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Where Cheeseheads Meet

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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.

Mark and Bev Thorp have both been around the track once--grown kids, the whole package--so before they got married last June, Mark says he made just one stipulation: Bev had to become a Broncos fan, just as he had become one, many years ago, after a Southern California childhood.

Good luck. At kickoff time Sunday, Mark was wearing a white Broncos jersey with "47" embossed on the back; Bev, a daughter of Tomah, Wisconsin, was suitably draped in green jersey, crowned by a yellow cheese hat.

Would there, could there, be cross words this afternoon between spouses?
"No, absolutely not," Mark Thorp said. "This is a mixed marriage, and we'll just have to deal with it. Besides, Bev has only been in Denver for three years, so she hasn't had a chance yet at religious conversion. Growing up, I was a Rams and a Chargers fan, but I've been here since 1968, and I had that conversion. It will happen with Bev, too."

Again, good luck. Says the new Mrs. Thorp: "If I changed my Packer colors for a Bronco shirt, it would be like denying the existence of God."

If there were any marriage counselors in the house, they weren't handing out business cards. And they weren't trying to patch things up between Joyce Hawley and her flesh and blood, Jackie Zembrycki. Jackie's been in Colorado for 31 years (to Joyce's 19), so she has a pretty good excuse for the Broncos jersey she wears to her own sister's Green Bay Packers bar. Clearly, the sisters love each other. But still, Joyce looks at that orange thing on her sibling's back as if it came from another planet. The sisters have $5 on Sunday's game--not good news for Jackie, who winds up on the short side of a 41-6 drubbing--and they both root their eyes out. But by the time Friday night rolls around, they will have other fish to fry--walleye, perch, catfish--and all will be forgiven.

In the end, not even a Chicago Bear--the four-legged kind--could fail to recognize the devotion of one of the men sitting at the Ray Nietschke Table this afternoon. Patrick Reddy, late of Milwaukee, has lived in Marshall, Colorado, for twelve years, where he works as a carpenter. He never misses a Packers game, can rattle off chapter and verse of team history and says, proudly, that he doesn't really know what teams might actually get into the Super Bowl this year because "I don't follow anybody else."

What kind of Packer fans are Patrick Reddy and his family? Well, when he was five years old the team decided to sell a few season tickets for upcoming home games to be played in Milwaukee, and the Reddys wanted some of those tickets. So they went early to the parking lot next to the stadium and waited for the box office to open. To clarify: They went to the parking lot next to the stadium seven days before the box office opened. And waited. They got their tickets. Still have 'em.

And now, news and notes from the Department of Corrections.
Before the Broncos' astonishing 1996 season got under way, the doubters (your present correspondent included) clearly outnumbered the faithful--except, perhaps, in Dove Valley and on the scorched practice fields of Greeley.

The out-of-town Donkey-dissers were most adamant, of course. Witness these summer prognostications delivered to The Sporting News by football writers in two other AFC West cities:

John Clayton, Tacoma Morning News-Tribune: "It's hard to believe that the money spent on defensive end Alfred Williams and linebacker Bill Romanowski will significantly improve the defense. It's also hard to believe that the offense can get by with Anthony Miller as the lone star receiver and tight end Shannon Sharpe in lame-duck status."

Adam Teicher, Kansas City Star: "How can one not respect a team that has John Elway as its quarterback? When it's a team with as many holes as the Broncos. It's sad to see Elway finish out his career playing for a team with little defense and few complementary weapons. Picture this team without Elway and it's easy to picture the Jets. So it's a credit to Elway that as long as he stays healthy, the Broncos should finish around .500."

Good thing you didn't carve any of this stuff in stone, guys.

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