In Section 103, Green Bay Packers fans have their second family
Chad Buboltz could have changed seats at Lambeau to sit by family members. But he didn't want to leave the friends they made in their section. Sarah Kloepping, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - When Chris Knutson attended one of his first Green Bay Packers games in Section 103 at Lambeau Field, he was explicit in his advice to the officiating crew.
"Adam (Koenig's) grandpa and grandma were sitting in front of us. I probably used some bad language," Knuston said. "The grandpa turned around and said, 'Watch your language, there's a lady here!'"
That was Knutson's welcome to Section 103, Rows 33-35, a community of game-day friends who have been together for decades. That was a dozen years ago and the grandsons use the seats now, but Knutson still watches his language.
There are hundreds of such "communities" around Lambeau Field — many of them overlapping — where season ticket-holding families have shared space forever, some of them into the second and third generations.
Chad and Bart Buboltz have been in Section 103 for more than 20 years, the seats willed to them by an aunt. Chris Knutson settled in 16 years ago; the tickets have been in wife Lisa's family for years. Adam Koenig's been there as long, but his grandfather held those seats since the 1960s, and brothers Paul and Jon Reinhard got tickets in 2003, after the Lambeau Field renovation.
They've come from Suamico and De Pere, Madison and Rhinelander, Ashwaubenon and Sheboygan, so they don't get together much outside of games, but that doesn't keep them from forming strong bonds.
"I recognize how special it is to be a season-ticket holder for the Packers and I think those around us do as well," Chad Buboltz said. "We can have the light-hearted conversations with the casual people around us, but we can always get into the weeds about what we think we know. We all know an awful lot in Section 103."
The first home game of the year is like a reunion, the opening quarter taken up with family, school and job updates.
"Eventually we get to 'how do you think our team is going to be this year?'" he said.
They were especially eager to see one another after the Packers won the 2011 Super Bowl. All the playoff games were on the road, so they never had a chance to glory in the glory.
"The first game of the year was spent rejoicing. It started with hugs and high-fives," Buboltz said.
This year has been different, especially for fans who became regulars since 1992, when Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre began remaking the franchise. The Packers have not had back-to-back losing seasons since 1990 and 1991, but are in danger of that this year. The "old timers" remember.
"We joke all the time with my youngest brother, Brett. He's 33, so he's never known the Packers to really struggle significantly," said Chad Buboltz, who's 10 years older than Brett. "He doesn't know what it's like to watch Anthony Dilweg play quarterback for the Packers. He doesn't know what it's like to wonder if Rich Campbell is really the answer."
Early on, Buboltz became friends with Jim and Frieda Waalkens, who hailed from the Rhinelander area. They operated a small farm and, in the days before TSA-level stadium security made it impossible, brought him kohlrabi, a favorite vegetable.
They knew Buboltz's kids by name and always asked about them, and kept up with his progress toward a doctorate.
"They are tough, northern Wisconsin stock and would rarely come to a game with hats on, even when it was cold. And if they did, it was never a Packers hat," he said. "One Christmas, Bart and I bought them Packers hats. They bought us ornaments."
As the Waalkens have gotten older, they don't come to the games as often. That's the normal flow of life in Section 103.
"It kind of just seems like a family gathering every time you go up there," said Adam Koenig, whose mom now owns the tickets that were his grandfather's. "You know them almost as well as you know some family members, honestly."
He looks forward to coming to the games because it's always more fun to watch football with friends. And when they have spare tickets, they often ask among the group before offering them outside.
With two seats on the aisle, Chris Knutson is gatekeeper of his row, which includes directing people with tickets at the far end to go "down and around because it's easier," and also doesn't require his friends to get up.
"My job is making sure the right people come down the row. My other job, when I see people coming up that are in our row, is to flag them down," he said.
That said, they welcome the occasional visitor to their territory. Buboltz and Knutson talk about visiting other stadiums and the difference in atmosphere and acceptance of outsiders.
