Record-setting winter storm Wesley could not deter thousands of determined Packer fans from descending on the Regional Airport in New Richmond for the 14th annual Packer Tailgate Tour, Thursday, April 11.
New Richmond was the third stop on this year's tour and it was one to remember for the ages. Fans and players alike had to contend with gale force winds delivering a mixture of rain, sleet and snow creating white out conditions that temporarily closed portions of I-94 and made long sections of State Highway 65 leading into town impassable. Strong winds gusted up to 50 mph driving wet snow into drifts with the consistency of cement more than 6 feet high repeatedly blocking exposed sections of local roads.
A fleet of school buses shuttled fans from a number of remote parking areas to the airport where they benefited from the extraordinary efforts of more than 100 volunteers. Battling intermittent sideways sleet, hearty volunteers guided fans from the buses to the main hangar where more volunteers collected tickets, checked passes and welcomed them into the party.
Barron native and "The Voice" runner-up Chris Kroeze pre-heated the standing-room-only crowd of more than 3,200 fans ahead of the Packer's arrival with the first of two concerts. His guitar was virtually smoking following his cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy," much to the delight of his fans.
Kroeze is in the midst of riding his soulful country cords and impressive guitar chops on what looks to be a promising ride to stardom. All of Kroeze's God-given talent was on display on stage Thursday night including his most endearing quality, his downhome Wisconsin humility. The fans loved their own in the hangar Thursday night.
By the time the Packer Tour Bus pulled up there was no doubt who was headlining the night.
Packer CEO Mark Murphy, accompanied by alumni players Scott Wells, Nick Barnett, Aaron Kampman, Earl Dotson, Ryan Grant and Bernardo Harris stepped off the bus and into an ocean of green and gold fans eager to meet their heroes.
The Packer entourage high-fived their way through a gauntlet of cheering fans onto the stage where impromptu emcee Paul Mayer got things started.
"We will clear in excess of $135,000. I dare any other city in the state of Wisconsin to beat our record!"
Murphy took the mic, introduced the individual players and then began the question and answer session by asking a fan wearing a Viking's jersey in the front row, "How many Super Bowls have the Vikings won?" much to the jeering and cheering of the green and gold army.
The Packer players joined Murphy in answering questions, then tour members started lobbing Packer souvenirs into the crazed crowd.
Following the feeding frenzy, the Packers took up seats behind a row of tables and settled in to sign autographs for more than 700 fans who had paid in advance for the opportunity.
The players spent the next hour-plus shaking hands, sharing hugs, taking selfies and autographing a wide variety of items ranging from balls, helmets and jerseys to any number of different clothing items.
Following the autograph session, the players graciously hung out, shaking more hands, posing for more photos and generally thanking fans before packing up and relinquishing the spotlight back to Kroeze and his band to close out an unforgettable night of memories.
According to Chamber Executive Director Rob Kreibich, the event netted more than $130,000, an all-time Tailgate Tour record, for Grace Place, the Salvation Army's transitional housing program in New Richmond.
"It was an honor to help raise money for Grace Place. Seeing firsthand the support the organization received at the event reaffirmed our choice to work with them. It's a privilege to connect with nonprofits like Grace Place and help further their mission. Our communities are fortunate to have such caring organizations that serve needs so well," said Murphy.
Kreibich thanked the Packer organization and paid tribute to all the volunteers without whose help the show could not have gone on. He thanked the city, the New Richmond Police Department, St. Croix County Sheriff's Department and most of all Airport Director Mike Demulling, Mary Kay Rice and the rest of the airport staff and volunteers for the many hours and effort they put into getting the airport ready to host the city's biggest event ever.
"I can't say enough about the work they did and really all the work done by all the volunteers. None of this would have been possible without them. They deserve a ton of credit. What a great success and what a great story for New Richmond," said Kreibich.