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Bills-Packers is the NFL at its smallest

12/14/2014

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Julius Peppers strolled through the Best Buy store in suburban Ashwaubenon, located just two miles down Oneida Street from Lambeau Field, looking for a new case for his iPhone this week.

No one stopped him for an autograph or asked to take a selfie with him.

He's not even sure if anyone gawked.

Such is life for a Green Bay Packers' player in the NFL's smallest city.

"These people around here are used to having Brett Favre here, Reggie White here," Peppers said. "They’ve got A-Rod [Aaron Rodgers] in their town, so it's not like it's anything special to see a high-profile football player out. I think people around here handle it pretty good. I don't get bothered at all really."

Peppers imagines it's much the same in Buffalo, New York, the NFL's second-smallest outpost. That makes this week's game between the Packers and Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium different from a normal NFL Sunday.

No, these aren't the one-stoplight, cow towns they're often made out to be -- Green Bay is home to 104,779 in the city proper and Buffalo has 258,959, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures -- but they're not Chicago or even Charlotte, North Carolina, where Peppers split his first 12 NFL seasons. In Northeast Wisconsin and Western New York, the NFL is either the only game in town or the biggest one.

"It's kind of similar to Green Bay's fanbase," Peppers said. "Small town. Those guys love their Bills. It's going to be one of those atmospheres that's going to be a challenge as well to go into an environment like that and perform."

Given their NFC-AFC affiliations, the Packers and Bills play just once every four years and go eight years between visits to each other's city. Only three players -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker A.J. Hawk and special teamer Jarrett Bush -- were with the Packers the last time they played at Buffalo in 2006, and Rodgers was still two years away from becoming the starter.

That's why on Wednesday, during his first address to the team this week, Packers coach Mike McCarthy talked his players through what to expect on Sunday in Buffalo.

"Talked about the small town, similar characteristics to Green Bay, the passion of their fanbase and really the type of environment that we're getting ready to go into," McCarthy said of his speech to the team. "It's an older stadium, small locker room. It's old-school NFL football. It's something I've always appreciated playing there in the past, and once again you have to make sure your team is ready for that."

Few know how similar the NFL life can be in Green Bay and Buffalo better than Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt, who joined McCarthy's coaching staff in 2012, played all nine of his NFL seasons in Buffalo, where he was mostly a backup from 1995 to 2003 but started 11 games.

"Not just the similarities of the organizations, but the city," Van Pelt said. "It's a safe place. It's a good place to raise a family. The values and everything are good there. It reminds me of a Midwest town with the blue-collar workmanship. A lot of those are very similar here. When people ask me how's Green Bay? I'm like, 'Well, it's a little bit smaller than Buffalo but very similar.'"

Except perhaps for the fans.

Van Pelt called Bills' supporters "some of the best fans I've been around” in part because "they understand they can get loud when they need to. Quarterback starts to audible, you'll hear the crowd get higher and higher."

"But maybe a little rougher than say, the Green Bay crowd," Van Pelt added. "I remember coming here as a player and the fans telling you on the way out, 'Good job. Good luck the rest of the year.' You may not get that in Buffalo."

Independent of Van Pelt, Packers running back James Starks made a similar point. Starks grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, went to college at Buffalo and as a kid attended Thurman Thomas' football camps in Orchard Park, New York, where the Bills' stadium is located.

"They're very similar," said Starks, who has tickets for 20 relatives attending Sunday's game. "Real small. The football organizations bring in a lot to the community. Loyal fans. I think Green Bay's are a little more respectful and stuff. Their fans are a little more, I don't know ..."

Starks, wearing a Brooklyn Nets hat and a New York hoodie, didn't finish his thought on Friday afternoon. It was time to go home, first to his Green Bay locale and then to his real home this weekend.

"There’s no place like home," McCarthy said. "Obviously, everybody enjoys going back to their hometown, and I know this is special for James and his family. James is always smiling; his smile is bigger this week."