ASHWAUBENON – Jeff Etringer swore up and down he wouldn’t drink after getting out of jail and off probation 11 years ago.
But soon, he was met with a smorgasbord of temptations: liquor shots, Jell-O shots, beer bongs and kegs at a tailgate outside of Lambeau Field.
He told himself he would have one drink. Just one.
Etringer, 39, had gone to the Green Bay Packers game with his dad, but he wouldn’t remember sneaking off from him nor the actions that led to his being kicked out of the stadium that night.
For alcoholics, being sober at a sporting event can feel impossible. That’s on the minds of the people behind Section Yellow, a new initiative created by sober Packers fans for sober Packers fans. Since it debuted as a yellow information table in Lambeau’s atrium last year, Section Yellow has offered resources, yellow sobriety stickers, solidarity and respite from drinking at one of the most alcohol-laden places in the country.
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“(Alcohol) is just so readily available. It’s everywhere. I have to go somewhere deeper in the stadium to find a soda, but if I want a beer, I can walk literally right up to a tub of ice. Somebody will hand me a beer right away,” Etringer said.
Before Etringer got sober four years ago, he’d never been to a Packers game without drinking. Until Section Yellow, he assumed he would never go to another Packers game again.
Heidi Belekevich, 36, similarly was nervous about the pervasive drinking culture at Lambeau Field, a place near and dear to her heart.
She came out of treatment in August 2018 and had concerns about attending games as a sober person. Although she did her best to prepare herself, when she went to her first Packers game that October, she described getting through the tailgate as being in a “game of Frogger.”
She sat in her stadium seat with laser focus and didn’t drink, but that’s not to say she was comfortable in her surroundings.
At watch parties and get-togethers, she would bring a pack of Diet Dr. Pepper with her and, to counter the drinking partygoers, she would cling to her supporters who were always a text or call away.
“When everyone was drinking around me, I stayed glued to my phone early on. I just needed a bit of a ripcord in case I needed to call somebody,” Belekevich said. “I went through a ton of Diet Dr. Pepper.”
Lambeau’s sober section has Phishy origins
A little over 150 miles south of Lambeau Field in 2012, John Plageman was navigating his own sobriety journey at a very different crowd with its own constancy of illicit substances: the Phish show at Alpine Valley.
Plageman, information and assistance specialist with Aging and Disability Resource Center of Brown County, has been sober for 13 years, but that hasn’t stopped his trips to Alpine Valley to enjoy his favorite jam band.
He’s been volunteering since 2012 with the “Phellowship,” which comprises sober Phish fans who support one another during shows, concerts that are notoriously associated with hard drugs, booze and psychedelics.
The sober section at Phish shows, festooned with yellow balloons, offers a moment of relief for fans struggling to stay sober and it functions as a station for solidarity. Volunteers distribute stickers, which fans can wear throughout the show to indicate to other sober fans they aren’t alone. There’s also a 15-minute gratitude meeting during the set break, in which over 100 fans tend to take part, Plageman said.
Plageman wanted to bring his sober knowledge as a Phishhead to his home base as a cheesehead, and in 2019, he floated the idea of creating a yellow section at Lambeau Field to Laura Hieb, chief nursing officer at Bellin Health. They both belong to the Brown County Alcohol and Drug Coalition for Change. Hieb set up a meeting with the Packers, and the idea resonated with some powerful people up top.
Although the pandemic put a damper on momentum, Section Yellow was present at nearly every Packers home game last year with the exception of Family Night and one playoff game, Plageman said.
“Green Bay is one of the epicenters of alcohol abuse in America. Lambeau Field on game day is the epicenter of alcohol abuse for the NFL,” Plageman said. “I’m 13 years in long-term sobriety. I was an avid Packers fan and still am an avid Packers fan, but I know the tailgating traditions. Those traditions were passed down three generations to me.”
Finding an alternative to Lambeau Field tailgating
From the outside, sobriety looks like one person stopping their use of alcohol and drugs, but it requires a total change of lifestyle, says Alyssa Harris, a clinical substance abuse counselor at Bellin Health.
That can mean no longer hanging out with your old group of drinking buddies or going a different route to and from work to avoid your usual bar haunts. But above all things, it means letting people around you know you’re getting sober.
