GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (Reuters) - If there were any lingering hard-feelings from a bitter labor dispute hanging over a new National Football League season, they were forgotten following the Green Bay Packers’ nail-biting 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints Thursday.
Raising the curtain on a season that almost never was, the Packers and Saints delivered the offensive fireworks and drama that underscored why the NFL is America’s most popular sport.
Certainly there were no hard feelings in Title Town, where they take their love for football and the Packers as serious as wedding vows.
The NFL’s only community owned team, where many residents are shareholders in the club, the Packers and their fans share a unique bond, the labor dispute boiling down to little more than a squabble over family finances.
“I wasn’t really worried, I thought they would get it done,” said Mike Gosz, his family a season-ticket holder since 1962. “A lot of owners are rich and maybe arrogant but they aren’t stupid. It was going to get done.”
The game marked the eighth consecutive year the reigning Super Bowl champions have opened the season at home and perhaps none held more importance after an off-season dominated by tense labor negotiations and legal wrangling that left fans alienated as millionaire players bickered with billionaire owners.
The romance and tradition of the gridiron are as much a part of Green Bay life as the biting winters.
In Green Bay all roads lead to Lambeau Field and they were gridlocked Thursday as media outlets from the Weather Channel to Telemundo inched their way toward the Packers iconic home joined by an army of fans ready to celebrate.
There are more Packers shareholders (112,158) than Green Bay residents (104,000) and on a prefect late summer day it seemed as if the entire city was taking an unofficial holiday complete with fireworks and rock concerts.
Local schools and businesses closed early while even President Obama, who was presented with a stock certificate when the Super Bowl champions visited the White House, was unwilling to challenge the Packers popularity pushing his Thursday address to the nation up so not to clash with the opening night kickoff.
Mother Nature was also a football fan providing clear blue skies and warm temperatures that might have even put a smile on the monolithic statues of Packer greats Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi stand guard at the stadium entrance.
The kickoff party began early and raged into the night, as “Cheeseheads” — as Packers fans are known — filled the parking lots for a day of tailgating, rock music and the smell of hamburgers and bratwurst filling the air.
“Everything is super-sized today, just a little bit bigger,” said Carol Bush, a season ticket holder for 59 years, looking out at a season of green and gold. “Even the hype is bigger but what a day.”
Editing by Alastair Himmer