It seems safe to say no team in professional sports has more longstanding, high-profile traditions that bond its players with its fans than the Green Bay Packers.
The Lambeau Leap dates to 1993 and is one of the newer ones.
When the Packers played in old City Stadium from 1925-56, players would smuggle kids into games at the back gate. After the Packers moved to what is now Lambeau Field, the pull-at-your-heartstrings tradition that replaced it was kids lending players their bikes to ride to the practice field during training camp.
But, not surprisingly, nobody seemed to know when and how it started.
Most true and genuine traditions naturally evolve; they aren’t plotted. They typically start spontaneously and slowly capture the fancy of the masses.
That was the case with the Packers’ bike-riding tradition. It started with players and kids innocently connecting in a vast stadium parking lot – one that was mostly empty and uncluttered back then – and grew from those doting kinships.
That’s what made it so special and meaningful.
But when and how?
The common belief was it started during the Vince Lombardi era, which began in 1959, two years after what was then called new City Stadium was dedicated. But the earliest known evidence was a Green Bay Press-Gazette picture of Travis Williams riding a bike from the practice field back to the locker room in 1969, two years after Lombardi quit coaching in Green Bay.
Now thanks to Packers fan Keegan Wright of Greensboro,
N.C., we can be certain the tradition actually took root early in Lombardi’s tenure. Perhaps it started even earlier, but the picture given to packers.com for use here by Wright was taken in 1961.
The picture shows Packers cornerback Hank Gremminger (No. 46) riding a bike with an unidentified boy on the back while defensive end Jim Temp (82) and linebacker Dan Currie (58) lead the way to the practice field.
Wright, grandson of the late John Symank, a hardnosed safety for the Packers from 1957-62, said he purchased the picture from a newspaper photographer’s estate sale and it was dated 1961.
That would coincide with the careers of the three players. Currie was the last to join the Packers in 1958 and Temp was the first to exit. He played from 1957-60, but spent all of 1961 in camp before retiring on Sept. 12.
With the help of Tom Aldrich and Pat Ford, volunteers in the Local History and Genealogy Dept. of the Brown County Library, we also were able to confirm through various sources the houses in the background on Stadium Drive were there in 1961 and matched the construction schedule that took place on the street once the stadium opened in 1957.
After asking fans for help in a “Cliff’s Notes” posted July 17, 2014, and sending out other feelers regarding the bike tradition, numerous people responded. But Wright was the only one able to provide proof it actually began prior to 1969.
And that was critical.
Royce Boyles, president of Green and Gold Legends, a limited liability corporation representing living members of the Packers’ Super Bowl I team, forwarded an email to his membership asking for recollections. Interestingly, Steve Wright, Jim Grabowski and Bob Hyland remembered kids making bikes available to them by the mid-1960s, but no player from the early Lombardi teams replied.
Other fans who responded via emails provided interesting insight, but no pictures.
Pete Pisani said he was a water boy in 1960 and remembered Bob Skoronski, Fuzzy Thurston and Bill Forester getting a late start to practice one day and borrowing bikes to beat Lombardi to the field and avoid a fine.
“The bike riding began in 1959 with just a couple kids who happened to bring their bikes to see and watch the Packers practice,” said Larry Luedke, who was born and raised in Green Bay.
“I remember when Lombardi took over (in 1959)… some of us letting players use our bikes, we running alongside,” said Gary Van Ess, also of Green Bay.
Several others said they remembered the tradition starting sometime in the mid-1960s.
Steve Bassewitz from Cedarburg offered this unexpected, but certainly plausible recollection. He claimed the tradition started before the Packers even began holding training camp at St. Norbert College in 1958. He traced its roots to Stevens Point, where the Packers trained from 1954-57.
“I used to hang around outside the locker room and when the players came out they used to ride my bike,” he said. “Fred Cone, especially, enjoyed riding my bike.”
As you can see from Wright’s picture, the atmosphere surrounding the bike riding tradition at what is now Lambeau was much different when it began. Even Williams in the 1969 Press-Gazette photo appears to be riding alone.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the tradition took off to where the numbers resembled what they are today, and it’s also possible it started, stopped and started up again. But not being able to pinpoint the exact year of origin or trace its full history doesn’t detract from the tradition’s symbolic value.
If anything, it adds to it. It’s another sign it wasn’t force-fed – that it’s purely a result of the special relationship that has existed for close to 100 years between the Packers and their fans.
For more of Cliff Christl's historical perspectives, click here.