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Green Bay Packers pride runs deep, even in the South Sound

The NFL will put a team in Everett about the time Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch starts holding weekly press conferences.

The city has a population (105,000) about half the size of Tacoma. Its stubby skyline immediately reveals this is no major market. And any stadium would probably back up against the neighborhoods.

Yet, when Jerry Garner drives through Everett he’s reminded of his favorite NFL city: Green Bay.

“It’s uncanny,” said Garner, president of the Northwest Packer Backers fan club. “Everett and Green Bay are almost exactly the same size, no skyscrapers, on the water. … It shows you just how special this is.”

Sunday afternoon at 12:05, on the temperate tundra of CenturyLink Field, the team from the smallest NFL city plays Seattle (the league’s 14th-largest city) for a trip to the Super Bowl.

It will be loud. Loud enough to scare small children and make the earth move. And Packers fans will be impressed.

“No comparison, Seahawks fans are definitely louder,” said John O’Reilly, a lifelong Packers fan from Steilacoom. “But when it comes to history, Packers fans have the edge. They’ve been so passionate for generations.”

The Cheeseheads don’t just declare themselves part of the team, they actually own the Packers, the only community-owned major sports team in the nation. They put their newborn children on the 81,000-person season ticket waiting list in hopes their names will be called before they turn 40.

“When (former Packers coach) Vince Lombardi left in 1967 it seemed like it was bigger than when the president was shot,” said Greg Brazell, a Packer fan from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who now works at Pierce College.

Since the team’s first season in 1919, the fan base has sprawled well beyond Green Bay, across the Midwest, into Canada and to towns with quirky names like Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Puyallup.

Even deep in the heart of Seahawks country, the South Sound is packed with Green Bay fans. Five local bars host weekly Packers viewing parties.

“That’s another thing that’s great about being a Packers fan,” Garner said. “You can find Packers fans everywhere you go and there are a lot here in the Northwest.”

COACH VINCE

The P.E. teacher at Puyallup’s Carson Elementary School has something in common with the Super Bowl trophy.

Both are named after Vince Lombardi.

Vince Tarsi was born in 1970, a few months before Lombardi died. His father, Jerry, was a die-hard Packers fan who might have lost his leg if it wasn’t for Lombardi.

The Tarsis lived in Iron River, Michigan, about 140 miles north of Titletown, Green Bay’s nickname. As the Packers dominated the NFL during the 1960s, players and coaches sometimes escaped to Iron River to fish and visit bars.

On one occasion, Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis put the moves on the girlfriend of Jerry Tarsi’s cousin. “He stole her and took her back to Green Bay and married her,” Vince Tarsi said with a laugh.

Vince Lombardi used to try to get away from his players and go fishing. One of the local men he befriended was Vince Tarsi’s uncle, Aldo.

In the late 1960s, Jerry Tarsi was in a car accident that shattered his ankle. Doctors wanted to amputate. Instead, Uncle Aldo called his friend and Lombardi gave permission for Jerry to meet with the Packers’ team doctor.

The doctor fused his ankle and saved his leg.

When Jerry Tarsi’s second son was born, he wanted to name him Bart after Hall of Fame Packers quarterback Bart Starr. His wife, however, didn’t like the idea. (Even Starr’s mom didn’t name him Bart. His given name is Bryan.) He was named Marc instead.

Vince Tarsi grew up in Ohio and moved to Washington when he was young. As he seemed predestined to do, he coached football at Auburn, Rochester, Emerald Ridge and Bethel high schools.

His family bought Seahawks season tickets in the 1980s and kept them for nearly 30 years. But his loyalties aren’t divided. He’s a proud Cheesehead and so is his sixth-grade son, Anthony. (No, he’s not named after a Packer.)

Tarsi took his son to Lambeau Field for the first time last season. Anthony’s description of the experience: “heaven.”

THE GM

One of Angel Ernst’s first memories of the Green Bay Packers was that their 1997 Super Bowl game against the New England Patriots conflicted with her fourth-grade basketball tournament in Minnesota.

She was growing up in Vikings country but her family were unabashed Packer Backers. So when the conflict arose, her dad did what any dad would do. (And what she wished she could have done.)

He left to watch the game. “All the dads left to watch the game,” said Ernst, who says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a Packers fan.

