GREEN BAY, Wis. — I thought he was a Bears fan, so I looked away. No need to consort with the enemy a few hours before game time, I thought, especially one carrying an American flag the size of a grown man.
In my excitement to be at Lambeau Field, I'd lost track of exactly why that man might be feeling especially patriotic. Green Bay had become ground zero Thursday in the National Football League's national anthem controversy, but I was distracted by my quest for a good burger.
The author at her first Packers game on Sept. 28. | Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News
The situation dawned on me gradually. I saw two people carrying red, white and blue jackets instead of Packers sweatshirts and a group of women wearing white buttons with "I stand" superimposed over a picture of the American flag.
I heard men muttering about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell babying the players, and flags proudly displayed at tailgate parties.
"Aaron Rodgers is wrong," declared the original flag man, as I walked by a second time. The back of his shirt read: "If the flag offends you, I'll help you pack."
Earlier in the week, Packers players had thrown kerosene on an already sizable fire. Around half of Americans, including President Donald Trump, were unhappy about NFL teams' decision to kneel or stand together during the anthem, but now the Packers wanted them to join in.
"Join us this Thursday by locking arms with whoever you're with, stranger or loved one, wherever you are — intertwined and included — in this moment of unification," read a Tuesday statement from Green Bay's players.
The Packers presented ongoing protests as a show of unity, and their fans weren't going to take it sitting (or kneeling) down.
Fans hold up signs before an NFL football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer) | Mike Roemer, Associated Press
As kickoff approached, the crowd seemed nervous, and not because the Bears looked impressive in their win last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. People were sizing up those next to them on the cold, metal bleachers, prepared to accept or reject an invitation to link arms.
The chanting started as a huge American flag was unfurled on the field. "USA! USA!" shouted a notable chunk of the around 78,000 fans, some waving little flags of their own.
Green Bay players and coaches were a vision in white, standing tall and joined together "like the threads on (a) jersey," as the statement had predicted. But most fans chose not to mimic them, putting their hands on their hearts either defiantly or out of habit.
It was strange to feel anger surge through the crowd as the anthem played, although I knew to expect it. I grew up a few hundred miles south of Green Bay, and I'd seen critical social media posts about the protests from old friends throughout the week.
I guess I felt a little angry, too, but not at the people on the field. I was mad that I hadn't heard one person that day discussing the issues underlying the anthem controversy, just a stream of harsh words and harmful jeers.
"It's never been about the national anthem, (and) it's never been about the military," Rodgers said in a post-game press conference. "This is about something bigger than that — an invitation to show unity in the face of some divisiveness."
Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers links arms with Richard Rodgers and Randall Cobb during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) | Morry Gash, AP
As a religion journalist, it's my job to try to understand and then explain issues that routinely tear people apart: Christian-Islamic relations, religious freedom laws and immigration policy, to name a few. I work hard to produce balanced articles, and then get yelled at by people on both sides.
Fans chanted "USA!" before the start of the National Anthem on Thursday, Sept. 28. | Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News
I don't say that to get sympathy. I say it because my job has helped me to see the value in allowing people you might instinctively dislike to share their side of the story. I have tough conversations for a living and then write articles calling on people to have tough conversations of their own.
The national anthem protests spur pain and frustration but also provide an opportunity for growth, as Rodgers explained. And I don't mean that everyone should end up linking arms, just that they should end up a little less angry.
"There's been some great conversations that have been started" in the locker room because of the protests, Rodgers said. But in the stands on Thursday, the protests led to frustration.
By the time the final whistle blew, fans around me were acting like best buddies, shaking hands and congratulating themselves on a big Packers victory. The anthem awkwardness was long forgotten, although it didn't need to be.
As we inch closer to Sunday and another full slate of NFL games, what I wish for my fellow fans is to stop seeing the flag protests in black-and-white and to ask the people standing or sitting next to you what's on their mind.