Where Cheeseheads Meet

Just like that, Bill Musgrave is crushed in the backfield by a blitzing linebacker and the fans erupt in joy. Tom Rouen scuffs a punt toward the near sideline and the guy with the little Brett Favre doll on a string around his neck happily yells for another round of Leinenkugel drafts. Shannon Sharpe gets coldcocked while slanting over the middle and an ecstatic roar rises in the place. Yes, those big yellow wedges flying through the air are the real thing--cheese hats.

So far, the previews of coming attractions are playing out to perfection--at least in this crowd's eyes. By the time the score widens to Green Bay 20, Denver 6, a couple of people even start defrosting their memories of the legendary Ice Bowl. Building contractor Dale Maki, for one, recalls how he and five teenage friends made the four-hour drive down from chill Iron River to Green Bay, grabbed six tickets from a friend and were huddled there in the cheap seats when the great Bart Starr slid into the end zone to beat the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL Championship. Those were the days. Six tickets.

"I haven't been that excited since," Maki says. "At least not at a sporting event." He wasn't even that excited the night his polka band worked its first job.

Welcome to the Rocky Flats Lounge. A thousand miles and 50 degrees Fahrenheit from home, the Cheesehead transplants gather here on Sundays to watch their beloved Packers do battle, to drink beer and to give thanks that they're not spending the long, dark winter in Wausau or Fond du Lac. The humble little roadhouse--bursting at the seams today--is plunked down on a barren, windy stretch of state route 93, halfway between Golden and Boulder. But you'd never know this was Colorado. Surely it's Sheboygan. So make that a pitcher of P.B.R. We're sitting right over here, under the placard that reads: "My two favorite teams are the Packers and Whoever Plays the Bears." Or maybe it's Menominee. So, hey, put lots of the hot mustard on those brats. With kraut? Of course.

Listen. See that corner table? Ten years ago, maybe eleven, Ray Nietschke himself dropped in on a Friday night, unannounced, and sat right there. He'd heard about the place, a real Packers bar in Colorado, so he stopped by. How about that. Ray Nietschke. At that table. The heart and soul of Green Bay football.

The brand of Packers football the Rocky Flats Lounge crowd hungers for is everywhere evident today. With banged-up John Elway on the bench and playoff-bound Denver's heads in the clouds, the Pack is laying the kind of beating on the Broncos they haven't endured since November 12, 1995, when the Eagles banged them around 31-13. The guys in the "Proud to Be a Cheesehead" T-shirts and the gold Green Bay stocking caps and dark- green Packer coaches' sweaters are loving it, whooping, shouting, chanting.

But until this happens again, say on January 26, 1997, in New Orleans, these fans know it's all prologue. It's the warmups. It's previews of coming attractions.

"No doubt about it! Packers and Broncos in the Super Bowl."
Now, this is not just anyone talking. This is Joyce Hawley, born and raised in Ashland, Wisconsin, and, for the past nineteen years, proprietor of the Rocky Flats Lounge. It is Joyce who started up the famous Friday Night Fish Fries back in 1982. Your perch is $12.95, your walleye $11.95, and every bite comes straight out of the freezing waters of Lake Superior and is flown in by jet. It is Joyce who put in the satellite dish back in 1985 so that displaced Wisconsinites reinventing their lives in the Rockies could watch every last down of Green Bay Packers football. It was Joyce who put up the great big Wisconsin state map so that everyone who came in the place could mark their hometown with a push pin. There are now hundreds of push pins stuck in the map--each representing a full-blooded Packers fan in sore need of a cold beer, a hot bratwurst and another glimpse of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Take John Henderson, born in Oshkosh, raised in Marinette. Six days a week he's a natural-resources lawyer in Boulder. But on Sundays he bleeds green and gold, and so do his seven-year-old twin boys. They saw their first Green Bay game at the Rocky Flats--some of it, anyway--when they were ten months old. Today they are scurrying through the bar with Santa Claus caps on their heads and Super Bowl dreams in their hearts.

But it's Dad who does the talking. "This place has been lifted off a road intersection in northern Wisconsin--kind of town with three bars and one gas station--and tele-transported here to Colorado. You know, my parents have been Packers season-ticket holders since 1959, but I went another way. Wisconsin is a great place to be from, but Colorado is the best place to live. Still, old connections die very hard."

Sure do. Among several instances of live-and-let-live in full view on this day--which is to say, an orange-jerseyed No. 7 sitting cheek-by-jowl with a green-jerseyed No. 4--the most compelling is probably the case of the newlyweds. But even they have differences deeply rooted in football loyalty.

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