“If you stay in all the environments with all the same people doing the exact same things, (behaviors) will continue if you try to pull that one piece out,” Harris said. “A lot of people struggle with this question of ‘What do I do now?’ Drugs or alcohol are such a part of everything.”
Finding the right environment in Wisconsin can be tough, with the state’s superlatives of drunkenness: Wisconsin has the third highest rating for alcohol consumption in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it has the highest ranking of binge and heavy drinking in the country.
One of Harris’ clients had taken an interest in cooking when they got sober, so Harris suggested they have a Packers watch party that revolved around a few prepared meals.
As fall looms, so does chili season, and it’s become something of a tradition to have sober chili cook-offs, Harris said. All the better to chow down to an array of creative recipes in front of a Packers game.
It’s important, she said, to make your needs known. See if your friends are willing to host a non-alcoholic party, or host your own.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s always going to be somebody who’s willing to help,” Harris said. “Getting sober is a team effort.”
She recommends people reach out to the following organizations for sober activities, recovery groups and hotlines:
- Smart Recovery Online, for 24/7 chats, forums and online meetings
- Alcoholics Anonymous Hotline, for 24/7 guidance on recovery, connection to drug rehab centers and access to detox and rehab programs. Call toll-free at 800-839-1686.
- AA Wisconsin, to find information on local meetings near you.
- ADRC of Brown County, for in-depth assistance on local resources and alcohol and other drug addiction services and treatment.
- Sober Green Bay, which offers a comprehensive list of free resources, including virtual recovery meetings, AODA treatment providers and locations for Brown County drug drop-off centers.
Section Yellow has ‘made a huge difference’ for Packers fans
Dotting her cork message board are yellow stickers Belekevich has collected from her trips to the Section Yellow table. Instead of disappearing into her phone when she needs a break from alcohol at games, now she can simply get up and find her people.
“Knowing that it’s there, it’s just an oasis. If I get uncomfortable, there’s somewhere for me to go,” Belekevich said. “It’s made a huge difference in my life.”
Belekevich said the road to recovery can feel isolating, but she has a strong support system that has helped keep her honest and open. And Section Yellow has not only strengthened that network, she’s made some new friends along the way.
Harris said it’s crucial to let people know what you’re going through so they can not only help keep you accountable, but come up with sober activities to do together.
Meantime, Plageman doesn’t plan to stop his mission of normalizing sobriety. He sees the creation of Section Yellow as a sign that even the most entrenched venues for alcohol can still attract a faction of sober people.
The table is a gift for anybody — not just recovering alcoholics — lost in the mire of drinking, Plageman said. Anything can be a trigger for substance abuse, whether it’s passing a beer to a neighbor in your row, hearing the sound of sloshing foam in a cup or dealing with the antics of intoxicated fans in the crowd.
“If you need a timeout, if you just need to vent and talk to somebody that has absolute empathy for what you’re experiencing, that’s what our volunteers do,” Plageman said. “That’s why we have this Section Yellow table there.”
It dawned on Etringer, in the years after his tailgating incident, that being sober at Lambeau Field meant more than simply interacting with other nondrinkers. He realized that so many of his relationships, when it came to sports, revolved around drinking. With each amassed empty bottle and Solo cup, watching the game seemed like an afterthought.
Etringer never thought he’d be able to enjoy an in-person game again, so long as he was committed to staying sober. This year, because of Section Yellow, he and his girlfriend have season tickets.
When he spoke to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin on Aug. 19, he and his girlfriend were getting ready to head to the preseason game at Lambeau against the New Orleans Saints.
Their plan, he said, was to walk around and soak in the environment by taking pictures of the stadium and watching the pregame warmups, activities he’d never done before getting sober. He also planned to check in with folks at the Section Yellow table.
“I never really just stopped and took a look around to see everything for what it was before I got sober. I was always late to games and there were so many distractions in my life,” Etringer said. “I’m looking forward to sitting up in the seats and taking it all in sober.”
The couple is expecting a son, Oliver, in December, who will likely be welcomed into the world with enough Packers onesies to keep him snug for the rest of the season. Etringer will be ready, when it’s time, to share with Oliver the love of the game.
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Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-CENTRAL WISCONSIN. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at email@example.com or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.