December 23, 2013 | 04:02 PMGREEN BAY — The sky was white and plumes of gray steam billowed from smoke stacks in the distance over the tops of one-story houses in a little blue-collar neighborhood just west of the Fox River.
The traffic grew heavier and so did the snow.
The streets and buildings are steeped in industrial memory but have famous names — Lombardi Avenue, Holmgren Way. The Don Hutson Center seems out of place but is dwarfed by the stadium behind it.
Lambeau Field rises above the small homes and snow-covered streets like a massive green castle — its stadium lights are parapets with green and gold flags billowing in the wind beneath them.
Fans dressed in green and gold swarmed toward a giant Packer "G" on the back of the new addition over the south end zone.
We walked through a mile of tailgate villages and passed through security lines at the base of a staircase leading to the Oneida Gate. We looked out over the crowd at the top of the stairs and surveyed the vast expanse of Packer Nation — thousands of fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder at the base of the steps. We went inside.
There is not a bad seat in Lambeau.
Every game has been sold out since 1960 and season tickets have stayed within families for just as long.
The Lambeau bleachers are divided into neighborhoods of season ticket holders. I've known Jerry, the man who owns tickets to the seats right next to ours, for over a decade.
A family that mine has known for generations sits two rows back. The owner of the seats directly behind us is known for selling tickets to out-of-towners — something the neighborhood hasn't exactly enjoyed over the years — and low-and-behold, a Steelers fan was already settled in before we arrived.
It had snowed throughout the previous night and during the drive up from Germantown, where my brother and I had stopped to stay with family the night before the game. We spent over an hour getting the cars out of the driveway of our parents' house on Sunday morning.
My brother's car was stuck in the snow on an unplowed hill and two men from the neighborhood — one wearing a Chicago Bears hat — took a break from shoveling their driveways to help me push.
The Bears fan didn't mind my Clay Matthews jersey and we put our shoulders into it side-by-side until the wheels had enough traction and my brother sped ahead to a plowed road at the top of the hill. I thanked them and ran after the car, my boots slipping in half a foot of snow.
It was a frigid December game with a matchup as classic and important as any in the Packer cannon. The two franchises on the field had won a combined 10 Super Bowls and played each other 34 times in the past century, most recently in February 2011 during Super Bowl XLV.
This year, both teams were fighting to stay alive in the playoff race. The Packers were struggling to keep it together without Aaron Rodgers and had been plagued by injuries all season. The Steelers, 6-8, were not without their share of injuries and defensive struggles.
The scoreboard said it was 26 degrees. The Packers received the kickoff.
Bloody knuckles sank into the dead, frozen grass on a field as bruised and tired as the players on the line of scrimmage. A strip of shredded grass and mud ran from end zone to end zone in the center of the field. Snow swirled over the field and dusted the stadium with a layer of white. The fans and players exhaled steam.
The Steelers and Packers had each drafted new running backs this year — the Steelers drafted Le'Veon Bell 13 picks before the Packers took Eddie Lacy in the second round, and both rookie running backs were having impressive seasons.
Lacy had already rushed for eight touchdowns and over 1,000 yards despite missing nearly two games early in the season. Bell had compiled over 600 yards and seven touchdowns. It was a battle of the backs.
The Packers drew first blood with four minutes left in the first quarter with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jarrett Boykin, which he wrestled in over the head of a defender. The Steelers responded four minutes later with a touchdown of their own.
Eddie Lacy pounded into the end zone on an acrobatic 14-yard cut-back run two minutes before halftime, and the Steelers kicked back with a 31-yard field goal.
My brother and I traded high-fives with the neighborhood at each triumph — a momentum-changing interception from A.J. Hawk, a heads-up fumble recovery from Tramon Williams — and hung our heads with each failure.
The Packers and Steelers traded blow for blow throughout the game, but a few costly Packer mistakes from rookies and replacements made the difference. Backup quarterback Matt Flynn threw a wild pick-six in the third quarter and then fumbled the ball with under two minutes to go in the fourth.
We cheered when the score updates on the big screen showed the Lions losing to the Giants. Few fans sat for more than a few plays at a time. Everyone was standing and yelling in perfect cue — 80,000 fans roared until their voices gave out when the Steelers had the ball, but the stands were dead silent while the Packers operated on offense.
In the end, no amount of cheering could save the Packers from themselves, and as the injuries piled up — Lacy (ankle), Clay Matthews (thumb), Mike Daniels (abdomen) — our disappointment doubled.
The Packers lost 38-31. But the magic of a late-December game at Lambeau lingered. There's nothing quite like watching the Packers live, even when they lose.
But the Packers aren't done yet — the Bears' stunning 54-11 loss on Sunday night has postponed the NFC North Championship for another week. An early Christmas present from the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Packers and Bears will face off at Soldier Field on Sunday to decide their fate. Could there be a more fitting way to end the season?
Most fans love to watch their teams dominate with ease and cruise through a season as the undisputed champion of the league, but I love the struggle. Classic teams battling in the snow for one more game, one more opportunity. These are the games that make legends and haunt memories.
Happy holidays Geneva Lake, but get ready. In a border-town split between the Packers and Bears, things could get heated on Sunday.
And I, for one, can't wait.