GREEN BAY – They tried. Really, they tried, through all the strangeness of a championship football game in the middle of a pandemic.
They banged signs on metal bleacher seats. They shouted. And even though there were only a few thousand fans spread through the cavernous stadium, they did their best to fill Lambeau Field with some noise and excitement and electricity.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough.
The Green Bay Packers fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-26, in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Tampa’s Tom Brady (yeah, it still sounds strange after all those seasons in New England) won this quarterback shootout over Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers season is over.
The Buccaneers move on and go home to Tampa for the Super Bowl, Feb. 7.
Of course, everyone was hoping for something more, some blast of normalcy in so troubled a time, if only a brief, brilliant escape from the pandemic.
And surely, Packers fans in Green Bay and across the nation could have used something to rally around in a time of bitter political division.
But this one hurt, a roller-coaster of a game with the Packers falling behind 18 points at the half but roaring back to close in on the Buccaneers.
The fans lucky enough to snag the few thousand tickets available marveled at the scene inside Lambeau Field on a gorgeous winter day, a coating of snow in the morning and blue skies and sunshine at kickoff.
It’s normally jammed here, a heaving, teeming mass of people seated cheek to jowl on metal bleachers.
But not on this football Sunday during COVID-19.
Masks and social distancing were mandatory, long rows of bleachers packed with clumps of green seats for spectators.
“It doesn’t feel like a championship game, but it’s awesome,” said Ann Dupont, a day care worker from Green Bay and second-generation season ticket holder.
“It’s odd,” Dupont said, looking at all the empty space. “But you can say you were here when only 9,000 people were here.”
This was Lambeau with plenty of room to spare.
“You get to drive right in, walk right in,” said Duke Long, a contractor from West Bend. “No wait for the bathrooms. No wait for beer.”
But Long’s wife, Sandi, said it all took some time to get used to.
“I miss all the people,” she said. “I miss the crowds.”
Jenni Arndt of Delafield was overwhelmed just taking in the scene.
“I’m so excited, I could cry,” she said, sitting alongside her sister Lindsay.
In a sense, what people yearned for was the rhythm of a normal football Sunday, something that has been missing all these months as the country copes with the pandemic.
But like a lot of things, people made do with what they could, made the most out of a special day.
At West Side Moravian Church, they’ve replaced in-person services with virtual ones. They’ve also had to get by this season without revenue from parking cars in a lot within walking distance of Lambeau Field.
But Pastor Marian Boyle Rohloff said the church has been fortunate. Donors stepped up. Adjustments were made.
“I know that for many businesses it was not the same reality,” she said. “I think of all the area businesses that depend on the income from the Packers. Some of them have closed because of COVID-19.”
Still, she misses the excitement of a normal game day, parking cars, meeting fans from across the state and across America.
She knew exactly what the game meant for Green Bay and was really hoping for a Super Bowl appearance.
“It would lift spirits,” she said. “It would be something to look forward to. COVID for everybody has been a long season of not being able to do life like we once did.”
But there would be no good news on this football Sunday for Green Bay.
When the game ended, the fans began to trudge away, disheartened but not undaunted as the long winter set in.
“It was strange,” said Neil Hoople, a heating and air conditioning technician from Green Bay. “You didn’t have a crowd packed around you, shoulder to shoulder. Still, it sounded like 80,000 people in here.”