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Packers faithful line streets to welcome home champions

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

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Schools dismissed students 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 legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

Fans who spent Sunday night partying picked up right where they left off Monday morning, showing up hours early to see the motorcade. 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 Super Bowl victory. They were up at 4 a.m. to drive to Green Bay and stake out a spot to see the team. 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 wake up at 4 a.m. to visit a football stadium, Christensen simply replied: "Love them."

By early afternoon, throngs of fans in cheeseheads, green-and-gold beads, jerseys and Packers 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," Hamalainen 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 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 Monday. The real party is set for Tuesday afternoon, when the Packers are expected to stage a public rally at Lambeau. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who proclaimed February as Green Bay PackersSuper Bowl championship month, is 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," Shirek 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. Spes remembers the Packers' 1997 Super Bowl win, but he 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 they got. It was no different in the Super Bowl as the Packers barely survived a late Steelers rally, Spes said.

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

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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