In the shadow of U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis sits the Church of the Purple Brethren. It’s not a real church, yet the faith here is strong and springs eternal every autumn.
Inside this church, which is actually a trailer, stands a man, tall and stout with a handlebar mustache and a fuzzy goatee. He dons replica Medieval Viking gear. He tells you he is Hrothgar, son of Thorson. This is not his real name. It’s a moniker he cribbed from a Danish king in Beowulf.
His real name is Chris Pagnac, and he’s a 38-year-old die-hard fan from Brainerd. He came here to sell carefully crafted replica Viking gear, things like engraved drinking horns and leather hats with horns. He is surrounded by his people, clad in purple and gold, all rooting for a common — and, given the weight of history, unlikely — goal: Super Bowl LII, to be played right here the first Sunday in February.
But intermingling with Pagnac’s people is the enemy. The cheeseheads who surround him wear green and gold. They drink Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy and New Glarus Spotted Cow instead of Grain Belt Premium and Summit Extra Pale Ale. They punctuate their speech with “dis,” “dere” and “ya know” rather than “don’tcha know” and “uff da.”
These two tribes are close, both geographically and culturally. To an outsider like me, an East Coast transplant, they seem the same, with similarly strange languages, similar German and Scandinavian heritage, and similar historical economies based on farming, manufacturing and extracting natural resources from the earth. But it is in their sporting mindsets where these two tribes diverge.
Packers fans are used to having all the good things: the Super Bowls, the iconic coaches and the league’s best quarterbacks. In 1992, the team traded for an unheralded second-year quarterback named Brett Favre. He would go on to a Hall of Fame career. As that career neared its twilight, the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers. He too has gone on to a certain Hall of Fame career, and he’s arguably the best quarterback in the NFL today. A Packers fan born 25 years ago has only known a team led by a Hall of Famer. It is a remarkable, highly improbable experience.
Vikings fans, on the other hand, sometimes have good things, but those good things don’t last. All good things in the land of the Vikings eventually prove ephemeral, often taken away in the most painful way possible. In the past quarter century, when the Packers have had their two Hall of Famer quarterbacks, the Vikings have started 24 quarterbacks. Being a Vikings fan is an emotionally draining, emotionally unstable experience.
“Each year we have moments of brilliance, but we always find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Pagnac says. “Vikings fans are the perfect Scandinavian football fans. On A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor used to joke that as a Scandinavian, you never want things too good, because it’s a sign things will soon go bad. So you’re just happy with good enough. You hope for the best and pray you don’t get the worst, and you’re pleased if you get something in between.”
Sports fandom is like faith: You believe because you always have. And the teams you follow can in many ways shape the person you become. A dynastic team — the New England Patriots, the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics — can breed in its fans arrogance and elation. A pathetic team, on the other hand — the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, the cursed Chicago Cubs — can cause jealousy and sorrow.
Consider the Vikings fan. The Vikings fan has never seen a Super Bowl victory in the franchise’s 66 years of existence. The golden years were back in the 1970s, the age of the Purple People Eaters and Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton. But even that era was painful: The Vikings played in four Super Bowls but lost them all. The team’s history is riddled with almosts, not quites and couldn’t pull it offs.
Gary Anderson misses the field goal in the NFC Championship Game, but only after an entire season of not missing a single field goal or extra point. Brett Favre, in his short post-Packers career with the Vikings, throws the interception. Adrian Peterson fumbles the ball — Adrian Peterson always fumbles the ball. Blair Walsh chunks the easy field goal off the frozen tundra. Teddy Bridgewater tears up his knee.
I remember during the 2016 season, as the Vikings were headed to their fifth victory in a row, turning to a friend — a die-hard, lifelong Vikings fan — and telling him that his team looked really good, as in Super Bowl good. He shook his head. “You just wait,” he told me. “They’re going to lose seven of their next nine games.” They went on to lose eight of their next 10.
Now consider the Packers fan, a fan of one of the NFL’s oldest teams and America’s only nonprofit, community-owned major sports franchise. No football team has won more championships. The Packers claimed nine NFL titles before there was such a thing as the Super Bowl, and since its inception, they’ve won four. For God’s sake, they call their hometown “Titletown.”
The history of the Packers is a history of things going right: They hire the right coach (Vince Lombardi) or the right general manager (Ron Wolf), they acquire the best quarterbacks (Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers) then they draft the right pieces to put around them.
In 2014, when the Packers started 1–2 and Rodgers looked awful, he delivered the most succinct article of faith ever given to superfans: “Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packer land,” he said on his Milwaukee radio show. “R-E-L-A-X. Relax. We’re going to be OK.” And sure enough, things ended up OK: The Packers won a league-best 12 games, and Rodgers was named MVP.
