It's Green Bay versus Chicago for the NFC title—the 182nd edition of the NFL's oldest and most storied rivalry. But never has the game meant as much as it will on Sunday, when nine decades of history and hatred culminate in a trip to the Super Bowl
Some seven tons of muscle and murderous intentions, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, await the opportunity of committing legal assault and battery on each other at Wrigley Field tomorrow afternoon. Whenever those rivals get together, they never fool. They play for keeps.
—ARTHUR DALEY, The New York Times
December 14, 1941
January 24, 2011
LeRoy Butler figured he knew all about heated football rivalries. He had played for the Florida State Seminoles as that program exploded into a national power and had experienced the blazing intensity of games against the Miami Hurricanes and the Florida Gators, where there were often more great NFL players on the field than in some NFL contests. In the spring of 1990 the Packers selected Butler in the second round of the draft, and shortly afterward they flew him up from Florida to Green Bay. That's when he learned that rivalries don't end with your college eligibility.
Butler was walking through the airport en route to Lambeau Field when he was accosted by an enthusiastic elderly woman. He figured she wanted an autograph, but instead she told him that he must never lose to the Minnesota Vikings. "O.K., that's cool," Butler said, moving on. "Thank you." Only then did the woman, who would tell Butler she was nearly 90 years old, hit her full emotional stride.
"She changed a little bit when I tried to walk off," says Butler. "She said, 'There's one more thing: You must not and will not ever lose to the Bears! We hate Dick Butkus and [George] Halas and Jim McMahon.' She said, 'I like Walter Payton, but the rest of them... .' And then she started cursing. She asked who my biggest rival was in college, and I told her Florida and Miami, and she said, 'You combine them. That's how much we want you to beat the Bears. We take this very seriously, and they're right down Highway 94.' She said, 'I want to beat them twice a year,' then she hit me on the butt and said, 'You go do that now.'
"That's when I found out what it meant to be in the Bears-Packers rivalry," says Butler.
No teams in the history of the NFL have played each other more often than the Bears and the Packers, separated by some 200 miles of highway (I-94, just like the woman said), most of it along the western flank of Lake Michigan. From their first meeting, on Nov. 27, 1921, when the Bears (then called the Staleys after original owner A.E. Staley) beat the Packers (named for the Indian Packing Company, which supplied the team's uniforms) 20--0, to the Packers' playoff-clinching 10--3 victory in Green Bay on Jan. 2 of this year, they have played 181 games. The Bears have won 92 and the Packers 83, with six ties. Each of those games is a bigger piece of professional history than those involving any other teams. Each connects the modern, multibillion-dollar NFL to its leather-helmeted roots. And each evokes a cinematic, Facenda-narrated image of football that is a giant part of the sport's mythology. "Bears-Packers is the heart of the NFL," says Doug Buffone, a hard-hitting Bears linebacker from 1966 to '79. "Snow flying everywhere, steam coming out of peoples' helmets, mud on the ground."
They will play again on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field in Chicago, and for the first time in the rivalry's history the winner will advance to the Super Bowl. Only once before in their nine decades of football have the Bears and the Packers met in a playoff game. That was on Dec. 14, 1941, seven days after Pearl Harbor. It was agreed that sudden-death overtime would decide the game if it was tied after 60 minutes. It was not. The Bears beat the Packers 33--14 and a week later trounced the Giants to win the league title. It was the fifth of Chicago's nine NFL championships; the Packers have 12 NFL titles. Forty-seven Hall of Fame players were primarily Bears (26) or Packers (21), the two teams most represented in Canton.
Now they play again in the postseason, their roles clearly defined. The Bears began 2010 at a crossroads, went 11--5 and have marched into the final four in typical franchise fashion: A punishing defense makes them good enough to overcome inconsistent offense and quarterback Jay Cutler's exasperating ups and downs. Chicago won the NFC North and earned a first-round playoff bye. On Sunday it began its playoff run by dismissing the overmatched Seahawks 35--24.
The Packers, meanwhile, are the hottest team in the postseason and quarterback Aaron Rodgers its most dangerous player. In last Saturday night's 48--21 blowout of the No. 1--seeded Falcons in Atlanta, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He was not only efficient but also creative, at least six times escaping pressure to deliver completions or run for positive yardage. "That was about as well as I've ever seen a quarterback play in person," said Rodgers's backup, third-year QB Matt Flynn. "The ability to break tackles, extend plays, throw on the run with accuracy. I mean, I see a lot of that stuff every day, but today it seemed like he stepped it up a notch."
Rodgers has now thrown an NFL-record 10 touchdown passes in his first three playoff games (a loss at Arizona last year and wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta this month). On the morning before the Falcons game, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, "I'll tell you what—Aaron is in a groove right now." And in the visitors' locker room in the Georgia Dome, the Packers could not hide their zeal for a matchup that was sealed the next day. "Whoa," said wideout Greg Jennings. "That would be great."
It would be the NFL's smallest market—a remnant of professional football's beginnings in places like Dayton, Providence and Rock Island—against its second-largest, and if that subtext has been dulled by the modern NFL's antiseptic sameness, fans cling to their differences. "Bears fans always think they're better than the Packers, because we're Chicago and they're Green Bay," says Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who played tight end for the Bears from 1961 to '66 and coached the Super Bowl XX champions. "Even when we weren't better."
Bryce Paup, who started 41 games at linebacker for the Packers from 1990 to '94, says, "I heard stories from people in Green Bay that people from Chicago say they're better than the hardworking people up here. It became entrenched in the culture up here."
