By Dani MacInnes All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance

Chapter 7

Darkness. That was the only thing he could see. It engulfed him, threatening to bring him down. He tried to hang onto a ledge, but it was no use. He could feel his fingers slipping ever so slowly…

Darko woke to Elva licking his face. He blinked his eyes open to see her staring at him with concern in her eyes. It was like she could read his mind. He gave her a small smile and rubbed her head to let her know he was fine. It was just a dream. He had ones like that often enough. It was no big deal.

He groaned as he sat up in bed and rubbed his neck. It was training camp day. He would have rather wished it was not. What other team made a big deal about it? Sure, it was nice to go and get easy autographs from players when you were a kid, but this seemed like a city ordeal. Or state. No, it was much larger than that. He knew enough to know that Packers fans were everywhere. They had not left a favorable impression on him.

But he had promised Cynnie he would go with her. Things had been better between them now that they had decided to leave her family out of it. She had shown him Green Bay’s wildlife refuge. He had been fascinated by all the animals and plants. He had a deep appreciation for nature. He was glad to find someone to share it. There were also many hiking trails and fishing spots along the Fox River and Bay. At least that was something good about the city.

He took her swing dancing the previous week. She had never done it before, but she seemed to have fun learning. She was very fun to be around. It was then that she had asked him to go to training camp with her. He had already been pumped up with so many endorphins form dancing and being with her that it had been hard to say no. That had not stopped him from resisting at first.

“No,” he had said firmly. “I knew this would be coming. Didn’t I tell you? This city has a problem.”

Cynnie pleaded with those sad puppy-dog eyes of her. “Please? We don’t have a problem. We just love football. Everything in Green Bay is not about the Packers, but it is impossible to understand Green Bay without first understanding the Packers. If you truly want to fit in with this city, this is something you have to do. It’ll bring you a sense of unity.”

Darko raised his eyebrows. “Unity? Like how your brothers were fighting about Brett Favre? That’s some unity. Sure, you’re fine when everything’s going good, but at the first sign of trouble-”

Cynnie frowned and bit her lip. She was so cute when she did that. “That’s not how it works, I promise. Brett just… hits a cord with most of us. But even that can’t stop us from coming together and supporting our team. We disagree, but we’re still united.”

Darko stared at her. He wanted to believe her. He wanted everything she had said about the team and the city to be true. But he could not help but feel that she was being too optimistic. He knew about their issue with Favre and he had an opinion of his own. He had never had a reason to develop it much until now. What he did know was that, if what Cynnie said about unity was true, then they either had to come to some sort of reconciliation with their old quarterback or risk developing an irreversible rift in the team. He feared that would destroy them. Perhaps the Packers community really was stronger than most, but everyone had their breaking point. A house divided could not stand.

Eventually, he had given in. He had made the decision to try to find a home in Green Bay. Cynnie was right; he had to give the Packers a fair chance. He would leave his preconceived notions behind as he spent the day with the team.

Darko had bought a Packers cap and shirt. The hat was all green with the white “G” logo in the middle. The inside of the hat was yellow. The shirt was green as well. In the middle, written in gold letters, was the number “1921,” the year the Packers were founded. The “G” logo was in the middle of the numbers. Above this, “Green Bay” was written in gold, and below the date, the name “Packers” was displayed, also in gold. The colors were not bad. The forest green reminded him of nature.

Cynnie arrived promptly on time. She was grinning cheerfully when he opened the door. His eyes swept over her. She was wearing a pink Packers jersey with the number 52. On her head was the classic cheesehead hat. For some reason, this amused him. It seemed too funny to be real.

“My brothers are going on their own,” Cynnie explained, “so it will be just us.”

Darko nodded. “Good.” They then exited the building, heading to his truck.

Lambeau Field was visible five minutes before he was able to find a parking spot. Attached to the left of the field was the Lambeau Atrium, which was a complex of shops and offices. This was the main entrance to the field. Two large bronze statues stood on either side. Cynnie told him that these were the legendary Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi.

A huge line of people filed outside the door. Darko gave Cynnie a look. She smiled sweetly and shrugged. “This is why we got here early.” Darko resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

It took nearly two hours to get tickets for the Legendary Lambeau Experience, which was a two-hour long walking tour costing $38. Cynnie insisted it was worth it. He hated to have her pay for him, but she insisted it was no big deal.

The tour guide was a blond-haired woman in her late 20s. She wore a Packers cap and collared shirt. “Good morning, Packers fans,” she said in a peppy voice. “My name is Jenny.”

They began in the atrium. Jenny explained the tour procedures, which were simply enough. Then she led them to the fourth floor of the stadium, which was apparently called the legends level. Darko listened to a brief history of the floor. The level was named after four Packers legends, Johnny McNally, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and Willie Davis. Darko wondered why Cynnie was there with him. She probably knew all of this already.

