By Greg Bates
When an NFL franchise has won 13 world championships, including four Super Bowls, it wants to show off its illustrious history.
And rightfully so.
The Green Bay Packers, which are in their 99th season, have arguably the best and most extensive hall of fame in all of professional football. Let’s not forget that Green Bay is the smallest market in the NFL and also in all of the four major professional sports. The Packers’ museum highlights the team’s storied past, their 24 Pro Football Hall of Fame members, their 157 members of the Packers Hall of Fame to go along with memorabilia, artifacts and championship trophies.
Having a hall of fame to showcase their rich history is very important for the Packers organization.
“This is really that opportunity for us to continue to tell our story,” said Krissy Zegers, Packers Hall of Fame & Stadium Tour manager. “Our history’s really what made us be the team that we are, and telling that story and that we don’t have one single owner that has deep pockets. We have the support of the community in order to make the team be what it is today. I think that’s a really important story to tell.”
“Really what we’re trying to give the fan, the visitor, whatever time period you grew up, if you’re a young Packers fan or older Packers fan, we all have great memories and moments that you enjoy and remember and we want to refresh that memory,” Packers Hall of Fame Curator Brent Hensel said. “So you go in and you see something and say, ‘I remember that game. Remember when Antonio Freeman made that catch?’”
The Packers Hall of Fame moved from the basement in the atrium inside historic Lambeau Field to the main level in August 2015 and has continued to flourish. The museum was housed in the lower level from 2003-13 when it closed for nearly two years for renovations to the hall of fame, pro shop and restaurant inside the stadium.
In refreshing and updating the Packers Hall of Fame in the new 15,000-square-foot, two-level facility, a historical committee that included Zegers and Hensel meticulously laid out a plan to improve the museum.
“The goal was to reunite both young and old fans,” Zegers said. “We recognize that a lot of fans that come visit us are multi-generational. So we wanted it both appealing to people who remember more historic players and also have it relevant to a lot of our younger fans.”
The committee wanted to mix in more elements of technology to the new hall of fame by adding touch screen and interactive exhibits to get visitors more involved.
“What the technology really allowed us to do is have people consume the hall of fame in different methods,” Zegers said. “It definitely engages more of our younger visitors, but the great thing about it is our older visitor can definitely dive deeper into their experience when they’re visiting. Instead of just finding out who Jim Taylor was, you can look in one of our displays and find out more information about his stats, his career, some of his story. That instead of a static display which you just see his name and the years he played for the team.”
The committee and all the people involved in the arduous process of revamping the museum feel like they accomplished everything they set out to do.
“We’re proud of what we put out there,” said Hensel, who has been the Packers’ curator for four years. “We’re coming up on 100 years of Packer history, so we tried to mix the history.”
The new hall of fame is actually smaller in square footage than the old one, but with high, extended ceilings on the two levels, the Packers were able to have exhibits on the walls.
The original Packers Hall of Fame opened up in the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena – which is across the street from Lambeau Field – in 1967. It was started by Packers Hall of Fame Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of the Packers. Hall of Fame Inc. approached legendary coach Vince Lombardi about creating a hall of fame, and the future Pro Football Hall of Fame member gave his blessing.
“If you know anything about Vince Lombardi, anything regarding the Packers, you had to get his approval on it,” Hensel said. “I believe there’s a lot of Vince Lombardi artifacts because he gave a lot of his stuff to Hall of Fame Inc. at that time. We have so much from Vince Lombardi we can’t display it all.”
When the hall of fame moved to Lambeau Field in 2003, the Packers organization became much more involved.
A walk through the hall
Visitors entering the Packers Hall of Fame are greeted on the first floor by a large storyboard chronicling the Packers’ long history as a franchise. It shows all the pro football teams that have come and gone in the 99 years the Packers have been in existence. It also describes major world events and what the Packers organization was doing during those periods.
In a display case not far from the storyboard are some current artifacts. Hensel usually changes out the items every few months, but early in the 2016 season, there were still things from the 2015 season, including the uniform tight end Richard Rodgers wore when he hauled in a Hail Mary from quarterback Aaron Rodgers when the Packers beat the Detroit Lions in the regular season. The ball wide receiver Jeff Janis pulled in on a second Hail Mary in a playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals was also in the case.
“As stuff happens on the field, we try to request stuff and get things,” Hensel said.
Around the corner on the main floor, visitors can compare their hand size to Packers great Brett Favre, see the wingspan of linebacker Clay Matthews and check out former defensive lineman Gilbert Brown’s enormous shoe size. Anyone interested in checking their vertical jump can perform an NFL Draft-style leap flat-footed and reach as high as they can.
A case nearby diagrams how a typical week in a season goes for a Packers player. Everything from practice days and times to pregame preparation are discussed in the “A Week in the Life” display.
Down the hallway, one of two temporary exhibits are on display. One of the exhibits highlights the 50th anniversary of the Packers Hall of Fame.
“It looks at the founders and all the different locations that the hall of fame has been throughout its history,” Hensel said. “We even replicated an original exhibit in the Brown County Arena when it first opened.
