The Green Bay Packers have two of the most fun traditions in the NFL, and both involve their fans!
The Lambeau Leap has been shown on TV for almost 25 years, ever since LeRoy Butler combined the celebration of scoring a touchdown with showing fan appreciation on a cold Wisconsin day in 1993. However, few people outside of Wisconsin know about the almost 60-year-old tradition of Packers players riding kids’ bikes to practice throughout training camp. Often, the newest players don’t even know about this tradition until their first day of camp!
“My rookie year at my first training camp, I found out before we walked outside that we ride the bikes to practice,” remembers Jayrone Elliott, a fourth-year outside linebacker. “I got out there, and I was kind of nervous. The first time I rode a little kid bike, and it was hard for me to get going, so I carried it.”
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a fourth year safety, laughs, “After I was drafted by the Packers, my high school teacher asked me if I knew how to ride a bicycle, but I didn’t know what she was talking about until I got here for training camp!”
While there remains some debate about exactly when this tradition started, there are photographs and fans’ memories of players regularly riding local kids’ bikes to practice and back to the locker room during the Vince Lombardi era, which began in 1959. Some tales say it started when a few players were hurrying so as not to be late to practice, but all of the reports include kids just hanging out to watch the Packers practice, and the tradition grew from there.
In 2017, of course, players have endorsement deals and multimillion dollar contracts, and the closest most fans get to their favorite athletes is following them on social media. This unique tradition allows young Packers fans to actually interact with players in person.
On a sunny day in Green Bay in August, kids arrive early to line up their bikes, and fans in green and gold line most of the quarter-mile path from Lambeau Field to Nitschke Field, the Packers’ outdoor practice facility.
Kids have traveled from blocks away to states away. Some come daily, and for others it’s a once-in-a lifetime-experience; all of them are just inches from their football heroes. Most of the kids have never attended a regular-season Packers home game. Some are hoping to be paired with their favorite players, but all are happy for any Packer to pick their bike while they run alongside and carry the player’s helmet!
First-timer Thomson Y. from Shorewood, Wisconsin, arrived two-and-a-half hours before practice. “I’ve never done this,” he says, “but my friend came last year, and I thought it was something I had to try! Any player picking my bike would be so exciting!”
Andrew J., who lives nearby in Ashwaubenon and has been picked by a player before, says, “It feels pretty cool to see the Packers up close and talk to them!” He remembers he and the player talked about things such as how old he is and school before his player challenged him to a race.
The Packers appreciate this time with their young fans. “You choose a kid and their bicycle and just get to focus on that individual kid, to get to know the kid and figure out what they like to do and who they are. It’s a direct connection,” adds Clinton-Dix.
“It’s great for us as players to get out and meet kids and try to make their day. They get to come out and interact with us easily here in Green Bay,” says Elliott. “We build special relationships with the kids, and it’s just a blessing to meet a young fan and help guide them through whatever in life, to try and give them tips and be a part of their lives.”
With all of the options, how do players choose their bikes? Some find a new fan each day, while others have a “rider” for the training camp season. Elliott has a season rider but says, ”If she’s not able to make it on a practice day, then I go out there and just try to pick a bike that fits me the most since I’m a big guy.”
Clinton-Dix, who reports he was always riding bikes as a kid himself, has a plan. “I usually walk out and try to find the prettiest bike I can find. There’s big, small, tiny, different colors, and cool spokes, and I just try and get the coolest bike I can find for that ride to practice.”
The excitement in the air, number of fans, and amount of green and gold on this day feels like a playoffs rally and not just a training camp practice. That feeling is just one way Green Bay is special to players and fans alike. Spending the summer riding bikes is another.
Clinton-Dix sums it up: “I don’t think there’s a tradition anywhere that will top it. Being able to touch these kids’ lives and ride with different riders each day or one person for the season, it’s moving for me, and I think it’s a memory they will have forever.”
Photographs by Wilson von Bohlen