“These are private seats,” Jenny said as she led them into the field. She turned to face them and smiled. “They cost a modest $68,000 to $150,000 per suite per season.”

“All the seats Packers fans have are owned by season ticket holders,” Cynnie whispered in his ear. “There is a super long waiting list anyone would die to get to the top of.”

Darko frowned. The stadium had no roof. Wasn’t it freezing in the winter? Who in their right mind would go to such great lengths to watch the team in the cold? He gazed out at the field. It was shaped like a bowl. It looked like it could fit quite a lot of people. It looked fine right then. But what happened when it snowed?

The group was next led to some media suites, including a network TV broadcast booth. Darko found these sort of cool. He was glad when they reached another private sweet. This one was stocked with cookies and water. Everyone took their share gratefully.

Cynnie grinned at Darko. “What do you think so far?”

Darko shrugged as he took a bite into a chocolate chip cookie. “It’s alright. I don’t see how it’s worth the money though.”

“Oh, we’ve hardly begun,” Cynnie said. “Plus, we get entrance into the Packer’s Hall of Fame.”

Darko blinked. “What kind of team has its own hall of fame? Wait – don’t answer that.” This was the Packers he was talking about.

Cynnie laughed before biting into her cookie.

After the break, they were finally taken outside. The cool breeze felt good in the early August sun. Jenny began telling them about the Packers’ history as they walked through the bleachers. Darko had to admit he was mildly impressed. The team certainly had an impressive tradition of winning. No wonder the city was nicknamed Titletown.

The group walked through the main concourse and then into the visitor’s locker room. Darko found this fascinating. He had always wondered what a profession sport’s locker room looked like. Perhaps Cynnie was right. This was worth it.

Cynnie suddenly grabbed his arm, a huge grin on her face. She looked positively giddy. Darko raised his eyebrows. He was almost afraid as to what was coming next.

Jenny looked over each of them with a smile. “We will now walk through the tunnel that the Packers use to get to the field.”

Everyone murmured excitedly. Darko could not blame them. This was pretty cool. He soaked in the moment as he walked through the dark tunnel. There was a recorded introduction that made him feel like he was walking out on game day. Why were his hands tingling? He did not care about this team. But it did almost feel like he was a professional player. He had never had any special desire to play professional football, but what guy would not welcome the chance?

“Well, we’re almost done here,” Jenny said. The tour group stood in the bleachers while she was in front of them. “But first, let’s practice our ‘go Pack go!’ chant, alright?”

Darko snapped out of whatever trance he had been in. He gave Cynnie a blank stare. “Do I have to?”

Cynnie smiled ruefully. “Not unless you don’t want to look like an outsider.”

Darko rolled his eyes. He felt like mumbling a response, but he chose to give in. What harm would it do? He felt awkward as he shouted twice with the rest of the group. He could not imagine doing it at a game.

Finally, they were back in the atrium, where the tour officially ended. They were all given a five dollar gift card to Curly’s Interactive Zone, which was an arcade fuond in the atrium, and a choice between two souvenirs. Cynnie picked the Packers fan cooler while Darko chose the seat cushion. They dropped them off at Darko’s car before resuming their day.

Darko checked his watch. It was a little past noon. “What now?” he asked his companion.

Cynnie flashed him a smile. “Now it’s for lunch! We can find a place somewhere around here.”

The atrium was filled with Packers fans of every age, race, and gender. The gear they were wearing varied just as much. Darko did not think he had ever seen so much green and gold in his life. Just a day ago he would have found it highly annoying, but something else was stirring inside him now. He was not sure what it was.

They ended up buying burger and fries at a small restaurant. They searched for a table but none seemed to be free. Darko noticed an elderly couple sitting perpendicular to each other at a small table. The woman raised her hand. “You two young ones can sit with us.”

Cynnie smiled gratefully. “Thanks.” Darko would have protested, but they had nowhere else to sit. “I’m Cynnie. This is my friend Darko. He’s new to Green Bay. This is his first time at Lambeau.”

The old woman chuckled. She was wearing a Packers shirt and a green and gold scarf around her neck. “How exciting. I’m Louise. This is my husband Henry.”

The man tipped his Packers hat at the younger people. He was also sporting a number 12 jersey. Aaron Rodgers. “It’s nice to meet you. What do you think so far?”

Darko shook his head, a small smile on his face. “It’s amazing. And kind of overwhelming. I never understood – I didn’t know-” He stopped and shook his head again. He could not put it into words right now. He needed time to think and reflect. And he had so much more to see. He wondered what he could be feeling once the day was through.

Henry smiled and nodded. “I know what you mean. There’s a lot to take in. Are you a Packers fan?”

“Where are you from?” Louise asked.