The other temporary exhibit dives into the Packers-Bears rivalry and historic homes of the Packers – their home field prior to Lambeau Field.
The rotating exhibits are scheduled to run anywhere from six months to one year.
“They allow us to take some content or some subject matter and highlight it to a deeper extent,” Zegers said. “The positive and the negative about having so much history in a limited space is that you can’t possibly tell all of the stories of our history in that space.”
As visitors head upstairs on an escalator to the second level, they look up and are surrounded by 18 mannequins that show how the Packers’ uniforms and helmets have changed through the team’s 99-year existence.
Off to the left is a section on the days of Curly Lambeau, the team’s co-founder, former player and coach. Lambeau, who the team’s iconic stadium is named after, helped bring the Packers their first six world championships – 1929, 1930, 1931, 1936, 1939 and 1944. The Lambeau era display has artifacts and interesting tidbits from Lambeau’s 31 years with the team.
Visitors can next duck into a replica office of Lombardi – a fan-favorite exhibit – who coached the Packers to three world championships and two Super Bowls during his nine years (1959-1967) with the team. Known for his catchy sayings, Lombardi quotes are spread all throughout the room. Several personal Lombardi items are on display as is a replica of his desk where fans can sit on his chair. Lombardi’s phone runs every couple minutes and visitors can answer it and hear Lombardi spout out one of his famous lines.
Around the corner is a very unique room that depicts the famous “Ice Bowl” in 1967 when the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 for the NFL championship and the right to play in Super Bowl II. The game was played in frigid -15 degree temperature with a wind chill of -44.
The display has a couple fans sitting in bleachers bundled up from head to toe – you can see one fan’s breathe – as well as Packers player Dave Robinson huddled on the bench trying to stay warm, covered with a trench coat. A portion of one of the goal posts from the game was donated to the museum in August 2016 and put in a case.
“We really wanted people to get a good feeling of what it was like to have experienced that game,” Zegers said. “If you have a 10-year-old coming through the hall of fame, they weren’t there. They don’t know what that was like. We tried to create the atmosphere that people could feel like they were there.”
There’s also a section upstairs that chronicles the no-so-great Packers years in the 1970s and ’80s. That leads into the area where the ’90s, 2000s and current day teams are discussed. There is plenty of memorabilia in the cases, including a pair of Favre cleats, a reprint of Rodgers’ draft-day card when he was selected with the No. 24 pick in the 2005 draft, along with a championship belt a fan gave the Packers players during the playoff run that culminated in winning Super Bowl XLV.
A second temporary exhibit was on display, this one on the Packers-Bears rivalry that has been around for 99 years.
After checking out the upstairs, it’s back down the escalator where visitors take a sharp left turn past the Favre exhibit. They then walk into a gallery lined on both sides with bronze footballs with the names and faces of all 154 Packers players in the team hall of fame.
The next room is the “Excellence” gallery. It’s where all 24 Packers members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame are enshrined with a display case – resembling a locker – for each person.
The final destination on the tour of the museum is the “Championship” gallery.
“You always save the best for last, so that is at the end before you exit,” said Hensel, who estimates the average fan spends an hour and a half at the museum.
On display are four Super Bowl trophies, eight Ed Thorpe trophies, three NFC championship trophies and eight rings and watches. Former quarterback Bart Starr’s ring from the 1961 NFC Championship Game is in a case, as is a replica of Rodgers’ Super Bowl XLV ring.
“I think the look and the feel how we built that up really creates a great experience for people as they’re sort of finishing their visit in the hall of fame,” Zegers said. “That’s a really big fan favorite.”
Hensel has heard a lot of great feedback from fans visiting the hall of fame.
“Younger people like the technology and interactives and stuff like that,” Hensel said. “But then we still have a lot of the history. I know one of the big favorites is as you head up the stairs with the jersey display and seeing the jersey throughout time – that’s a big photo opp. We’ve gotten a lot of positive comments about the Favre exhibit.”
Staying busy year-round
When Packers training camp gets under way at the end of the July, Green Bay is booming and fans from all over the country invade the town that has a population of 104,000.
Training camp is the busiest time for people to come to the Packers Hall of Fame. In August 2016, 26,000 people entered the museum.
“Pretty significant for little Green Bay,” Zegers said.
According to Zegers, the hall of fame is slower in the offseason and starts to pick up at the end of April in correlation with the draft. After the training camp rush, weekends during the regular season are hectic, especially when the Packers play at home.
The Packers are one of only three teams in the NFL – along with the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots – with a hall of fame that features a full museum.
“The hall of fame team aspect is relatively still kind of new,” Hensel said. “More and more teams are doing hall of fames, but the Packers were the first.”
In the past year, a number of NFL franchises, including the Dallas Cowboys, have reached out to the Packers to get advice on starting their own hall of fame.
Zegers calls the Packers Hall of Fame the best in the NFL.
“I think with us just being the team that we are, it really makes our experience unique,” Zegers said. “We have such a rich history and we are the only small town team on the market, and I think that just really offers a unique perspective that no other pro football team could offer.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.