It’s 4:00 am, the morning of the first regular season Packer game of the year. Mark Fitzke can’t sleep. He rises, pulls on his lucky t-shirt, and heads out the door. His dog, a 7-year-old border collie named Tulco, follows his master outside. Fitzke, a 46-year-old small business owner in Wausau, obsessively checks and rechecks his backyard setup, making sure everything is set for the day ahead.
The small gray house looks unassuming from the front, but the backyard has been fully transformed into Packer Party Central: three outdoor bars, two TVs, a couple of propane heaters, about a dozen tables and bar stools, a bean bag game, and a ping pong table.
There’s also a zip line strung between two tall trees, because – you know – half time can be boring.
Livening up the party palooza are strings of festive lights, pink flamingos, and half a dozen hand-painted signs around what Fitzke calls “the tiki bar.”
By 11:00 am, the TVs are on and Fitzke is marinating more than two dozen steaks.The salad is made, the coolers are out, several dozen Jell-O shots are in the fridge as the first few guests begin to trickle in. Soon, a long stream of friends, family members and neighbors make their way to Fitzke’s home, a cozy ranch on the banks of the Little Rib River in Stettin. Most guests know one another, though some haven’t seen each other since January, when the last season ended.
If football parties are an art form, Fitzke could teach a master class.
On any given Sunday during football season, between 10 and 40 people drop by. His regulars include a core group of about a dozen men and women, now in their 40s and early 50s, who have known each other since their teens. They’re joined by neighbors, family members, coworkers, and usually a dog or two. (Someone even brought a goat once, though that’s a whole story in itself.) New friends are quickly welcomed into the fold. There are smiles all around, even for the lone Bears fan in a Chicago jersey, a good sport who takes a good ribbing, pretty much every week.
When the weather grows colder the parties move inside to the “Packer room,” a space filled with memorabilia ranging from signed photographs to footballs to bobble heads. Inside, there are more TVs, an antique Coca-Cola machine that holds dozens of bottles of beer, and a long table lined with Nesco roasters and crock pots filled with game day snacks.
But there are never desserts. Long considered by the group to be bad luck, sweets are forbidden as a superstition that dates back to a string of tragic losses in which desserts were the only common denominator. A newcomer once brought a cake, then
watched open-mouthed as it was promptly walked out to the edge of the property until after the final whistle.
One grill is not enough
For Fitzke and his friends, Packer Sundays have been a serious tradition that goes back decades. In the beginning, when most members of the group were in their early 20s, they regularly traveled to games together in a salvaged school bus. The ride was often uncomfortable; there was no heat and springs poked through the seats. No one complained, though, even when the temps dropped below zero.
For other games, the group often gathered at a local bar, where Fitzke, ever the meat maestro, often persuaded the owner to set up a grill for him to cook brats or burgers. Eventually, when some got married and had children, it made more sense to watch at home.
That’s when Fitzke’s famous Packer Sundays were born, then slowly became legendary. Over the years, a few things changed: In the early days, Fitzke installed actual bleachers along the green- and gold-painted walls of the Packer room, while the children played safely in an area of their own, off to the side. Today, those bleachers have been replaced by leather couches and reclining seats, and the children have, for the most part, grown and gone on to college.
But one thing that hasn’t changed: the fabulous food.
Each game day, Fitzke plans, preps and serves a magnificent main dish. Sometimes that means, as it did in week one, aged New York strip steaks; other times it’s pulled pork, beef brisket, fajitas, tacos or chicken legs. The man has three grills, including a smoker, and sometimes they’re all going at once. He also has food truck. Guests bring their own beverages, along with an appetizer or side dish to pass. Once each year, when the weather is right, he prepares a seafood boil with mounds of crab legs, shrimp, sausage and other goodies piled high on a newspaper-lined table in the backyard.
For Fitzke, his parties are a way to combine his passion for cooking, football and friendship. Fitzke, a Wausau native, comes from a close-knit family and lives with his longtime girlfriend. The couple has no children, but Fitzke’s parents and brother live nearby. Simply put, he discovered that he loves to cook for others, something that is quickly apparent the moment his guests walk through the door. And his friends wouldn’t dream of watching the game anywhere else.
Front row seat at home
While some fans might argue that going to a Green Bay Packer game is the best way to take in the action, doing so is becoming prohibitively expensive.
Games quickly sell out, and for those lucky enough to have season tickets (there’s been a waiting list since 1960), the price is steep. Season ticket holders pay a one-time fee of $4,200 for the right to purchase the tickets, plus $2,380 per season for two tickets to seven games ($170 per ticket), according to Yahoo Sports. (Season ticket holders from the Packers’ days in Milwaukee’s County Stadium own ticket rights to the other three games on the 10-game home schedule.)
For individual tickets, the price is usually higher. Add in $30 to $40 for parking and you’re at nearly $400 for two people, and that’s not counting the gas to get there or the beer at the stadium—which, by the way, is about $8 a glass, and don’t feel bad about that because it’s worse elsewhere, like in Oakland, where a small draft beer will set you back $10.
At these prices, it’s no wonder that even a lavish Packer party at home sounds like a deal, where you get a front-row seat to watch the action with plenty of your own rowdy friends.
The number of people who watch football games on TV is nothing short of staggering. A lot, and I mean a lot, of people watch the NFL. Nielsen ratings show that 23 of the 25 most-watched programs on TV in the fall are NFL football telecasts. The 2015 regular season as a whole reached more than 200 million unique viewers. Putting that into perspective, that’s twice as many viewers as the number of cattle in America (92.6 million in 2014) and a bit less than the number of cars on U.S. roads (253 million).
