GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The afternoon practice has just begun, and Dan Rieder, a Green Bay Packers fan for life, stands contentedly in the middle of a beehive of activity.
In front of him, Packers zealots are pressed five and six deep against a chain-link fence around the practice field, straining for a better view. Behind him, under a white, circus-like tent, souvenir seekers can buy a Brett Favre jersey for $45 or a jar of Lambeau Field dirt for $9.95.
In this carnival atmosphere, Rieder's six children float through the mix looking for memories. Manager of a grocery business in Kewaskum, Wis., an hour and 45 minutes away, Rieder said his family might get to Green Bay for one game a year.
What does he think of the hysteria that surrounds him?
"Pretty awesome," Rieder said, dressed out in green Packers running pants and white Packers T-shirt. "This has really grown.
"I've been a Packer fan for 40 years. I used to lay in front of the black-and-white TV in Dad's living room watching their games. In this state, the Packers are the biggest thing going."
The Packers sometimes have been described as a religious experience by their followers. If this is true, then the state of Wisconsin is fast becoming a summertime mecca for the nation's most devout NFL fans.
Because scattered across the Dairy State this summer are no fewer than four NFL teams in training for the 1997 season.
The New Orleans Saints, with new coach Mike Ditka, have traded the oppressive heat and humidity of Louisiana for the 75-degree temperatures of La Crosse at Wisconsin's western boundary. Two hours northwest, the Kansas City Chiefs have made tiny River Falls their summer home. And to the south, the Chicago Bears have been coming to rural Platteville since, well, when Ditka was their coach in 1984.
Throw in the Minnesota Vikings, who train in Mankato, Minn., just across the border, and you've got five teams in relative proximity. This confluence of NFL talent makes up what is known as the Cheese League. These teams not only play each other in the preseason on occasion, they often scrimmage one another to break the monotony of two-a-days.
When the Vikings made the 90-minute bus ride to La Crosse last week to scrimmage the Saints, they were greeted by an army of purple jerseys. Indeed, with shorter drive time than the folks from New Orleans, the Vikings easily had the biggest part of a crowd of more than 3,000.
Not surprisingly -- given the Saints' 3-13 record last season -- the Vikings also had the better part of the scrimmage. But the big winner turned out to be La Crosse, a river town with a metropolitan population of 100,000.
The Saints have been training at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for 10 years now. Until Ditka arrived, it had been relatively low-key. So low-key that La Crosse was a stopping point for television's late Charles Kuralt, who once did a feature on St. Rose's Convent.
It's not necessarily low-key anymore, though.
"The minute Ditka was named head coach, our phones started ringing off the hook," said Doug Collister, director of motor coach tours for the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitor Bureau. "We've always had a good turnout to watch the team. But now we've got 20 buses coming in here, and it's because of Mike Ditka."
By Collister's reckoning, La Crosse figure to make $75,000 in revenue off the motor coach business alone this summer.
On the day of the scrimmage, cloud cover and scattered showers kept the temperature in the low 70s, perfect for a team wanting to get in some quality work.
"We have great facilities here, a good working atmosphere and good weather," said Bill Kuharich, the Saints' president and general manager. "We get out of the heat and humidity of New Orleans, and the rain, which is so unpredictable. And we get guys in a focused area, where all the family things are removed."
Platteville, with a population of 10,000, holds even less distraction for the Bears than La Crosse does for the Saints. The Bears obviously like the arrangement. They've been training in Platteville for 14 years.
"When the team first started here and the crowds got bigger, it was a little difficult to absorb all that traffic and the long lines in restaurants," said Kathy Kopp, executive director of the Platte-ville Chamber of Commerce. "But now that we have more motel rooms and more restaurants, we don't feel the pinch."
The pinch is acute in Green Bay, though, where tourism starts and pretty much ends with the Packers. Six months after Green Bay won its first Super Bowl in 29 years, hotels were booked solid in July as tourists from all parts of the country streamed in for a glimpse of the defending champions.
During a recent practice, a quick check of the parking lot across the street from the Packers' training facility turned up a dozen out-of-state license plates from eight different states -- some as far away as New Jersey and New Mexico.