And then, last season, the Packers had lost four straight and were sitting at 4–6 with a strong likelihood of missing the playoffs. At that point, Rodgers said this: “I feel like we can run the table.” Which sounded ridiculous at the time. But then the Packers did just that: They won their final six regular season games, coming within a game of the Super Bowl.
These fan bases couldn’t be more different. One is defined by pessimism and fatalism, the other by optimism and certainty. And these doctrines become ingrained in your life philosophy, far outstripping your feelings about a football team. Both these sporting faiths bring men to tears (of joy and of sorrow), but they also bring their fans something more: a sort of spiritual togetherness among their tribe.
“God is with us.”
Frank Lamping is laughing as he says this. He is in the middle of making the 150-mile drive from his home in Union Grove, Wisconsin, to Green Bay. But there still seems to be an element of truth to what he’s saying.
The 61-year-old has made this drive more than 200 times in his lifetime. He’s always the first one into Lambeau Field on game day. And he gets goose bumps every time he walks in. Sporting the same Packers hard hat he’s worn to games for the past 15 years and the same Ty Detmer game-worn cleats he’s worn to games for the past 20 years, Lamping strolls down to his front-row seats. He gets out the Packers Titletown towel he got in 1996, the year of the team’s third Super Bowl win. And he tapes an Aaron Rodgers Starting Lineup figure to the padding just above the end zone.
“On game days, I tell my friends I’m going to church up in Green Bay,” Lamping says. “A lot of people tailgate, but I want to be the first one in there. I want to get that feeling as much as I can.”
On this particular fall evening, Lamping is on his way to a lecture about the history of Lambeau’s turf. He already knows a bit about this subject; his yard is planted with three types of grass that were once planted in the stadium. In 1997, the Packers beat the Carolina Panthers in a sloppy, muddy NFC Championship Game that tore up the turf. The team decided to pull it up, give it away and plant new sod. On two other occasions when the Packers decided to rip up their turf, Lamping made the drive to Lambeau to pick it up then planted it in his lawn. When he is hosting guests, he sometimes puts out two miniature goalposts and paints the iconic Green Bay “G” into his grass to give the sensation of standing in a miniature Lambeau.
Lamping has been a superfan all his life. He grew up on a farm, and his dad had another job, so all the farm work was left to the weekend. But every autumn Sunday at noon, work would halt for three hours and they’d watch Bart Starr and the Packers. One of his earliest sporting memories is watching the so-called Ice Bowl — one of the coldest and one of the greatest games in NFL history — on December 31, 1967. He remembers it like it was yesterday. Lamping didn’t know it at the time, but this was his introduction to the eternal optimism of Packers fandom.
“On the 10 previous drives, the Packers had 31 plays; they literally punted every time but one,” he recalls. “They couldn’t do anything on the ice. But they got the ball with four minutes and 50 seconds left, and you just knew they were going to score. Sixty-some yards to go on a frozen field. They had no right to win, but they looked into each others’ eyes in the huddle and knew they could do it. And that is why we’re optimistic people.”
Some would argue that sports fandom is a distraction from life, not something that can shape or nurture it. But Lamping’s story refutes that.
A few years ago, he was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer, meaning it had gotten into his bones. A friend did something nice for him: entered him in a contest to be inducted into the Packers Fan Hall of Fame. Some 350 people were nominated, and 10 finalists were selected. People in Union Grove sold “Go Frank Go” t-shirts, donating the thousands of dollars of proceeds to the American Cancer Society. Hundreds of Lamping’s friends gathered for a pep rally in his honor. Two and a half years of chemotherapy had beaten him up pretty badly, and his optimism waned.
But then he won the contest. It reinvigorated his spirit. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, with a busload of family and friends accompanying him to the ceremony.
With a population of 105,139, Green Bay is by far the smallest American city to have a major professional sports team, let alone a winning one. That dynamic has given the team and its fans a tight-knit, small-town quality — and a Mayberry-like optimism that Lamping has experienced firsthand during his darkest days.
“The Packers are always going to be a positive force in my life,” he says. “Maybe it’s because Lombardi was such a religious man, but when I walk into that stadium, I get this feeling of calmness. It helps me forget about the cancer, the stuff going on inside me. It’s like a cathedral.”
Outside U.S. Bank Stadium, it’s nearing kickoff for the first Vikings–Packers meeting of the 2017 season. Across the parking lot from Chris Pagnac and his replica Viking gear, Brian McKeen of Canby wears a Harrison Smith jersey and leans against the back of an ambulance. “Skol Force One,” to be precise — an old ambulance he bought for $9,500 and outfitted into a Vikings tailgate-mobile. Speakers blare Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The ambulance lights flash purple and gold. A television plays the Vikings pregame show. Inside, there’s a framed poster autographed by the entire 2016 Vikings team.