Montgomery, Louisiana. I used to be a Saints fan, but I’ve had a falling out with them.”

Henry smiled. “So you’re in the market for a new team.”

Darko shrugged. “I guess you could say that.”

“Well, the Packers are a good team to follow,” Louise said gently. “We’re like a family.”

Darko looked at her curiously. The statement caught his interest. “What do you mean?”

“The Packers are the only publicly owned team in professional sports,” Henry began slowly. “They can never be sold. They belong to the community. They belong to us. That creates a bond between team and fans that cannot be seen anywhere else.”

“We all are part of the Packers,” Louise said. “We’re all family. If any of us every need help, we’re there for each other. We always have something to talk about. There’s nothing else like it.”

Darko felt a burning desire inside of him. Family. That was what he wanted. That was what he needed. There was something here. Something he could not quite grasp. He just knew that he was going to search for whatever it was until he found it. He would not let this chance pass him by.

“Don’t worry, I’m teaching him everything he needs to know,” Cynnie said happily. Darko merely nodded.

They visited the Packers Hall of Fame next. Darko was suspicious at first, but he soon became wrapped up in everything he saw. There was so much depth in everything there. He could understand where all the pride came from. Cynnie was happy to point stuff out and explain things to him. He could tell she was having a great time as well.

“Now we’ve got to go to the Pro Shop,” Cynnie said as they walked out of the museum.

Darko nearly jumped when a small, Packers foam football landed near him. He looked up to see a young boy no older than six wearing a Brett Favre jersey staring at him. The boy glanced at the ball and then back up at him. Darko hesitated before picking up the football. He awkwardly tossed it to the boy. The boy grinned at him and then ran off.

Cynnie smiled at him. “It looks like you made a friend.”

Darko turned away and did not answer. He let Cynnie lead him into the Packers Pro Shop.

Darko was amazed at what he found inside. The store had to contain every type of Packers merchandise in existence. Cynnie noticed him gaping and grinned. “There are over two thousand individual items,” she said. “And there are two stories.”

He shook his head in amazement. Two stories for a team shop? Who had ever heard of such a thing? “What is this place?” he asked in wonder.

Cynnie smiled. “This is Green Bay.”

There were rows and racks of jerseys, shirts, and hats. Many of the jerseys were authentic ones worn by the players. There was a display of all 32 team helmets. There was even a full bedroom setup in the corner. The most astonishing thing, though, was the refurbished 1957 Packers Chevy pickup truck. Darko thought this place looked more like a museum than a shop.

“Are you going to get anything?” Cynnie asked as she came to stand beside him.

“Where do I start?” he said.

A thoughtful look crossed Cynnie’s face. She searched around for awhile. She came back a few minutes later, holding something up and smiling. Darko almost laughed out loud. It was a green and gold plaid tie with the Packers’ logo in the middle. “When am I supposed to wear that?” he chided.

“A Packers tie is good for any occasion,” she said. She held something else up. “Do you like these?”

She was showing him a pair of earrings consisting of the Packers’ logo with green, gold, and white feathers attached at the bottom. “Thanks, but I don’t wear earrings,” he said.

Cynnie rolled her eyes. “They’re for me.”

Darko gave her a cheeky grin. “They’re good then.”

After buying their items, they both put theirs on. They told each other how great they looked and then headed back to Darko’s car. Cynnie had gotten them reservations at a restaurant. He had raised his eyebrows at this, but she said, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing fancy. It’s just… really popular during football season. We’ve got to get there early so we have time to go to Family Night.”

They did not drive far. Darko was not sure where they were because, apparently, they had to park a few blocks away from the restaurant. How popular was this place anyway? It was probably going to be packed.

The mystery was soon solved as a large, long wooden building came into view. There was a huge sign out front that said “Brett Favre’s Steakhouse” in green and gold. To the left of the sign was a rectangular block that said “Favre” down the middle, had pictures of the quarterback on the sides, and a giant white “4” on the top.

Darko glanced at Cynnie. “Do that many people still go here?” He did not mean it as a sarcastic remark; he was genuinely interested in the answer.

Cynnie frowned. “The food is really good. This is a popular place to tailgate. It’s part of Packers history. Some things can’t change that.” She shrugged. “Sure, there are some who refuse to go, but the Favre supporters are more determined to fill up the place because of that.”

Darko nodded. That made sense. “So, where do you stand?”

A troubled look crossed her face. “I don’t know.” She resumed walking. They headed inside. “I’m torn. I don’t know what to think.”

“What does your heart say?” Darko knew the question was stupid before it came out of his mouth. Cynnie gave him a blank look. He glanced down. “Sorry.”