"We really get eight weeks a year to be relevant on a national stage and I think everyone cherishes that," Buboltz said. "I think everyone takes that responsibility pretty seriously, where we are really accommodating to fans. I think it spills over to opposing fans, it spills over to the relationships you have around you."
Buboltz has two families at Lambeau, including his tailgating family. Sometimes the Section 103 members, such as Paul and Jon Reinhard, join him.
"Our tailgate party is another one of those stories of people we just randomly met. We managed to finagle our way near them and over the years we've become friends with them," Buboltz said. "We have the pregame friends, we have game friends and then whoever happens to stop by after the game."
The Buboltzes have had chances to consolidate their tickets, but neither pair — the other is dad Terry and brother Brett, who are in Section 100 — wants to leave their section. Knutson turned down similar opportunities.
"While I would probably enjoy sitting with my dad and both my brothers, we said, 'you know what, we've got our own little thing in our section here,'" he said. "We meet at every halftime to discuss the proceedings of the first half."
Terry Buboltz experiences similar relationships in Section 100. He recalled a couple who always left with three minutes left in the game, whether the score was 45-0 or 25-25. And two men, one from Shawano, and across the aisle, the other from Allouez.
"The guy from Shawano was the offensive coach and the guy from Allouez was the defensive coach," he said. "We ribbed them: 'You aren't doing your job today.'"
In a January 2008 playoff game against the Mike Holmgren-coached Seattle Seahawks, Terry Buboltz traded his normal LeRoy Butler jersey for an A.J. Hawk jersey. He caught grief immediately; "Where is LeRoy? Where is LeRoy?"
The Packers fumbled the first two times they had the ball. That was the last appearance of the Hawk jersey, never mind the Packers won 42-20.
Two of his sons are named Brett and Bart, which is coincidental. Brett was born before Packers fans ever heard of Brett Favre and Bart was going to be Benjamin, but there was a certain canine movie star at the time named Benji.
"My sister said, why don't you just call him Bart?" he said.
Bart and Brett have never missed a game, a point they frequently raise with Chad, who's missed one.
Technology is changing the community and people's roles. The explosion of secondary market ticket sales, and rising prices for season tickets, means a lot more strangers show up at games, and smartphones mean everyone has access to information that was once filtered through a few well-prepared fans.
"Part of the beauty of the section is everybody kind of had their own niche," Chad Buboltz said.
One section member always wore headphones tuned to the radio so he could tell them other scores or relay what Max McGee and Jim Irwin, or Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren, were saying.
Reinhard said Section 103 is his second home. Driving over the Leo Frigo Memorial Bridge one day, he pointed to far-off Lambeau Field and told a friend, "There's my second mortgage. Those guys are like my second neighborhood."
They have shared memories, which makes the bonds stronger. There was Desmond Howard's kick returns in the 1996 divisional round against the San Francisco 49ers, Dorsey Levens' catch in the 1996 NFC title game against the Carolina Panthers, Brett Favre's return to Lambeau Field in 2009 as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, and many more.
"Everybody's got a story about their connection to Lambeau," Buboltz said. "It's just such an intimate experience there. It really makes this place special. You hear that from opposing fans all the time."
With one home game left, against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 30, Section 103 probably won't get to discuss the Packers' new coach, who will be hired to replace fired Mike McCarthy. That hire likely will take place after the season, but it will give them something to discuss during that important first-game reunion next fall.
"We'll be talking a lot (about the new coach), I'll tell you that much," Paul Reinhard said.
A few years back, Knutson offered his own welcome to Kyle Koenig when he attended one of his first games in place of his grandfather.
"I said, 'Did you bring any money to buy beer? Your grandpa always buys the first round,'" he said. "You could see the panic on his face. He was probably a minor and he was thinking, 'How am I going to do this?'"
Knutson gave him a minute, then broke into a laugh. Welcome to Section 103, kid.