A brief history of the Lambeau Leap

January 8, 2015, 1:39 PM

— -- GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Football is tough enough; there are zone reads, cornerback blitzes, roiling in the trenches and all kinds of assorted mayhem -- coming from various directions -- to contend with.

But for the Green Bay Packers lucky enough to score at Lambeau Field, there is another obstacle: the imposing walls behind the end zones. If they manage to scale those dizzying heights, there are other horrors to contemplate. Think flying bratwursts, among other things.

"Yeah, I've been touched a few times inappropriately," said wide receiver Randall Cobb, one of this year's most frequent fliers. "I had a beer put on me. Popcorn, and the coolest one so far -- ketchup off the cheese curds.

"How much more Wisconsin could it get?"

The folks at Clorox immediately seized on the unlikely marketing opportunity.

"Had a little deal come through with Clorox," Cobb said, laughing. "So Clorox cleans the jersey. Makes sure nobody gets ketchup on the Cobb."

Third-person references aside, the "Lambeau Leap" is the stuff of legend -- so much so that it remains legal even as the NFL legislates against other celebrations. The wall that separates spectators from athletes is broken down in what might be professional sports' ultimate interactive moment. Although, surrounded by those swirling, teeming masses, it can get a little claustrophobic.

Jordy Nelson's first visit into the chaos came in a Dec. 7, 2008, game against the Houston Texans. That was the wide receiver's rookie season -- and the 9-yard scoring pass was delivered by Aaron Rodgers, in his first season as the Packers' regular starting quarterback.

"Got a fade ball in the corner in the south end zone -- and jumped," Nelson remembered. "It's always a hassle to get out of it. That's the biggest issue. The fans hold onto you. They want to try to stay warm and cuddle a little bit."

A Lambeau first

Oddly enough, the original Lambeau Leap was executed by a defensive player, strong safety LeRoy Butler. It happened Dec. 26, 1993, in a game against the Raiders, who at that time were calling Los Angeles home.

"Those guys didn't really want to be there," Butler, sitting in a Milwaukee radio station, remembered. "The play happens; I cause a fumble."

The ball bounced into the hands of Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, who headed toward the end zone. Just as he was being tackled, White looked over and flipped the ball to Butler.

"I was excited because I'm going to score my first touchdown," Butler said, watching tape of the play. "All this stuff is going through my head. And as I'm about to score, you see me point right there to this guy. And I jump. And this guy just kind of grabs me."

Butler fell short of getting his hips over the edge, but several good-natured fans hoisted him into the stands.

"I know a lot of people say, 'Well, act like you've been there before,'" Butler said. "I'm a defensive guy. I may not ever get back there again. So I was going to make the most of it.

"The commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, [grandfathered] it in as a celebration, because it's not showing up the other team. It's showing that we appreciate our fans for being a part of this game. You're sitting out there in 19-below-zero weather. The least we could do is jump up and give you a hug."

So a tradition was born. Butler would take the plunge only once more during his career, tying him with current defensive end Julius Peppers and leaving them both two shy of cornerback Charles Woodson among defensive players.

Wide receiver Robert Brooks helped popularize the Leap, writing a catchy song that became popular in Wisconsin. Brooks gave full credit to Butler for inventing the concept, adding, "But he stuck to the wall like Velcro."

With all due respect to the current Packers, the greatest leaper of them all, by a vast consensus, was wide receiver Donald Driver.

"The best," Butler said, "because he has like a 40-inch vertical leap. He'll jump up there and actually sit on the wall."

Driver's first in-person look at the Leap was a typically clinical Brooks performance in a preseason game -- and he was awed. He vowed to do it after he scored his first touchdown in Green Bay, but when he caught the only touchdown pass of his 1999 rookie season, Driver lost his concentration and started dancing. By the time his teammates got his attention, it was too late. They never let him hear the end of it.

"So the next time I scored was the following preseason," Driver said at a Southlake, Texas, workout facility near his home. "I have a high jump background, so I used a two-foot takeoff and went in there. The fans grabbed me and showed all their love and support."

