If you've ever traveled to a far away land, splurged on an experience normally outside of your means or ticked off a bucket list item, you know how surreal it is to experience something that only seemed amazing before hand.
Standing in the coliseum in Rome, you can look around and allow your imagination to take you back a couple thousand years with visions of gladiators, lions and naval battles. Sounds of citizens screaming, sights of the vestal virgins in their box seats along side the emperor and smells of blood fill your senses.
Though the history of Lambeau Field -- and the sporting giants that have engaged in battle there -- occurred far more recently, the game day experience at this cathedral of American athletics offers a similar out-of-this-world experience.
After putting on the layers required to survive the expected sub-zero temperatures, we headed for the bus that the San Francisco 49ers were so kind to have setup for us as part of our discounted room rate at the Milwaukee Hilton. We were also given a box of a few hundred "Quest for Six" rally towels to hand out to other Faithfuls that we would encounter. A tremendous start to the day; to feel so appreciated by the club.
The ride in to Green Bay was smooth, taking a tick over two hours. However big -- or, small, rather -- Green Bay is in your head, reduce the size in half. Lambeau Field appears in clear view from the freeway and only becomes partially obstructed by the one- to two-story buildings surrounding it when you get within a stone's throw. There's not much here to distract you.
Upon disembarking the bus, we got our first taste of the cold. Those who thought they had enough layers put more on. And those who felt fine figured they'd be better safe than sorry. They added more layers, too.
We began our walk in numbers to the tailgate that was happening just a block or so away. We got some stares. A couple friendly jabs. But the early indication was that the environment may not be overly hostile. The San Francsico 49ers and Green Bay Packers have a long playoff rivalry that understandably could bring out the unwelcoming fan hiding inside the notoriously hospitable folks of the Midwest. That wasn't happening, though. All the same, I convinced myself not to let my guard down.
After a couple hours of brats, chile and other non-freezable fare, we made the short jaunt to the stadium.
The first of many mind blowing experiences happened at the gate. The Packers were giving out rally towels of their own for the tilt. Not only did the extremely friendly, aged employees handing them out insist I take a towel as a memento, a couple of them begged me for one of the Niners rally towels. I had to oblige. These people were just too friendly to say no to. This is as close to exchanging a jersey as I will ever get. It was really neat.
Now inside the stadium, we walked around the concourse. When I spotted red and gold, I gave out a towel. This was naturally received with great excitement and appreciation.
Once we got to our section, we poked our heads out for the first time to see the hallowed grounds of so many memorable games. This is where reality begins to set in, replacing what you envision with actuality. It's a magical moment that makes you forget about everything -- bone-chilling climate included.
Dave -- a Faithful I met in the hotel bar Saturday night -- and I decided to move down toward the field to get a close-up view of the players during pre-game warm ups and such. He had the banner stating "You're in 49ers Country," that we wanted to proudly display to the team. We got a double chest thump from Donte Whitner, a thumbs up from Ray McDonald and several other head nods and winks. This sort of acknowledgment will send you straight back to your youth, filling you with a sense of glee that perhaps grown men shouldn't feel be overcome with after such a trivial act. But, this is why we are fanatics, right?
Before we knew it, the singing of the National Anthem had begun and the occupants of these front-row, 30-yard-line seats had yet to arrive. Dave and I figured we'd remain there until the rightful owners showed up. They never did. We got to spend four eventful quarters of playoff football at Lambeau Field, with nothing but our favorite players partially obstructing our view.
The folks around us were just as wonderful as those we encountered in the neighborhood, at our tailgate and in the Lambeau concourse. They shared stories and information about the stadium and their traditions that helped fill any possible holes in our experience that we might otherwise glance over.
The "Go, Pack, Go" chant and accompanying musical jingle. Roll out the Barrel. Bang the Drum All Day. The beer races. All these things you hear on television sound so much different here, and are just as deserving of an in-person experience as the game itself. It's their tradition. It's the core of what Packers football is. It should -- and does -- command your appreciation.
We'll fast forward a bit, as the events of the game are well chronicled.
In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, as the Niners milked the clock while setting themselves up for the game-winning field goal, the usually quiet and focused NaVorro Bowman turned and looked to us. He uttered "When we win, I got you."
Dave and I -- along with the other handful of Niners fans sitting adjacent to us -- were a bit stunned and unsure of what Bowman meant. After Phil Dawson's kick sailed through the uprights and time expired, Bowman hurdled the bench and immediately came over to us. He slapped all our hands and asked Dave for a pen. Supplied with a Sharpie, he signed the banner and a few other items for fans. In the weekly "Mic'd Up" video the 49ers do, you can see this toward the end of the video.
In the moments after a huge playoff win on the road, an NFL all-pro could have rushed the field to celebrate with his teammates. Instead, he opted to come show his appreciation to some Faithfuls who made a long journey to spend a few hours shivering while screaming for their favorite team.
This is a player I had so much admiration and respect for before. The level of that appreciation is now other worldly, with words to adequately depict them lacking from our vernacular.
When we turned around, hands and congratulations were being extended, along with well wishes for the remainder of the playoffs.
To Packers fans: The hospitality and sportsmanship you showed our fan base was indescribable and humbling. In an era of drunkenness, foul language and violence, you showed us something that every sports fan should experience and strive to emulate. Visiting your city and stadium was a pleasure that I cannot wait to do again.
To the 49ers: The class you showed to those of us traveling is something that makes me confident that I am supporting the right team. My love for your franchise was handed down to me from my father, but my continued passion is now absolutely a choice that I am thrilled to continue to make.
Experiences are what make life so great. You can read, listen to stories or watch a documentary about them. However, when the opportunity to fill your senses and soul with something that inspires you presents itself, you've got to do it.
Surreal is a state of mind that can be conquered with imagination and fortitude.