It’s not surprising that football parties are a growing phenomenon, and clearly, Fitzke can show us all how it’s done.
But for those of us without the fancy grills, the mad cooking skills, the tiki bar or the zip line, we have to wonder: How do you pull off the perfect party?
Your ultimate Packer party checklist
Be careful who you invite. That guy who takes it super personally when his fantasy wide receiver fumbles? Yeah, don’t invite him. Nothing kills the party spirit like fans who scream and swear, then act like children when the game doesn’t go their way.
Also be wary of inviting first-timers who know nothing about football and think sports are stupid. You’ll only find yourself stuck in a conversation about local gossip (or worse, politics) when you really want to focus on Aaron Rodgers’ passing game. You might want to pass on inviting that Bears fan, too, though it’s worked out so far for Fitzke.
Have enough beer. Let’s face it: Beer is as much a part of football as the equipment used to actually play the game. Collectively, according to the Stevens Institute of Technology, Americans drink as much as 250 gallons of beer on game day—a number that soars to 325 million on Super Bowl Sunday. If the average person goes through two beers an hour during a game and the length of a typical football game is three hours… well, you do the math. But keep an extra 12-pack or so on hand, even if your guests bring their own. This is Wisconsin, after all. Also supply plenty of water and soft drinks for designated drivers and nondrinkers.
Stock up on toilet paper. Seriously, we can’t stress this enough. There’s bound to be a lot of foot traffic going in and out of the bathroom for about four hours, so running out of TP could be catastrophic. Make sure there’s plenty of hand soap. And a can of air freshener on the toilet tank is also a good idea, just saying. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to have the game playing in there as well, so keep a radio handy. No one wants to miss the best play of the day because nature doesn’t have cable.
Have enough seating. That couch won’t fit everyone. Do what you must to make sure everyone can sit at the same time, whether that means borrowing chairs and bean bags or buying some cheap folding chairs and repurposing footrests. No one wants to stand. Really.
Think about the viewing. Make sure you have enough TVs for everyone to have a clear view. Setting up an extra TV in the kitchen by the food isn’t a bad idea. For those early season game day parties that can spill outside, see about setting up a TV on the deck. Fitzke hooks up not one, but two TVs outside around his Packer party tiki bar.
Be wary of the potluck. Asking everyone to bring a dish to pass can save money, but you do run the risk of someone bringing something really nasty. (Or a dessert, in which case the Packers will lose. See above.) No matter what, have backup snacks, because in the fourth quarter when the score is tied at 21 apiece with three seconds to go, everyone will appreciate having a bit of comfort food to get them through the panic. It’s impossible to enjoy hyped up football games without the right amount of carbs, stuff to dip things in, miniature snacks and barbecued things.
This is not the time to be healthy. Speaking of food, the rule is pretty much this: The main meal should be simple, filling, and bad for you. Think pizza, buffalo wings, tacos and chili. If you plan to order pizzas, call at least an hour ahead, because delivery can take awhile during football games, when everyone and their brother is calling for a pie. Stick to a buffet setup to ease serving and eating so everyone can enjoy the food while watching the game (and you can, too).
Manage the kids. Of course, finding a sitter is hard, so some guests inevitably will have to bring their kids to the party. Most young children don’t have the attention span to deal with drawn out sporting events. It isn’t their fault they become bored and cranky by the third quarter, just when things are getting really good. The solution? Designate a separate room where kids can play, watch TV and roughhouse. And make sure they have their own snacks, because grubby fingers won’t go over well with the rest of your adult guests.
Football facts sure to impress
Want to impress your friends with your amazing football knowledge? Memorize these fun facts and sound like a pro:
• Don’t call it a pigskin: It takes 600 cows to make one season’s worth of footballs. And footballs were never made of pigskin. About 4,000 footballs are produced daily by Wilson, the exclusive maker of NFL footballs since 1941.
• Super Bowl rings cost $5,000 each and the NFL pays for 150 rings to go to the winning team.
• The Vince Lombardi Trophy is made by Tiffany & Co. of New York and costs $25,000 to make.
• The first televised football game in 1939 drew an audience of 500, which is 112,200,500 people less than watched last year’s Super Bowl.
• On Nov. 23, 1970, during Monday Night Football, announcer Howard Cosell was so drunk he famously slurred his speech during the entire broadcast, then threw up on Don Meredith’s boots at halftime.
• The ball in a game is usually only in play for 11 minutes. About 50% of the game on TV is devoted to replays, usually when somebody does something stupid. As many as 75 minutes (or 60%) of total TV air time is spent on shots of players standing on the line of scrimmage, huddling, or walking around.
• There are 32 teams in the NFL and each team has an average value of about $1 billion.
• Football is way more popular than baseball. The average attendance for an NFL game is 66,957 spectators, compared to 30,135 for MLB games. Plus, the NFL has annual revenue of $9 billion, with a profit of $1 billion, compared to MLB with an annual revenue of $7.2 billion and a profit of $49 million.
• About 78% of all NFL players are bankrupt two years after finishing their careers.
• Former Minnesota Vikings kicker Fred Cox invented the Nerf football back in 1972. He still receives royalties for every unit sold.
• Deion Sanders is the only person in history to hit an MLB home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week. He’s also the only person to play in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.
• Only one NFL player has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Terry Bradshaw.