GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers took one last chance to say goodbye to their fans and each other.
Tuesday was a final day to publicly celebrate their Super Bowl-winning season, and the Packers did it in style in front of more than 56,000 fans who paid $5 to spend a final hour with their team for the first time in 36 days.
The last time the Packers were at Lambeau Field, they beat division rival Chicago in a must-win game that propelled them to a championship run, ending with the return of the Lombardi Trophy to Titletown after 14 years with a 31-25 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
In the locker room, almost everything was cleared out except for a three-deep line where players claimed their game-worn Super Bowl jerseys and Super Bowl locker nameplates before heading off.
"It's a great feeling, I'm going to cherish that moment for the rest of my life," said safety Nick Collins, who returned an interception for a touchdown against the Steelers. "It's been a rollercoaster ride, up and down, but our fans stuck behind us and we were able to bring the trophy back where it belonged — Titletown."
The trophy took a victory lap and will be placed with the other NFL championships the franchise has won going back to 1929.
"It was a wonderful experience," general manager Ted Thompson said. "It took everybody to win this thing and it's just remarkable what these young men did."
The players who lingered included several with uncertain futures in the franchise that's been built with depth in the draft by Thompson.
Whenever free agency begins, Green Bay will have questions.
"It's where my journey began and hopefully it'll be where it ends, but I told them I do understand that there's a business side involved," said defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who is unsigned headed into next season. "I had wanted a little security, something earlier before the season started, but we weren't able to get that. So, you understand it's the business part of it. If I don't end up back here, there'll be no hard feelings."
Linebacker Nick Barnett has two years left on his contract, but the former first-round pick who spent most of the season on injured reserve may be too pricey to bring back after the emergence of several quality backups.
"It's going to be hard to deny my hunger that I'm going to show coming into training camp next year, but we'll see what happens," Barnett said. "You guys are more worried because you're looking for a story — who's going to be here, who's not going to be here. I'd love to finish my career as a Packer, I've got two years on my contract so that's what I plan on doing."
Just when anyone might start training camp so that Green Bay can begin its title defense is unknown.
The NFL's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the day March 3, and barring an agreement before then, owners can lock out the players. If some of the Steelers sounded pessimistic about a deal getting done in time, most of the Packers believed it would happen sooner than later.
"We have a lot of guys working for something bigger than just the individuals. So, we're going to get something worked out. I'm hopeful for that. As players, we're hopeful for that," kicker Mason Crosby said. "We hope to be playing because ultimately that's what we love to do and want to do."
It's certain, too, that Packers' fans will wait patiently for their team to return to the NFL's smallest market.
"You're clearly an energy force for our football team," coach Mike McCarthy told the fans.
And after a few brief comments from the Packers' other top players, Aaron Rodgers took over — just as he did all season in performances that elevated him among the NFL's elite.
Rodgers, the Super Bowl MVP, has had a whirlwind 48 hours that included a trip to Disney World on Monday morning and an appearance on "The Late Show" with David Letterman that night.
He sounded tired and hoarse in the frigid weather, but he had offered his fans one more thing before he left — his "title belt."
"I just want you to know, for the next year you guys can steal my belt celebration because we're the champions of the world. Put that on whenever you want," Rodgers said with a huge smile. "It's been a great journey."