McKeen takes a swig of beer and waxes poetic. “You hope for the best, but you expect the worst,” he says. “One of my first sporting memories was the NFC Championship Game after the 1987 season. The Vikings were tied late in the fourth quarter, but then the Redskins marched 70 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings made it all the way to the six-yard line before they were shut down. Game over. I learned what heartbreak was at a young age.”
I am not a member of this fatalistic tribe, but I became a sort of Vikings-fan-in-law when I married a Minnesota girl and moved here, as usually follows. I do not understand the willful misery that Vikings fans put themselves through year after year. Why follow a team that brings you such sorrow?
I ask McKeen this. He sighs.
“People wonder why you do it,” he says. “Because every year ends the same. And every year, they find a different way to do it: injuries, missed field goals, interceptions at the worst times. Last year when they started 5–0, people were saying this looked like a Super Bowl team. But I knew better than that.”
And yet, it’s a tradition that gets passed down from generation to generation. Andy Minnich of Maple Grove was inducted into Vikings fandom by his father and grandfather. Now he has three young children of his own. They wear tiny Vikings jerseys. They read Vikings board books. When they get juice in a sippy cup in the morning, they refuse to drink it if Minnich accidentally puts the yellow lid on the green cup. No Packers colors, ever.
Minnich remembers watching the 1998 NFC Championship Game while in college at St. John’s University. When Gary Anderson missed the field goal, the entire dorm went quiet. It was as though someone had died.
He remembers watching the 2009 NFC Championship Game in his father’s basement. Minnich really felt like, this time, it was going to happen — the Vikings were going to the Super Bowl. Then Favre, the man who’d brought such greatness to Green Bay, crushed the Vikings fan base. He threw the interception. Not another word was spoken. Minnich silently gathered his belongings and left.
“I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” he says. “And now I’ve got a little legacy with three mini Vikings fans I’ve got to groom. There’s no turning back now.”
Back outside the stadium, Jess Mueller and Mara Wellner, two die-hard Packers fans from Milwaukee, are finishing their mimosas. I ask them what it means to be Packers fans.
“I just feel so privileged every day to wake up and say, ‘Thank you, God, for Aaron Rodgers,’” Mueller explains.
“We’re just so blessed,” Wellner adds.
“Some people say this is America’s team,” Mueller muses. “No; this is God’s team.” She teases another friend, Linda Niemela, a Vikings fan who also lives in Milwaukee: “We want to save you! Make you a born-again Packers fan!”
The thing about a sporting faith is that any given Sunday that faith can be challenged. Mueller and Wellner walked into U.S. Bank Stadium for the noon kickoff. They sat down in their seats. Eight minutes into the first quarter, Rodgers rolled out of the pocket and fired a perfect pass for a first down. But the moment the ball left his fingertips, Vikings’ linebacker Anthony Barr hit him, smashing Rodgers’ shoulder into the turf.
It was a broken clavicle. The backup took over, and Rodgers got 13 screws in his shoulder. He was expected to miss most if not all of the season. The Vikings won that game, and suddenly, the sporting universe was turned upside down. The charmed team was pushed into the darkness, and the cursed team seemed to be experiencing a moment of light.
Perhaps this is the point of it all: The best sports fans are the ones who stick with their teams through thick and thin. We talk about the Packers’ good fortune, but we forget about the dark hole in the franchise’s history that was the 1970s and 1980s. We say the Vikings are forever doomed, but then we remember the other teams that once seemed forever doomed: the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs, the Kansas City Royals, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Being a sports fan — a crazy sports fan, the kind who buys a tailgating ambulance or performs the same home-game rituals for two decades — requires blind faith. Come February, Super Bowl LII will feature two teams battling to give their fans the most exhilarating experience in American sports: claiming victory on Super Bowl Sunday. Maybe it’ll be the Patriots and the Packers, or the Steelers and the Saints, franchises that have been here before. Or maybe, finally, it will be the time for a star-crossed franchise like the Vikings. The past does not foretell the future in sports, and that uncertainty means that even the most despondent of fans can have hope. Optimism has been infused in Frank Lamping since birth, just as pessimism has long colored Brian McKeen’s purview. Packers fans and Vikings fans might be frenemies, but that doesn’t mean one cannot help the other. Lamping views being a Packers fan in an almost evangelistic way, with a desire to share what he’s learned. “We have green-and-gold-colored glasses on,” he says. “Even if we’re down 10 points with a minute left, we still think, ‘We can do it! We can pull this off!’ Vikings fans just don’t have that. I guess it’s that simple: You just never say die.”
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.