PACKERS

Forget the football game: London was a delight for Green Bay Packers fans

Richard Ryman
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Green Bay Packers fans in London were probably the happiest they'd been since the Super Bowl XXXI celebration in 1997 in downtown Green Bay — right up to the fourth quarter of the Oct. 9 game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Not to dwell on it, but the Packers led that game against the New York Giants 20-10 at halftime. I watched the first half of the game with U.K. & Irish Packers fans at the Hippodrome Casino before leaving at halftime to negotiate the underground back to my hotel because I had deadlines to meet. The game seemed to be well in hand, so I was shocked when I turned on the television with one minute left and the Packers were trailing 27-20 before getting a late and meaningless safety.

How dispiriting was it? Nearly two dozen Packers fans agreed to send me videos of their experience at the game, but in the end, only one did. I blame the lack of follow-through entirely on the shocking end to what was otherwise a fabulous week.

With nearly three months having passed, and the Packers continuing to struggle, fans have gained some perspective and can again look fondly on their time in the land of fish and chips.

"The game seemed almost secondary to the trip after they lost," said John Jahnke of Green Bay.

Before the game, Packers fans were everywhere. It was almost as easy finding fans to talk to in London as hanging out at Lambeau Field before a game. On the Friday before the game, you couldn't turn around without meeting Packers fans, mostly from Wisconsin. On Saturday, the European contingent began to arrive. For perspective, Paris is closer to London by car than Detroit is to Green Bay, as are Brussels, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Cologne.

"I thought it was amazing," said Steve Tuschy of Madison, who booked his flight the same day the game was announced. "We’d walk everywhere, and of course we’d wear Packer clothing. You’d sit across from someone (wearing Packers gear) on the tube and say 'Go Pack Go!' All the local London folks, they recognized us. They’d say, 'I see you everywhere.'"

More:Green Bay Packers fans from Wisconsin, to nobody's surprise, make London their own

Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy believes fans were eager to take advantage of their first real opportunity to travel since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. The trip was a part-business, part-family affair for Murphy, who got to play golf with key Packers sponsors at St. Andrews in Scotland as well as gather most of his family — wife, children, grandchildren — in London.

"It was almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s the way we viewed it and I think a lot of our fans did," Murphy said.

If you're an American, there's a chance you know more about England than any other country, except hopefully our own. The castles, the cathedrals, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and on and on. And on. And on.

"We went to Westminster Abbey, the parliament area.  We saw, 'This is a real place. That is Buckingham palace. There are the guards.' It was great to see all the tradition London has. That's always a cool thing," Tuschy said.

Green Bay Packers fans Jacqulyn and John Jahnke of Green Bay pose on the River Thames in London in October, 2022.

John and Jacqulyn Jahnke visited Stonehenge and the London Eye, and took a double-decker bus tour. They noticed some key differences from American cities, such as how many people walked everywhere, and how there were virtually no parking lots in central London. And they marveled at the contrast between the very old and new buildings side-by-side everywhere.

"Even the little things, like the river cruise, you are looking at just history that you heard all your life. You go by Tower of London, then you go buy these modern structures," John said.

Having so many pedestrians on the streets at all hours was comforting.

"I never felt not safe. Some of the things we did were pretty late at night," John said. "There’s so many people on the street, you never felt like you were in the dark alley all alone."

Jacqulyn said a visit to Bath was a highlight, among many.

"To me, that was the best experience. We were listening to a guy playing a guitar, and in the distance you could hear someone singing opera. It was a fabulous experience," Jacqulyn said.

They had their own history to showcase, too. John's parents, Norman and Geneva Jahnke, owned Sneezers Snack Shop, which was a favorite restaurant of legendary Packers' coach Vince Lombardi. They wore their Sneezers t-shirts around London.

Mike Niedfeldt and his daughter, Amanda, pose on the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames in London, October, 2022.

A number of fans had relatives living in England, including Mike Niedfeldt of Stoughton. Daughter Amanda lives in Okehampton, about three hours southwest of London, and she has season tickets to Tottenham stadium. He arrived a week before the Packers game, so they took in the Minnesota Vikings-New Orleans Saints game as well.

He planned on visiting Amanda a couple years ago, but the pandemic sidelined those plans. It's also his lifetime goal to go to every stadium where the Packers play, so when he learned they were going to London, all the pieces fell into place. He was happy to meet other Packers fans from around the world.

"You always see and hear 'They shouldn’t be playing in London. They’re taking stuff away from here.' I don’t agree with that," Niedfeldt said before the Packers-Rams game at Lambeau Field. "(European fans) are not raised with it from the time they are four or five years old, but they pick up the game. Like tonight, they’ll be watching the game from 1 in the morning to 4 in the morning. I was happy they could see their team. They've been waiting."

More:From Scooby-Doo to public ownership, Europeans have unique reasons for becoming Green Bay Packers fans

As Niedfeldt noted, European fans can be as dedicated to American football as any. Tuschy met a fellow wearing a Tua Tagovailoa jersey who said he'd been to every London game.

Like others, Niedfeldt was impressed by the richness, and oldness, of England's history.

"What I didn’t realize is, we look at something from 1850 and it’s old here. You get there and the town where my daughter lives, there’s a castle built in like 1000," he said.

Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, left, along with former players Marv Fleming, James Jones, Nick Collins and LeRoy Butler transit the Abbey Road crosswalk made famous by the Beatles during a tour Friday, October 7, 2022 in London.

Murphy had been to London many years ago when he and his wife accompanied NFL Players Association President Gene Upshaw and his wife to promote the league. That was a harder prospect then because the technology didn't exist for European fans to closely follow games and their favorite teams. Or to even figure out if they had favorite teams.

Now, a lot of U.K. and European fans have figured out the Packers are that team. Murphy estimated that up to two-thirds of the fans in the stadium might have been Packers fans.

"The atmosphere in the stadium was tremendous," he said. "It really gave us a great sense of the kind of support the Packers have in the U.K."

Mike Niefeldt's view in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London, for the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants game on Oct. 9, 2022.

There were a lot of logistics involved in getting a full football team from Green Bay to London, let alone getting kids and grandkids there. Murphy sounded genuinely impressed that daughter Emily shepherded three daughters between ages 7 and 2 across the pond. And his youngest daughter, Anna, made London a stop on her honeymoon trip.

"All of my kids came, except for my daughter in Chicago. She had to work, but her husband came," Murphy said. "It was such a unique experience."

COVID-19 was pushed aside, but inevitably it would not be ignored.

"I came back with COVID," said Jacqulyn Jahnke. "I didn’t keep my hand sanitizer in my pocket. I had my mask, but I forgot to bring it out. It was my own fault. All the habits you developed at home, your forgot. In our group, there were at least three of us out of five that got COVID."

The Packers are not obligated to play an international game again for eight years, but they could go back as the visiting team. The usual caveat remains; the reason the Packers were the last NFL teams to play internationally was because opponents hate to give up the thousands of fans who regularly travel with them (or 10s of thousands, in the case of London).

Murphy, meanwhile, wouldn't object to playing in Germany.

"I think we have a tremendous base of fans there," he said.

Tuschy has good advice for Packers fans who attend the team's next international game, given that you can't guarantee a victory: Visit the host country before the game, not after.

"I think the anticipation leading up to it builds. You are going to have a fun time until (the game)," he said.

And if you're lucky, you'll keep having fun until the final whistle.

Contact Richard Ryman at rryman@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RichRymanPG, on Instagram at @rrymanPG or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichardRymanPG/.

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