed leather strips onto the uniform to give the players more grip, though Van Sistine said he doesn't know how well it worked.
While players didn't come to the house that often, Starr showed up about 1959 to have Florence tailor his jersey, one of the first NFL players to do so. She shortened sleeves and shortened and tapered the overall jersey so there would be less for defenders to grab hold of.
And for bigger players, she'd add panels to the sides of jerseys to make them bigger.
Braisher spent more time at the Van Sistine house than players. Collins remembers him sitting at the kitchen table, urging her mother on with "You've got to hurry Flo! The plane leaves in an hour!" when new numbers were needed for last-minute roster additions.
Flo was seen as a source of information for neighbors because she knew before it was publicized who were the new people on the roster.
Florence had great skill. She operated an embroidering machine, which Bertrand's moved to her house after Gary was born, and did much of her work without a pattern, which still astounds her family.
"She did Premontre on the back of a high school jacket and she did it in an arch. Without a pattern. I always wondered how she did that," Gary Van Sistine said.
Though she could cut loose around family and friends, she took the job seriously.
"My mother was so honest, if she worked 15 minutes, she'd put in her book the exact time," Collins said. "She was so honest and she was making such a piddly wage."
Rectitude was important to Florence, but so was family. When Rob Collins' favorite player, Dave Roller, was traded in 1978, he asked his grandmother whether he could have the nameplate off Roller's jersey. She said "I can't do that," but a month later she handed Collins an envelope and all she said was "here." Inside was Roller's nameplate.
The grandkids were able to get other souvenirs, such as pieces of trimmed jerseys, which were the same as money among their friends. Rob Collins has a photo of himself trying on Starr's jersey, and for the interview, he wore a Fuzzy Thurston jersey covered with hardly noticeable patches and stitched up holes.
Jerseys, and even the Packers, weren't her only job. Florence did letter jackets for high schools and bowling shirts as well as special Packers projects, such as hats designed by Starr that only coaches wore. She'd sew on specially designed patches and add elastic so they'd "fit on the guys with the fatter heads."
Florence also made felt blankets the Packers gave to players each season. Rob remembers "she made a lot of those things," and family members pitched in by doing a lot of the cutting.
"I'll never forget, our house was so full of green lint," Gary Van Sistine said.
As can be expected, the kids were and still are Packers fans. They own season tickets now, but Bob and Florence Van Sistine couldn't afford them then, so the kids didn't always pay for the privilege of watching the Packers.
"When I was in high school, 1954-56, when they played at the old City Stadium, we'd climb over that fence and lay in the end zone and watch those games," Sue Collins said of a very different NFL era.
Gary Van Sistine said they always went to a game carrying a valve for pumping up or — more critically in this case — letting the air out of footballs.
"If you got a football, there was a big fight for it. You had to deflate it and stick it under your jacket," he said.
At 83, Florence was no longer sewing for the Packers, but sewing she still was.
One day in November 1995, Florence came home from church choir practice, had a small martini and fell asleep in her chair. She woke up later, told her granddaughter she was going to bed and didn't wake up.
As far as the family knows, none of Florence Van Sistine's work is in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, something they are hoping to change.
"She loved her Packers," Rob summed it up.
And the Packers needed her.