In the 'Jump Zone'

While a productive Packers offensive player can visit that alternative universe a dozen times or more in a career, the fans have fewer touches, as it were. For them, each interaction is memorable.

On Dec. 25, 2011, Phil Gutting purchased "Jump Zone" seats to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. Turns out, he scored two catches in one game -- James Jones and Nelson.

"We hung our arms over the side and screamed and [Nelson] came right up into our lap," Gutting explained. "And I grabbed onto his arms -- I couldn't believe how big his arms were, because I work out. And I said, 'Jordy, you've got some nice biceps on you.' And he goes, 'Thanks, I've got to go.'"

Small wonder.

"You can't hear anything," Gutting explained. "It's so loud. When they fly up there, some people lose their beers."

Thanks to quick thinking, that didn't happen to John Bluma, a season-ticket holder in Section 138, three rows up from the field, who caught Greg Jennings in 2011.

"Of course I had a beer with me," he said, smiling. "But I set it down because I didn't want to spill it. Seven dollars a pop, you don't want to spill it.

"All of a sudden, he jumped right in front of us. And then the surge of people that were just pushing at us, and you could not help but touch the guy. It was a pretty amazing experience."

Three years ago, Bianca White of Green Bay got a text from a guy who worked for her grandfather only hours before the Packers played host to the Miami Dolphins.

"It was warm, so I decided to go -- sat in the front row," she said. "Aaron Rodgers ran it in for a touchdown and jumped right where I was sitting.

"I just embraced him. You kind of get smushed along the way; poor old lady next to me, you can't even see her in the picture because she just got demolished."

Harder than it looks

Talking with former Packers players unearthed this little-known Lambeau fact: The wall is actually shorter behind the goalposts than it is in the corners behind the end zone.

This intrepid reporter, driven by a thirst for knowledge -- and almost certain public humiliation -- arrived a few weeks ago with a tape measure in hand. It was a perfect Lambeau morning: 10 degrees, zero with the wind chill, and, naturally, it was snowing. Aside from a few workers, our ESPN camera crew had the stadium to ourselves. It was almost like being in church.

As it turns out, the wall directly behind the goal posts is 5 feet, 11 inches high. It's 6 feet, 2 inches in the corners -- a quirk veterans say they don't usually share with rookies.

There is a statue at Lambeau celebrating the Leap, but don't go looking for a set of instructions. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of advice on how to overcome this obstacle.

"Slow down," Butler said. "You've got to do it under control."

But Nelson said, "You better get a running start. I like to put my hands on the wall, give me a little extra leverage. Don't take it lightly. You better get focused."

Said Cobb, "It looks very easy until you try it for the first time. Cover your privates. Have somebody help you down. And be cautious of any food."

With no fans in the stands, ice on the ground and snow covering the top of the wall were the only major concerns. Determined not to provide face-plant highlights for "SportsCenter," the reporter chose the shorter of the two walls and employed Driver's safer two-foot takeoff method. And failed miserably. It's tough to get your center of gravity over that edge.

Finally, after a number of misses -- that will not be revealed -- the more aggressive one-foot takeoff (and a well-positioned railing on an adjacent gate) paid dividends. This one was admittedly ugly, but there have been worse efforts -- a number of gruesome failures in the 21 years since Butler's first joyous leap.

Brett Favre once teetered on the wall against the Cardinals, John Kuhn hit some ice and never got liftoff in a playoff game, B.J. Raji splattered into the wall and opponents Chad Ochocinco and Fred Smoot had the gall to try it in enemy air space. Even Driver himself, at the NFC Championship Game against the Giants in January 2008, fell notably short.

"It was cold," Driver said. "I couldn't breathe, trying to beat three guys to the end zone. And when I jumped, I just couldn't make it."

That doesn't diminish his memories of 28 touchdowns in Green Bay and nearly that many successful jumps.

"When you score a touchdown, and you're getting ready to jump in the stands," Driver said, "that's the greatest feeling in the world."