While Cynnie got their reservation, Darko looked around the lobby. It was decorated with Packers stuff, favoring Favre, of course. There was a trophy case, signed footballs and helmets, and a gift shop. Darko felt oddly calm in there. It gave him satisfaction to know that not everyone in Green Bay hated their former hero. That just never seemed right to him. How could they throw out someone who they had loved just because he had done something they did not like?

He knew the answer to that question. He was reminded of it every time his mind drifted back to his life in Louisiana. To his family. No, he had no family anymore. His parents had not disowned him, but they might as well have. He was alone now. Unlike Favre, he had lost the loyalty of all those he had cared about. Still, he felt a sort of connection with the quarterback. Perhaps that was something to explore.

Cynnie soon came back with a waiter, who led them into the main dining hall. Like expected, the place was filled with people in Packers gear. They did not look out of place. The room was decorated with pictures of Brett Favre. The tables were wood with white table clothes. Darko and Cynnie took seats across from each other. Darko stared at the menu. Everything looked so good. It was expensive too.

“How much are we spending today?” he asked.

Cynnie gave him a cheeky grin. “This is a special occasion. It’s tradition. Don’t worry about money; my family has a lot.”

Darko glanced down. “Girls paying for guys is not tradition. Especially for the South.”

“We’re a rare exception,” Cynnie said. “All rules need exceptions. Being an extremist doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Darko considered this. “I guess so.” It was not like he had much choice. He barely made enough money to get by. And he did not want to hurt Cynnie’s feelings by refusing her generosity. It was her own choice. His pride was not so strong that he would inhibit that.

“Do you drink wine?” Cynnie asked suddenly. She seemed cautious and uncertain.

Darko nodded. “Wine is good. It’s just beer I don’t drink. Red or white is fine.”

Cynnie gave him a small smile. “Good.”

When the waiter came back, she ordered prime ribs and Brett Favre’s Merlot wine. Darko chose Brett’s Signature Steak. They chatted idly while they waited for their food. Well, it was mostly Cynnie talking. She talked about growing up in Green Bay and her experiences as a Packers fan.

The food smelled amazing when it arrived. It tasted even better. The wine was served in a souvenir bottle that had a picture of Brett Favre throwing a pass. Cynnie smiled and said he could keep it when they were done. The wine was good. It was California red with light fruit flavors. The food came with jumbo sweet potatoes. It all reminded him of food he had growing up in the South, then he remembered that Favre was a Southerner, like him. This made him happy. Darko did not know when the last time was that he had had such an amazing meal. He had been eating too much cheap food.

They left both feeling stuffed. They got back to Lambeau Field at 5:20. Once again, there were thousands of people swarming the place outside. There seemed to be several things going on at once. “Oh, face painting!” Cynnie exclaimed. She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the table where an older woman was painting green and gold patterns on people’s faces.

“I don’t want to get my face painted,” Darko grumbled.

Cynnie rolled her eyes. “It’ll get you into the spirit.”

To his reluctance, Darko got the Packers “G” painted on both sides of his cheeks while Cynnie got green and gold flowers with the “G” in the middle. After that, they found a rock climbing wall. Cynnie was the only one up for this one. Darko did participate in the “Packer Experience” provided by Kemps on the field. It was a chance to practice throwing, kicking, and catching a football. This felt good to Darko. He had not touched a football in a long time. It brought back fond memories.

They were soon ushered into seats. A trampoline act came out and performed. Then the stadium went wild as the Packers players appeared. Darko glanced around at everyone suddenly on their feet. Should he be doing that too? He looked like all of them. But he was not one of them. Not yet at least. He wanted to be; that was something he suddenly knew. So he stood up and cheered along with everyone else. Cynnie grinned widely at him.

The team engaged in pregame football drills while the Green Bay Elite Dance Group gave the fans a show. After the drills, the Oneida Nation Dance Performance performed. After an introduction, the main event, the scrimmage, began. The scrimmage was a game between two groups of Packers players. It was treated as a normal NFL game. Darko was fascinated as he watched the action. He had never actually been to an NFL game before. This was the closest he had ever gotten.

It was over too soon. Darko felt like he was in a daze. No one was leaving. He soon found out there was a drawing to give away 20 jerseys worn during the scrimmage. Then there was a fireworks show, many of which were green and gold. Darko found himself mesmerized.

As he headed back to his truck with Cynnie, he could hardly believe the day was over. Actually, it had felt as long as a week. There were so many new experiences and emotions. It would take awhile to sort this all out.

Cynnie was smiling and humming happily. She turned to look at him brightly. “So, are you a Packers fan now?”

Darko blinked thoughtfully. He did not know if he could answer in the affirmative. He did know the Packers were a team worthy of being a fan of. There seemed to be a sense of community and family among everyone that his heart yearned for. Was this the place to find it? He had no other option. Green Bay – and the Packers – seemed to have everything he had dreamed of. But were they his to take? Could he ever belong here?

“We’ll see.”

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