Kevin Cullen

Love conquers all, even allegiances to sports teams

Vernon and Betsy Grant at the storied Lambeau Field in 2002. Vernon and Betsy Grant at the storied Lambeau Field in 2002.
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / February 6, 2011

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On most days, you’ll find Betsy Grant behind the front desk at either the Harvard Square Hotel or The Inn at Harvard in Cambridge, because that’s where she works.

But if you look at her tax return, under occupation, it says “Cheesehead.’’

Betsy Grant is a certified Green Bay Packers nut, a Wisconsin native who has lived here for almost 40 years, a Cheesehead surrounded by Chowderheads.

She’s a part-owner of the Packers — she and 112,000 other shareholders.

And it goes without saying that she will be watching the Super Bowl today, cheering on her beloved team.

But this is not a football story. This is a love story.

Betsy Grant grew up in Wisconsin Dells, a place her great-great grandfather H.H. Bennett (no relation to Edgar, the former Packer running back) put on the map with his iconic photographs of local sandstone formations. Wisconsin Dells is a wholesome, family-friendly tourist destination on the Wisconsin River, the waterpark capital of the world.

Her father, Oliver Reese, grew up in Chicago but, like a lot of people from Illinois, summered with his family in the Dells. He somehow got talked into taking Betsy’s mom Jean to the prom after Jean’s date got the measles. Those measles produced a marriage and Oliver and Jean Reese produced Betsy.

Oliver Reese married into the family photography business, but he brought something to the table: a lifelong love of the Packers, unusual for a Chicago guy, but, hey, this is an unusual story.

It was Betsy’s friend, Elaine Amella, a playmate since they were 8 years old, who turned her on to the Packers. Elaine lives in South Carolina now and to this day Betsy and Elaine speak on the telephone after every Packers game.

But Betsy’s fanatic interest in the Packers did more than cement a childhood friendship for life. It brought her much closer to her father.

“My father was very quiet, very reserved,’’ Betsy said. “We could always talk about the Packers.’’

Her father filled her with stories of the Packers’ early days, even before Vince Lombardi stalked the sidelines, barking at his players, and Bart Starr defied subfreezing temperatures and numb fingertips to throw tight spirals. She appreciated the history, but relished the players she saw in their prime. She loved Brett Favre. She loved Reggie White, who when he wasn’t sacking quarterbacks was an evangelical minister.

“I remember watching Reggie White turn to the crowd at Lambeau Field and get everybody to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ in the middle of a game and I thought, this doesn’t happen with other football teams,’’ she said.

In 1972, Betsy was studying at Sophia University in Tokyo when she met and fell in love with Vernon Grant, an artist from Cambridge who had just wrapped up a stint with the US Army. They moved back to Cambridge and got married. It was a mixed marriage.

“Vernon was a Patriots fan,’’ Betsy Grant said. “A big Patriots fan.’’

But, then, love conquers all. Vernon started watching Packers games with Betsy, just to humor her. He gradually realized that, along with the marathons they ran together, it was a fun thing to do as a couple. Betsy totally co-opted him, getting him to wear Packers clothing.

All relationships have their ups and downs. After the Packers beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, Vernon turned to Betsy and said he had a confession to make: He was secretly cheering for the Patriots.

“I forgave him,’’ Betsy said. “He said, ‘Well, if we were going to lose to anybody, I’m glad it was the Packers.’ ’’

Vernon’s devotion to the Packers, and to his wife, only grew after that.

Vernon and Betsy were a pair. They went running together every day, hours-long runs throughout Cambridge and beyond. On Sundays in the autumn, they would cross the Charles River and go to the old Sports Depot in Allston.

“There were so many screens, they’d put us in a corner and put the Packers game on one of the TVs,’’ Betsy said.

In 1995, Betsy went to Lambeau Field with her husband and her parents for a Packers mini-camp. She and Vernon went back to Lambeau in 2002 to see a game. Betsy and Vernon’s names, along with her parents’ names, are engraved on bricks in the pavilion outside the stadium.

Six years ago, Betsy’s father died. A year later, she and Vernon went out for a run. She mapped out a long run, 15 miles, while Vernon planned a short two-mile jaunt. They parted on the BU Bridge, a wave and a promise to meet later.

A short time later, the cops found Vernon collapsed, a heart attack. He didn’t have any ID on him so the cops guessed his age at 45. Actually, he was 71 years old.

Months after Vernon died, Betsy tried to watch a game at The Sports Depot, but it wasn’t the same. “It was too painful,’’ she said.

Time heals. The Sports Depot is gone, but Betsy gets out for Packers games regularly now. She’s going to watch the Super Bowl today at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square. She’s going alone but won’t be alone.

Because for Betsy Grant, it’s more than watching a football game. It’s an act of remembrance, and an act of celebration, for a deep love of a team that she shared with the two men she loved the most in this world.

“My dad and Vernon will be watching the Super Bowl, too,’’ Betsy Grant said. “Somewhere, somehow.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at