Fair-Weather Fans Hop On Bandwagon; Whoop It Up

In the stands on Sunday, it'll be the "Cheeseheads" vs. "Chowderheads." No one would seriously question the loyalty of the fans of either the Green Bay Packers or the New England Patriots. The Packers fans, having pined for 29 years to return to the Super Bowl, clearly have an edge in terms of, ah, practice.

But as the "jambalaya" euphoria sweeps over New England, some of the die-hard tricorner fans are disparaging the arrival of the "bandwagon" fans.

The latter group as recently as last fall couldn't name the Patriots center ( Dave Wohlabaugh). Even Massachusetts Gov. William Weld admitted there's a certain opportunism in the air.

"This is a hockey and baseball town" says Boston resident Rick Harrington. "Patriots fans are excited ... quite rowdy. But where were they four years ago?"

Perhaps they are making up for lost time. This past week, 15,000 Patriots fans braved cryogenic weather conditions, baring both their bellies and their feelings, at a Super Bowl send-off in Boston, screaming "Sack the Pack" and "Squeeze the Cheese" between bites of tuna sandwiches in honor of head coach Bill "Tuna" Parcells.

Halfway across the nation, in a small city perched on the edge of Lake Michigan, the fanaticism also runs rampant - and deep.

Elsewhere on Fridays, many companies encourage their employees to wear casual clothes. In Green Bay, Fridays are for "Packerwear." Shorts, T-shirts, and almost any sartorial style are appropriate - if the colors are gold and green.

During the playoffs earlier this month, some Roman Catholic priests wore their Packer shirts under their robes and rescheduled masses around the games. And grocery stores are selling green and gold bagels.

Tickets to a post-Super Bowl rally (win or lose) at the famed Lambeau Field sold out this week in less than two hours. The smallest city in the NFL, Green Bay has a population of 97,000. The stadium seats just over 60,000.

Contributing to the enduring faith and enthusiasm is a unique sense of ownership. In an era when professional sports franchises swap cities almost as often as they trade players, the Packers are an anomaly: The community owns the team.

During the 1949-50 period, the team was facing bankruptcy. Its salvation was the sale of 4,634 shares of stock to local residents at $25 per share. By law, if not by loyalty, shareholders cannot sell the stock at a profit.

That community bond manifests itself on the field. Instead of a victory dance in the end zone, Packers players literally celebrate touchdowns with the fans. Receiver Antonio Freeman routinely does belly flops into the crowd's outstretched arms. The fans, says Freeman, "are our 12th and 13th men."

Back in Beantown, dispatches from teams of breathless local reporters now in the Big Easy are spurring sales of everything from big screen TVs and Barcaloungers to jambalaya.

"Right now it's a football town" proclaims Paul Serino, the producer of a top-rated local sports talk show heard on AM station WEEI. Back in August, WEEI sports announcer Eddie Andelman used the Cajun stew, jambalaya, as the code-word of hope for the coming Patriot season. "Put your hands on the radio and belieeeeve," he broadcast night after night.

The jambalaya mantra has caused a run on the dish and the appearance of jambalaya pizza on some menus.

"We just got caught up in the middle of this," says Mary Gauthier, owner of the Dixie Kitchen, a cajun restaurant in Boston. Sales of the spicy potpourri of rice and sausage bits and sauce are up 20 percent.

* Doug Ritchay in Green Bay contributed to this report.

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