Today, she lives with her cousin in Lacey and drives a car with license plate frames that read, “Packers owner.” She is one of 360,584 people who own at least one of 5 million shares of the team. Her parents gave it to her as a Christmas gift in 2011 and she keeps it framed on her bedroom wall.

The Packers have been a nonprofit, publicly owned corporation since 1923 and have had five stock sales, the most recent in 2011. Shareholders can’t sell and don’t collect dividends, but they’re owners nonetheless.

“Sometimes friends will call and say something like, ‘We really need the team to play well Sunday,’ ” Ernst said. “And I’ll tell them, ‘OK, I’ll make a call.’ ”

Ernst isn’t just an owner, she’s also the general manager of the Olympia chapter of the Northwest Packer Backers.

She and a friend coordinate game viewing parties that draw as many as 60 Packers fans to O’Blarney’s Irish Pub. The club also does fundraising, collecting more than $600 for childhood cancer research this season. The larger Northwest Packer Backers club (which has a Space Needle with a cheese wedge on top for a logo) has raised more than $70,000 for charity since its founding in 1990.

Ernst has had two jobs since moving to Washington in 2010; both, she says, came from connections she made with local Packers fans.

“We have great fans,” she said. “They’re humble and passionate.”

BOO THE BOSS DAY

When O’Reilly, the owner of Steilacoom’s Topside Bar and Grill, shows up at work Sunday morning, his employees will boo him.

And he’ll laugh.

Most of the staff at the Steilacoom establishment roots for the Seahawks, but O’Reilly has deep Wisconsin roots. He has family that lives there. He co-owns a share of the Packers and the certificate hangs on the wall of his brother’s home.

He opens early on Sundays so South Sound Green Bay fans have a place to watch the Packers, but he says both Seahawks and Packers fans will get equal treatment Sunday “as long as you root without degrading others.”

But don’t ask him how the 12th Man compares to the Cheeseheads.

While he praises the Seahawks’ fans passion, he says the Packers’ history, passed down from generation to generation, gives them the edge.

“It’s silly, but the Steve Largent number thing bothers me,” O’Reilly said.

In 2004, the Seahawks briefly unretired the Hall of Fame receiver’s No. 80 jersey so they could sign the NFL’s all-time leading receiver, Jerry Rice.

“Here you have probably the greatest player in franchise history along with (offensive lineman) Walter Jones and you’re letting somebody else wear his jersey,” O’Reilly said. “And the fans don’t stand up and say that’s not right? That wouldn’t happen in a place like Green Bay or Dallas.

“If Aaron Rodgers (No. 12) left Green Bay and went to Dallas would the Cowboys give him Roger Staubach’s number?” O’Reilly said. “No way. They’d say, ‘Pick a new number.’ ”

GREEN KNIGHTS

Amber and Drew Baillon of Tacoma met while attending St. Norbert College, home of the Packers’ training camp.

There football allegiances weren’t even discussed on the first date. “In Wisconsin, it’s just assumed,” said Amber, an assistant professor at Pierce College.

They believe what makes the Packers unique is how the franchise and its fans are so intertwined.

Children show up at training camp with their bicycles so the players can ride them back to the locker room. The giant men hop aboard the tiny bikes, while the kids walk alongside them carrying the players’ helmets.

Fans park, often for free, at friends’ houses in the neighborhoods surrounding 81,000-seat Lambeau Field.

“The traditions, the storied history, the Super Bowl trophy named after our coach, the frozen tundra. We’re proud to stand out,” Baillon said. “We have a sense of pride and uniqueness.”

She remembers the first Lambeau Leaps (the tradition of Packers players jumping into the stands after touchdowns) and people showing up at the field after storms to help shovel the snow. Before a 2008 playoff game against the Seahawks, the Packers had to turn away hundreds willing to help move snow for $8 per hour.

“It’s a magical place to be,” she said.

The Baillons moved to Tacoma in 2007 when Amber took a job at Pacific Lutheran University. They still passionately back the Pack, but Amber says it’s fun to watch the Seahawks fans’ and their traditions.

The Seahawks are babies by comparison. The Packers played their first game the year before the NFL was founded in 1920. They won nine titles before the first Super Bowl and 11 before the Seahawks fielded their first team in 1976.

And they were the first to do what the Seahawks are trying to do right now — win consecutive Super Bowls.

“In Wisconsin, it’s fun to be around all the history,” Baillon said. “Here, it’s interesting to see it early on.”

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