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Packers return as champs
Super Bowl Green Bay Heal
Green Bay Packers fan John VanLanen holds up a homemade Super Bowl trophy Monday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. - photo by Associated Press


GREEN BAY, Wis. — Thousands of exhausted but euphoric Packers fans welcomed their cherished team home to Green Bay as Super Bowl champions on Monday after a nail-biting victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Schools dismissed early and people took time off work to watch the team's motorcade travel from Austin Straubel International Airport to Lambeau Field along a route that included Lombardi Avenue, named in honor of the legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

Fans who spent Sunday night partying picked up right where they left off Monday morning, showing up hours early for the parade. They jammed Lambeau's atrium and clogged the stadium's pro shop as they bought piles of Super Bowl gear and memorabilia. To make room, the team finally had to herd shoppers and visitors into a line that stretched outside the stadium.

Ashley Ellis, 17, and Erica Christensen, 18, of Oak Creek, went to bed at midnight after celebrating the victory. They were up at 4 a.m. to drive to Green Bay and stake out a spot for the parade. They said the Packers gave them "anxiety attacks" as the Steelers made their second-half comeback, but on Monday all was right with the world in Green Bay. Asked why anyone would get up at 4 a.m. to visit a football stadium, Christensen replied simply.

"Love them," she said.

By early afternoon throngs of fans in cheeseheads, green and gold beads, jerseys and Packer parkas jammed the team's route, transforming the streets into human trenches.

A house across the street from the stadium — Lambeau Field famously sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood — blared Queen's "We Are The Champions." Fans broke out in spontaneous chants of "Go Pack Go!" and "The Bears Still Suck!," and mugged for television news crews.

The crowd's cheers rose to a roar as the team's buses neared the stadium. News helicopters buzzed overhead. Players and other team officials could be seen holding up video cameras from their seats, recording the moment.

Craig Umentum, 29, of Green Bay, dragged a green-and-gold wagon loaded with a case of beer to the stadium.

"The title is home, baby!" Umentum yelled, his voice still hoarse from screaming during Sunday night's game. "Whoo! Where it belongs! Green Bay, baby!"

Joni Hamalainen, 25, of Helsinki, Finland, arrived in Green Bay on Friday to watch the game. A longtime Packers fan, he said he considered going to the Super Bowl but it was too expensive. Instead he journeyed to Green Bay — alone — and watched the game with hundreds of new friends at the Stadium View Bar and Grill.

"It's a dream trip," he said as he waited for the motorcade to arrive.

Rich Winker, 42, of La Crosse, showed up in former Packers linebacker Ray Nitchske's No. 66 jersey and a replica old-school Packers leather football helmet. He said he decided at 11 p.m. Sunday to make the four-hour drive to Green Bay on Monday.

"It is awesome," he said. "It's just unreal how many people are here. Who knows when it will happen again?"

The arrival was over quickly, though; the players didn't make any formal public appearances on Monday. The real party is set for Tuesday afternoon, when the Packers are expected to stage a public rally at Lambeau. Gov. Scott Walker, who proclaimed February as Green Bay Packers Super Bowl championship month, was expected to attend.

But there's a little hitch — Lambeau's bleachers are covered with snow and ice.

The team announced Monday morning that it would pay people $8 an hour to remove it ahead of the celebration.

Adam Shirek, 23, of Milladore, drove two hours Monday to Lambeau for the parade. He said he's an unemployed college student with nothing better to do. He saw the line of snow volunteers at the stadium and decided to join them. Decked out in Clay Matthews' No. 52 jersey, he attacked the ice with a fury.

"Could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience helping shovel snow at Lambeau Field . . . after the Super Bowl," he said as he worked. "It will be memorable. Hopefully it'll bring me up on the season ticket waiting list."

Justin Spes, 31, of Green Bay, took it all in as he sipped a beer from Umentum's wagon. He remembers the Packers' 1997 Super Bowl win, but said this time was so much sweeter.

The 1997 team, led by quarterback Brett Favre and defensive end Reggie White, dominated opponents. This version of the Packers scrapped and clawed for everything it got. It was no different in the Super Bowl as the Packers barely survived a late Steelers rally, he said.

"We won that game," he said, "purely on heart."