“Cheeseheads: The Documentary”
‘We’re So Much More Than A Funny Foam Hat’
Gone for 25 years, California filmmaker John Mitchell returned home to Wisconsin four years ago. Initially, he came in search of Green Bay Packers fans.
But he found something more. He found a rich culture in which it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, or who you sleep with, or what your color or ethnicity are, or where you go to church, or even which team you like.
All that matters, he found, was that you embrace being a Cheesehead.
Mitchell lovingly tells the story of his journey in “Cheeseheads: The Documentary.” The self-funded, self-produced film premiered across Wisconsin late last year and early this year.
Along the way, Mitchell found plenty of Packers fans, and he found the Packers deeply ingrained in Cheesehead culture.
“It still holds strong to the Lombardi notions of honor, integrity, and teamwork, though from a broader perspective of community that has always been a hallmark of Wisconsin culture. I think that’s magnificent,” Mitchell says.
“It’s one of the many things I learned while making the film, yet deep down it was something I think I already understood having grown up in Wisconsin. And despite living in California for the past 25-plus years, I saw hallmarks of that Cheesehead pride bleed through even there, thus why I made this film in the first place.”
Indeed, the story starts in California, where Mitchell is a free-lance film producer. He goes to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in 2011. He’s wowed by the spirit and passion of all the Wisconsin fans he sees in Pasadena. Never mind that the Badgers lose.
Seeing this, Mitchell figures he’s gotta go to Texas for Super Bowl XLV and see what that scene is like. Never mind that the Packers haven’t qualified for it yet.
“I said to my friend who lived in Arlington, either the Packers make it and I have a great time tailgating with Packers fans, or we would simply have a great time tailgating the Super Bowl. After all, how often does anyone get to do that?” Mitchell says.
You know how that turned out. The Packers win Super Bowl XLV, bringing a fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy back home to Wisconsin.
“Turns out fate was ready to hand me a trophy of my own and I hit the jackpot that ended up being the launching point to the film,” Mitchell says.
It was there, surrounded by thousands of Packers fans, that Mitchell had this realization:
“The vast majority of Packers fans,” he says, “were not even from Wisconsin and really had no ties to it other than their love of the Green and Gold. Well, that was both a bold statement and confirmation of that fact that Cheeseheads truly are from everywhere. It was one of the things that set in motion the idea that, whereas I thought I had a great story to tell when flying to Texas, I knew for certain I had a magnificent one to tell on the flight back to California.”
He adds: “In that moment, it became a weirdly personal and overwhelmingly massive responsibility to tell a good story, to tell the best story I could about what would eventually become that ‘deeper meaning’ of being a Cheesehead. I was dead set on honoring the fans as much as the state of Wisconsin.”
So after the Packers’ victory in Super Bowl XLV, Mitchell says he “went back to Wisconsin and set about discovering that deeper meaning of being a Cheesehead, and I’m pretty sure I found it.”
“Cheeseheads: The Documentary” took three years just to shoot the footage.
That journey took Mitchell all over Wisconsin, from his hometown of Cameron in the northwestern part of the state, to an encounter with Packers great Dave Robinson in an Eau Claire grocery store, to Madison, where he gleefully admitted to stalking Bucky Badger (with permission, of course).
“I made so many good friends,” Mitchell says. “People like Greg Jenss, aka the ‘The Titletown Clown,’ John ‘St. Vince’ O’Neill and his wife Mary Beth ‘Cheese Louise.’ Steve ‘The Owner’ Tate, and Jeff Kahlow, who makes those amazing foam hats from Hodags to deer to fan Cheeseheads and more. He’s also known as ‘Tundra Man.’
“Honestly, so many people made a deep impression on me throughout the state, not just for their team connections but for what kind of good-hearted people they were, that it’s hard to tell every story. And you have to consider that it applies to Wisconsin Badger fans as well, as there’s an immense cross-pollination between the two.”
Yes, Wisconsin fans love their Badgers. Mitchell also found a passion for the Packers that doesn’t necessarily wane because you might be in, say, Madison.
