Lambeau Field is considered an iconic NFL stadium. The experience of attending a game in Green Bay is considered a must for any football fan. No other venue has as much history and tradition as the Packers home field which the team has used since it first opened in 1957.
The fact is had the Packers not built Lambeau Field, it was very likely the city of Green Bay would have lost the Packers.
On April 3, 1956, a referendum was approved for a $960,000 bond to help finance the new stadium. Both NFL commissioner Bert Bell and Bears owner George Halas supported the referendum, but both also warned if it failed, the Packers were likely to move elsewhere.
The final vote was 11,575 to 4,893 in favor of financing the stadium. The final cost to build the new stadium was approximately $1.5 million.
Packers tight end Gary Knafelc later said the players were confident the financing would be approved. “I don’t think we ever considered that the referendum wouldn’t pass,” he said. “Knowing the people in Green Bay, I don’t think that was even a minor question, let alone a major one. I don’t think the people of Green Bay would’ve allowed that to happen.”
The actual first game was a real celebration of the Packers and what they meant to the city of Green Bay. It took place on September 29, 1957, and naturally the opponent was the Packers oldest and most bitter rivals, the Chicago Bears.
The new home of the Packers was originally called New City Stadium and wasn’t named Lambeau Field until after Curly Lambeau passed away in 1965.
Lambeau wasn’t in attendance that day, but he did send a telegram that read, “The biggest little town in football is the only representative in the big leagues with a modern plant just for football. Long live the Packers.”
Before the game, there was a parade down a 2.5-mile route that had an estimated 70,000 people in attendance.
The capacity of the new stadium was 32,500 and every ticket was sold out. The paid attendance was announced at 32,132 with dignitaries and members of the media filling up the stands.
While Lambeau himself wasn’t in attendance, many famous people were including Bears owner Halas and legendary running back Red Grange, actor James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame and Miss America, Marilyn Van Der Bur. Also, in attendance was Vice President Richard Nixon who would himself be elected president 11 years later and Wisconsin governor, Vernon Thomson.
At halftime, five different speakers addressed the crowd including Nixon who praised the city for not using federal funds to build the stadium and said that the Packers had made Green Bay, “the most well- known little city in the United States.”
The Bears had lost to the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game the previous year while the Packers finished 1956 with a 4-8 record so the Bears were heavy favorites.
“I think we were something like 21-point underdogs,” Knafelc recalled. “It felt like even more. We all got together prior to kickoff, and all of us, every single one of us said, ‘It’s not going to happen today.’ It wasn’t that we didn’t like them, we hated them. And they in turn hated us. It wasn’t like now. You don’t pat each other on the back and say ‘hi’ to each other. You didn’t talk to those people. It was a grudge battle.”
Bart Starr started the game at quarterback, but he was ineffective and relieved by backup Babe Parilli after throwing an interception.
The Bears took the lead 7-0 when their quarterback, Ed Brown, scored the first touchdown in the history of the new stadium on a five-yard run in the first quarter.
The Packers tied the score in the second quarter when Parilli found wide receiver Billy Howton on a 37-yard touchdown strike to tie the game at 7-7 and give the Packers their first points in their new home.
After Harlon Hill caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brown to put Chicago back ahead, the Packers responded with a one-yard touchdown run by Fred Cone and the game was all even 14-14 at the half.
In the second half, Chicago took the lead on a 13-yard field goal by George Blanda to go up 17-14 but the Packers scored again in the fourth on a six-yard pass from Parilli to Knafelc who caught the ball on his knees in the end zone. The Packers held on for the 21-17 win.
“The opening game there, it seemed like we were in another world,” Cone remembered. “It was just really nice to be in a nice stadium to play in.”
The game also marked the NFL debut of rookie Paul Hornung, although the future NFL MVP and Hall of Famer didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start. Hornung carried the ball twice for minus-10 yards in the game.
Parilli finished the game 9-for-17 for 197 yards passing and two touchdowns. Howton was outstanding, catching eight passes for 165 yards and a touchdown.
The Packers defense intercepted five passes in the game including two by Bobby Dillon. Four of the picks came off Brown while the final one was off his backup, Zeke Bratkowski. Six years later, Bratkowski would be wearing Green and Gold and serving as Starr’s backup.
“These Packer fans are as nuts about football as Milwaukee is about baseball,” Nixon told reporters after the game.
It was still a long way from Lambeau Leaps, luxury boxes and crowds of more than 80,000, but it was a great start for pro football’s most iconic stadium and 66 years later, it’s still the home of the Green Bay Packers.
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Photo Credit: Jeff Becker, USA Today