GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Fourteen years ago, Wendy Smetana bought a green-and-gold casket decorated with the logo of the Green Bay Packers. You could call her a die-hard fan.
"Ain't that cool?'' Smetana said, showing a picture of herself next to the open casket with a football inside.
Healthy and active at age 66, Smetana is in no rush to occupy her eternal box seat, preferring her season ticket on a metal bleacher bench above the 32-yard line at Lambeau Field.
But she has a specific exit strategy. Smetana wants her funeral reception to be a tailgate party, preferably at Lambeau. "Hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwurst and pop,'' she said. "No alcohol.''
Smetana, a retired bus driver, is one of about 100,000 people in a community where football stimulates the collective heartbeat, brainwaves and civic soul.
She was at Lambeau in heavy coat and alpaca hat Sunday when the Packers qualified for the National Football League playoffs with a 10-3 victory over Chicago to raise their record to 10-6.
As the Packers prepare for an NFC wild-card game Sunday at Philadelphia, the national spotlight again will cut through the winter darkness of the Upper Great Lakes to illuminate one of the oldest, coldest, smallest and quaintest stages in American professional sports.
"It's more of a college atmosphere, almost,'' said Tom Clements, the quarterback coach who played at Notre Dame and has worked professionally in several cities. "Other places in the NFL, the fans can become a little harsh. That's not quite the case here.''
Linebacker Clay Matthews agreed in part, saying that playing in college at Southern California felt more like "a professional environment'' compared to Green Bay's "college feel.''
But that does not stop northern Wisconsin fans from offering him free, friendly advice.
"Back in L.A., you get lost in the shuffle,'' Matthews said. "Obviously, Green Bay is a little different. They're going to let you know what they feel you're doing right or wrong.''
Perhaps they really know. A recent survey in Sports Illustrated rated Packers fans the NFL's most knowledgeable. Of 277 players responding, 26 percent voted for Green Bay, with Pittsburgh second at 14 percent.
Green Bay's team, founded in 1919, pre-dates the NFL much as the Montreal Canadiens preceded the National Hockey League. Like the Canadiens, the Packers are the town's only major league team. And the Packers are community-owned.
Their historical legacy has been sharply revived lately by three contemporary productions about Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach who won five NFL titles -- and the first two Super Bowls -- from 1959-67.
The first is the Broadway play "Lombardi.'' Last month on television, the HBO documentary "Lombardi'' continued the hagiography. Next up is a Hollywood film about Lombardi starring Robert DeNiro and produced by ESPN.
Inside the Packers' Hall of Fame, in the modern atrium attached to Lambeau, is a replica of Lombardi's office from the 1960s, including desk, movie projector, family photographs and ash trays. In the parking lot there stands a larger-than-life statue of Lombardi where snowflakes settle on the bronze of his hat, glasses and overcoat.
Wendy Smetana's den, a Packers' shrine, includes an autographed picture of Lombardi addressed to her by name. It hangs near an old stock certificate showing that she owns a little piece of the team.
Two years before Lombardi arrived, Smetana played clarinet with her school band at Lambeau on the day it was dedicated in 1957.
The stadium has expanded from 32,150 seats then to 73,128 now and its tailgate picnics elevate nearby real estate values, according to John Burton, a former television sportscaster in Green Bay who now sells homes with his wife, Kim.
They said properties close to Lambeau draw higher prices not only because owners plow snow from their lawns to sell parking spaces. They are status symbols, at least according to the leaflet and video the Burtons prepared for the ranch house on Stadium Drive with a backyard that abuts the Lambeau parking lot.
"This football tailgate home is the ultimate fan palace,'' the ad says. "This property backs up to the Stadium. Don't miss the opportunity to be a part of the tradition.''
The Burtons said neighborhood real estate increased in value with the 2003 opening of the high-rise, glass-enclosed atrium attached to Lambeau that includes a restaurant called "Curly's'' in honor of Curly Lambeau, a Packers' founder who played and coached.
Late one afternoon last week, a bride and groom walked through the atrium with their wedding party to be photographed beneath big banners showing Packers of yore.
Later, the wedding group reconvened at the bar in Curly's, near a shop for "Frozen Time Ice Cream'' that displayed a picture of old-time Packers playing without facemasks in the snow.
Downstairs, in the team Hall of Fame, photographs and videos celebrated the "Ice Bowl'' NFL championship of 1967 over Dallas won on a short touchdown run by quarterback Bart Starr when the temperature was 13 degrees below zero.
Across the street, on the Lombardi Avenue side, a backyard fence featured a huge sign dedicated to the current coach, Mike McCarthy. In green and gold it declared "In Coach McCarthy We Trust.''
Diagonally across the intersection was the Don Hutson practice facility with a large sign declaring, "Football, its in our bones.'' It stood next to the Resch Center, an indoor arena featuring at its doors a large statue of Starr, who later coached the Packers.
Greg Jennings, the star wide receiver, visited Resch last week for a Harlem Globetrotters game and participated in a skit that opened with theme music from "Monday Night Football.''
After running a pass pattern that ended with a reverse layup ("I've got a little basketball in me,'' he said), Jennings returned to his seat and the fans left him alone.
Tramon Williams, the veteran cornerback, said this is characteristic of Green Bay, where fans generally allow players their personal space.
"You don't really get bothered that much,'' Williams said. "They're not going to just surround you and 'Can I get your autograph?'''
Frank Zombo, a rookie linebacker from suburban Detroit, said his family has been impressed by the town's friendliness. "My grandmother loves it so much she wants to move to Green Bay,'' Zombo said.
Zombo often wears a Tigers' baseball cap and said a man introduced himself when they sat next to each other at a Japanese steakhouse.
The man was from Michigan's Upper Peninsula but explained to Zombo that people there cheer for the Packers. "I ended up talking to him the whole time about hunting,'' Zombo said.
Fans like this are currently being interviewed by filmmaker Meghan Parkansky for a documentary about Packers' culture that includes a few extremists.
"There's a gentleman in Superior who has worn something green and gold every day for the last 35 years,'' Parkansky said. Her reporting led her to the home of Wendy Smetana, who Parkansky called "quite the normal lady'' compared to some eccentrics.
Smetana said she is particularly fond of the retired players she cheered for in her youth. One of her favorites, she said, was Willie Wood, the defensive back. A few years ago, she said she felt sad when she saw the retired Wood walking with two canes.
He cheered her up by pulling out a two-dollar bill, signing it and handing it to her. "Nicest man you could meet,'' she said. It hangs on her wall near the photo of Lombardi.
Another special autograph came from Ray Nitschke, a linebacker from 1958-72. When she called him at his home (he was in the phone book) to request an autograph for a friend, Nitschke invited her over.
She stayed for a visit with his family. When Nitschke died in 1998, Smetana went to the funeral to console them. "I just felt I had to go,'' she said.
She discussed her memories in her small living room with a green, wood-burning stove with a pipe up through the ceiling. Although matter-of-fact about her own Packer-themed funeral ("I'm open to death,'' she said, "I've lived a good life'') most of Smetana's observations concerned the here and now.
She discussed upcoming games as well as recent ones, like the 45-17 victory over the New York Giants late last month. "We're the smallest city in the league,'' she said, "and we just slaughtered the Giants.''
More from NFL.com: