GREEN BAY – The intent here was to rank the most important and memorable season openers in Packers history. For example, Chester Marcol’s improbable touchdown run in overtime following a blocked field goal in 1980 against Chicago might be the single most unforgettable highlight in an opener since the Packers joined what is now the NFL in 1921. But the game has little historical significance other than its bizarre ending. Then again, game No. 5 on this list, came down to the 1955 and 1966 openers. The ’55 game was given the nod despite the Packers finishing 6-6 that year, whereas, the Packers’ impressive 24-3 victory in ’66 over the Baltimore Colts, who had lost a bitter playoff to the Packers on a controversial field goal nine months earlier, propelled them to a 12-2 record and victory in Super Bowl I. The ’55 opener simply had a more exciting finish and was a better story. Bottom line: Sunday’s game against the Bears will be the Packers’ 95th NFL opener. Limiting the list to five was no easy task.
1. Sept. 29, 1957: Packers 21, Bears 17 – The upset over the defending Western Conference champion Bears was the climax to what might have been the biggest celebration in Green Bay’s history: The dedication of new City Stadium or what is now Lambeau Field. Saturday’s festivities included a Stadium Dedication Parade through the city’s downtown that attracted an estimated 60,000-70,000 people; a farewell program at old City Stadium that drew 18,000 and featured Miss America and actor James Arness, better known as Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke; and a Venetian Night on the Fox River. On Sunday, Vice President Richard Nixon and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell were in attendance for the dedication ceremonies, and Bell effusively declared, “The dedication of this stadium today is the greatest thing that has ever happened in professional football.” With a sellout crowd of 32,132 on hand, the game was won on a 6-yard Babe Parilli to Gary Knafelc touchdown pass with 8:21 remaining that, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “set off the wildest combination of tears and joy in Bay history.”
2. Sept. 27, 1959: Packers 9, Bears 6 – Coming off a 1-10-1 season, the Packers endured a brutal training camp under first-year head coach Vince Lombardi. But it paid off in a stunning upset over the Bears before a City Stadium crowd of 32,150. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Packers converted a fumbled punt by the Bears into a 5-yard touchdown run by Jim Taylor. Defensive tackle Dave Hanner sealed the victory in the final minute with a safety. At the final gun, the players hoisted Lombardi on their shoulders and carried him off the field. In the locker room, former Bears back and one of the Monsters of the Midway, Bill Osmanski, stopped to tell Lombardi, “I didn’t recognize this team from last year. With the same personnel, it’s a miracle.”
3. Sept. 8, 2011: Packers 42, New Orleans Saints 34 – Having won the Super Bowl the previous season, the Packers earned the right to host the NFL’s Thursday night opener. One fan compared the atmosphere to both Summerfest and a Super Bowl. The extravaganza included a tailgate party for the ages, a rock concert featuring Kid Rock, Chris Gizzi sprinting the length of the field with an American flag, and a spellbinding, down-to-the-wire game. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees bedazzled the Lambeau Field crowd of 70,555 with a combined 59 completions for 731 yards and six TD passes, but the outcome came down to a defensive stop inches short of the goal line with no time left. Clay Matthews led the charge on the final play and Morgan Burnett finished it off.
4. Oct. 23, 1921: Packers 7, Minneapolis Marines 6 – How big was the Packers’ first game in what was then the American Professional Football Association? Jack Rudolph, perhaps Green Bay’s preeminent 20th-century historian, wrote years later, “The story has never been verified – or denied – but it was generally believed at the time that Packers membership in the league was conditional. If they didn’t show up well in their first effort, out they went.” There was no set league schedule in 1921, so small-town and underfunded teams needed to prove they could be competitive and draw crowds. Tonawanda, N.Y., lost its first game and Muncie, Ind., lost its first two and both folded. Green Bay won three of its first four and was able to schedule games in November against the league’s two Chicago teams, the Cardinals and Staleys (now the Bears). With the Packers trailing late in the fourth quarter, end Dave Hayes recovered a punt, back Buff Wagner made a spectacular catch of a Curly Lambeau pass to move the ball to the Marines’ 14-yard line, Art Schmaehl scored the touchdown from the 1-yard line and Lambeau kicked the decisive extra point before a crowd of 6,000 at Hagemeister Park. “Cushions went flying in the air while soaring hats were as thick as Green Bay flies on a July night,” was how the Press-Gazette described the crowd’s reaction to Schmaehl’s TD. “Staid, gray-haired businessmen jumped around like school kids and there was one continual din that could be heard for blocks away.”
5. Sept. 25, 1955: Packers 20, Detroit Lions 17 – Rarely, if ever, have Packers fans reacted with more pure, unadulterated joy to a victory than after this jaw-dropping upset over the Lions, who had won the Western Conference title the three previous years and the NFL championship in two of them. When Knafelc caught the winning 18-yard touchdown pass from Tobin Rote with 20 seconds remaining, fans poured onto the field at old City Stadium, hoisted Knafelc on their shoulders and carried him to the bench. It took more than five minutes for ushers and city police to clear the field before Fred Cone kicked the extra point. When the game ended moments later, many of the 22,217 fans stormed the field again and carried a number of Packers off on their shoulders. “The greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Detroit sportswriter Warren Spoelstra said as he looked on in disbelief. “The fans in most league cities are blasé, but they certainly aren’t blasé here.”
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