There have been some great matchups in the history of the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers series, but the high point came in the mid-to-late ’90s.
Those years signaled a changing of the guard in an NFL once ruled by the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. A well-built Green Bay Packers team with a mix of homegrown talent like Brett Favre, Mark Chmura and LeRoy Butler, and veteran free agents like Reggie White, Don Beebe and Santana Dotson, helped form a unit that would begin their takeover of the NFL in 1995.
Sure, we all remember the 2006 NFC Divisional Playoff game in San Francisco, where the Packers’ defense dominated the defending Super Bowl Champion 49ers on Green Bay’s way to its first NFC Championship game. That game was a coming out party for the Packers, announcing that Green Bay was a new force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the Cowboys didn’t get that memo, and beat the Packers the following week.
We remember the 2007 Divisional Playoff game in which Desmond Howard returned the 49ers’ first two punts of the game for 71 and 46 yards, respectively. San Francisco was never in the game, and that’s when we knew this team was going to roll to the Super Bowl.
We remember the heartbreaking 1999 NFC Wild Card game in which Steve Young hit Terrell Owens for a touchdown with three seconds left to pull out a 30-27 49ers win. That after Owens had dropped eight balls that day. It’s widely considered one of the greatest NFL games of all time, and it was also Reggie White’s last as a member of the Packers.
But all of these games pale in comparison to the October 14, 1996, Packers/49ers Monday Night Football game at Lambeau Field.
It’s a game I personally call the riot game, for reasons I will get into in a bit, but it was momentous not only for being a great game, but for what it signaled.
After being down 17-6 at halftime, the Packers came out in the second half and pushed ahead 20-17 against a 49ers team looking a avenge the previous season’s divisional playoff lose. The 49ers tied the game at 20 with 12 seconds left, forcing overtime.
I remember that overtime like it happened yesterday. The whole game was a tense affair, and the extra session was no different. Then Mike Holmgren sent kicker Chris Jacke out to attempt a 53-yard field goal.
Jacke had kicked four field goals on the day and had a big leg, but 53 yards would be his season long. The Packers’ only recent history with the 49ers was the divisional playoff game, but we knew: along with the Cowboys, the 49ers were the class of the NFL.
Jacke, of course, made the kick and all of Wisconsin erupted.
It was at this point we knew these Packers were something special. They had beaten the 49ers twice in a row, and this victory gave them confidence. They wouldn’t fall short against the Cowboys again, and everyone knew a championship was a realistic goal.
It was a turning point for the season and the franchise, signaling the Packers could not only compete against the best in the NFL, but they were among the best in the NFL.
“In the four or five years we’ve been here, we’ve talked about the steps we’ve taken,” Holmgren said after the game. “And, at the end of each season, I can point to something that was a step we took.
“Against this team, coming back…that’s another thing that we haven’t done…just exactly like we did tonight. So that will help us in the future…a game like this will help you in the future.”
Personally, I remember that game for so much more. I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh at the time, watching the game with friends at a house off-campus. When Jacke hit that field goal, my first reaction was to run out the door into the street screaming.
When I got there, I noticed I wasn’t alone. We gathered with celebrating fans on Cherry Street, and looked over to see a mass of yelling, cheering students running through the middle of campus towards us. Like the forming of Voltron we joined together with them, forming an unstoppable mass that ran to the corner of Cherry Street and Algoma Boulevard yelling, cheering, whooping it up and later jumping off street signs into the outstretched arms of people below.
It was amazing and truly spontaneous.
No one got hurt or arrested, and other than some bent up street signs, nothing was damaged except our livers. Still, the local media referred to event the next day as a “riot,” sensitive to the fact that UW-Oshkosh students started a real riot in 1995 after a house party was busted.
These two events were not one in the same, and I always resented the ignorance of people who were quick to term the victory celebration a riot, but that was a long time ago and distinctions have since been made.
I mentioned earlier that all of Wisconsin erupted. Well, I wasn’t kidding.
There were similar spontaneous demonstrations across the state. Around 700 students congregated at UW-La Crosse and marched downtown after the game. Students at UW-Whitewater caused $20,000 in damage during a similar celebration, but then, Whitewater students weren’t exactly known for their academic prowess.
And here is the news report from one of my fondest memories as an alum of UWO:
At UW-Oshkosh, about 1,000 students gathered outside campus dormitories after the game to celebrate, prompting police in riot gear to be summoned, said Frank Church, director of the university’s news bureau. The only confirmed damage was to some street signs, Church said. The crowd dispersed after about an hour of “yelling and screaming,” and no arrests were made.