When the clock struck 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Green Bay Packers fans dashed into the Lambeau Field Atrium to take their seats for the first night of the second annual Fan Fest.
Katrina Birling of Appleton, Wis., adorned in a Brett Favre jersey and several green and gold beads around her neck, led the charge.
"This is like fantasy camp for fans," she said.
The first one in the stadium, Birling and her sister Kolleen snared front row seats to hear Packers Hall of Famer Larry McCarren host a 30-minute live television show on Green Bay's CBS affiliate. McCarren introduced many current and past Packers legends, including LeRoy Butler, Don Majkowski, Samkon Gado, Bubba Franks and William Henderson. He also formally presented General Manager Ted Thompson and the new coaching staff, which was met by cheers from the 2,584 in attendance. That ceremony not only jump-started Fan Fest but also another significant occasion in the calendar year.
"I look at this as the kickoff of the season," President and CEO Bob Harlan said.
In one respect the offseason officially started later that night. With the owners and players' union having settled the collective bargaining agreement on Wednesday night, NFL free agency started on 12:01 a.m. EST. on Saturday.
The Packers have ample room under the salary cap to become active in the free agent market, but Thompson stressed a prudent strategy, which will focus on re-signing core players and building his team through the NFL draft.
"Free agency has its uses," Thompson said. "I still think drafting well is the best way to build a team."
Armed with the fifth overall pick in the draft, the Packers will have the opportunity to do just that. Thompson praised the draft's depth along the offensive line and at several defensive positions but said he was studying a multitude of prospects at different positions.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy echoed those statements.
"We've got our eyes on everybody," he said.
Another offseason question that piques the interest of the football world is the fate of Favre. The franchise quarterback has not decided whether to return for a 16th NFL season. In front of the thousands gathered on Friday night, McCarren asked McCarthy and Thompson for input into that decision. McCarthy responded by jokingly pointing at Thompson to answer the question.
"We're still talking," said Thompson, who has spoken to Favre about every three days. "He's still trying to decide."
The direction of the NFL has been more officially determined. The agreement on Wednesday ensured the NFL will feature a salary cap and revenue sharing, and that contract goes through 2011.
"We have labor peace," Harlan said. "We have a salary cap."
Such a league-wide structure should ensure small market teams like the Packers remain competitive for years into the future. They can spend money on free agents just like teams in New York or the Bay Area. Under that scenario Harlan expects the Packers to rebound form last year's 4-12 season.
"Our system gives us a chance to bounce back," Harlan said.
The loyal Packers fans, who came to Fan Fest in droves, know and expect that. Birling arrived at the stadium at 2:30 p.m., sitting in her mini Cooper with the "THE FAN" license plate before heading up one long line. Later in the weekend she hoped to snare an autograph from John Brockington. She rooted for the former Packers running back since she began attending games as a 16-year-old. Her fanaticism was shared by the many in attendance, awaiting the season's start.
"I didn't know the turnout was like this," Franks said. "It's starting to kind of feel like football again."