“The farther away you are from Lambeau Field, the more it becomes a fantasy since you don’t see the day-to-day of what goes on in Green Bay. When that is the case, your take on what happens there is magnified by your love and passion for the team, along with your lack of contact, so what happens in the mind can often be stronger than the reality of being right up next to it, thus even more powerful,” he says.
“I have many friends who live in and around Green Bay who are a bit desensitized to the ‘Vatican Of Football’ being in their back yard, yet I encounter people all over the state who have fantastic stories about their one and only visit to Lambeau Field 20 years ago, or about their first game there.”
Mitchell shares one of those fantastic Packers stories in the film. It’s his story. When he was 11, he met Bart Starr.
“That so inspired me that it stayed with me for decades, and will until I die,” he says. “That I got to meet him again three decades later while making this film was not only amazing, but its own form of serendipity.”
“Cheeseheads: The Documentary” took four years to make. Even so, Mitchell says there’s a timelessness to being a Packers fan.
“It’s the pride in the team, win or lose, the love of place – Lambeau Field, the city of Green Bay, even Wisconsin as a whole – and that sense of community that comes with going to a game, or simply tailgating, or even throwing a game-day party at your house wherever you are. All of those things can be experienced by any fan for any team, but I dare say none with as much history and intensity as Packers fans. Add to that 13 world championships, and you can see why the Packers’ fan base is like none other,” he says.
“That we, the Cheeseheads, own the team brings a whole other level of intensity and pride to it that no other team anywhere in the world can claim. We not only love our team, we are a part of our team. That, to me, is one of the most astounding things about fan loyalty and the Packers. We’ll gladly pay to own and keep that history and tradition in Green Bay for an eternity if that’s what it takes.”
Having defined Packers fans, what, then, is a Cheesehead? Steve Tate, one of those Packers super fans, has an idea.
“You don’t have to be from Wisconsin,” Tate says in the film. “You don’t have to be a Packers fan. Everyone is welcomed.”
That’s exactly what Mitchell found.
“That is the true essence of what I discovered throughout the journey, that being a Cheesehead is a state of mind and a way of life as much as it is a birthright from Wisconsin,” Mitchell says.
“I’ve even encountered fans of other teams who said that visiting Lambeau Field and feeling its history and energy made them proud Cheeseheads even though they were not from Wisconsin or even a Packers fan.”
What is it about the Packers that thrills people?
“There’s nothing quite like game day at Lambeau Field to get that awe and excitement pumped up to full capacity,” Mitchell says. “And of course I think that excitement extends well beyond Green Bay, to the couches and man-caves we all sit in on game day across the state, or the sports bars people go to all around the country to watch the Packers play. It’s like a contagion that people want to catch.”
Mitchell preserves that sense of Cheesehead community via the film’s website (iamacheesehead.com), a YouTube page (youtube.com/user/iamwords), a Facebook page (facebook.com/iamacheesehead) and a Twitter feed at @CheeseheadsDoc.
“The tagline on the movie poster is ‘We’re So Much More Than A Funny Foam Hat,’ and I think that encapsulates Cheesehead Nation in a way that goes way beyond the close-ups of Cheesehead-wearing fans you see during games on TV, and the stereotype people have about that word in the first place,” he says.
“We love the hat as a symbol of Wisconsin, of our cheese heritage in the state, of our love of sports, and even as an example of our willingness to not take ourselves all too seriously, but it is in fact just one of the many symbols I have now come to understand represents being a Cheesehead.
“So it would seem,” Mitchell says, that ‘Cheeseheadedness’ isn’t necessarily built around the Packers, “but rather the love of all things about the Wisconsin culture and, by default, the birthplace of Cheesehead culture itself.”
“Cheeseheads: The Documentary” is rated PG. It runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. It is available on DVD for $20 at wisconsingoods.com. Many clips from the film can be seen at its YouTube page (youtube.com/user/iamwords/)