They are mirror franchises, each defined by a single, towering figure—the Bears by Halas (more so than Ditka or Red Grange), and the Packers by Vince Lombardi (above even Hall of Famer Curly Lambeau, who founded the team in 1919 and coached it until '49). Halas was with the Bears from the beginning (like Lambeau a player-coach for a time), and across the next five decades he would coach for 40 years and be voted as a charter member of the Hall of Fame. Lombardi famously joined the Packers in '59 and won five titles in nine seasons. The league's championship trophy is named in his honor.
It is largely through oral histories that we learn how much those two icons admired each other. Bill Curry, who played center for the Packers in 1965 and '66, says that before a Bears-Packers matchup in his rookie season, Lombardi stood in front of his team, nodded toward his counterpart and said, "Don't you guys just love that old man over there?" Curry said the Packers were dumbfounded. "Even his own players didn't love him! But it was very clear that Lombardi had great admiration for Coach Halas."
Yet there was more than mutual respect at work. Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung, the Packers' Golden Boy, recalls the competitive side of the relationship. "This might have been in [Lombardi's] first year," says Hornung. "Before Coach gives his speech to the team, [equipment manager Gerald] 'Dad' Brashier comes in and says, 'Coach Halas is in the equipment room, and he wants to talk to you.' Lombardi went out, and Dad followed him, and Coach Halas said, 'Vince, I just want to tell you that you better have your team ready because we're going to kick your ass.' Vince was flabbergasted."
For those who played in them, the games have left indelible memories. Like this one, from Packers Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg, who played for Green Bay from 1956 to '71 and coached the team for four seasons in the '80s: "I think it was my second year, and I remember blocking this linebacker," says Gregg. "I blocked him all the way past the running back, and then I fell to my knees. The linebacker—I don't remember his name now—reached down, grabbed my helmet and swung it and hit me right in the mouth. Knocked out two of my teeth. And I said, 'Well, that's what Bears week means.'"
Or like this one, from former Bears quarterback Jim Miller, who played in Chicago from 1999 to 2002, when the Bears were for the most part mired in mediocrity: They went to Lambeau on Nov. 7, 1999, to play Brett Favre and the Packers on the weekend after the death of Payton, the Bears' Hall of Fame running back. Chicago was 3--5, and the Packers were 4--3 but a perennial playoff contender in that era. "There was a rally down at Soldier Field," Miller says. "Former players came out and spoke to us about the greatness of Walter Payton. We had to play up at Lambeau, and nobody really gave us a shot. We ended up pulling out the victory on a blocked field goal by Bryan Robinson. It's like the football gods were looking down on Lambeau Field that day."
Or this one, from Curry, who came to the Packers in 1965 as a 20th-round draft choice from Georgia Tech and found himself sitting in a locker room at County Stadium in Milwaukee before a late-August exhibition game against the Bears: "Bob Skoronski comes up to me, dead serious, and starts talking. He says, 'Kid, I'm blocking [Bears Hall of Fame defensive end] Doug Atkins tonight. He's eight feet tall and weighs 1,000 pounds [6'8", 257]. If you slide over and cut him in the knees, he's going to get up and kill you. Then he'll kill me.' So I start laughing, and Skoronski grabs me by the shoulder pads and his eyes are bugging out of his head and he says, 'I'm not kidding.' For an exhibition game."
And there was an edge that wasn't present on other Sundays. "There are gonna be more penalties," says Mike Singletary, the fierce Hall of Fame linebacker for Chicago's Super Bowl winner. "Guys are gonna hit harder. Guys who are hurt are gonna play. It's like any rivalry you have in college. Make sure. You beat. The Packers."
Buffone says, "Every time you played the Packers, it was like a little Super Bowl."
One Tuesday night early in his eight-year run with the Packers (2000 to '06, and '09), running back Ahman Green was taking out the trash at his home. "Some high school kids roll by," says Green, "and they shout 'Hey, Ahman Green, do your thing, and the Bears still suck!' It was amazing to me."
That emotion can take the rivalry down darker pathways. In December 1980 the Bears crushed the Packers 61--7 at Soldier Field. Coordinator Buddy Ryan's defense buried the Packers in daylong blitzes. A few years later the Bears admitted to having decoded the Packers' system for signaling plays. In the year following the Bears' Super Bowl season, Packers defensive tackle Charles Martin slammed McMahon, the Bears' quarterback, to the turf long after he had thrown a pass, drawing a suspension from the league, ending McMahon's season and essentially thwarting Chicago's hopes of repeating as champions. Martin had been wearing a hand towel inscribed with a hit list of Bears players. "They had guys go outside the rules of the game," says Ditka. "I won't ever forget that."
Butler won't forget one game in which he was penalized for a late hit on Bears quarterback Erik Kramer yet rewarded by his teammates. "I got flagged for 15 yards," says Butler. "Then on Monday, I had like a thousand bucks in my locker from, like, 10 guys and a note saying, 'You're the man.' I just hit him late. I didn't mean to do it. Another time I got flagged for hitting one of their linemen late, and the referee said, 'Son, you can't do that.' I said, 'Do you understand—this is Bears week, and that means something?'"
They are driven by emotions that they can't fully understand, grown from seeds planted nearly a century ago, when the game was something entirely different but the passion was much the same. Now they play again. At stake is the right to walk on football's biggest stage and play in its biggest game.
It matters only a little more because these are the Packers and the Bears. Like the man wrote so long ago, they play for keeps.
Now on Twitter
@SI_PeterKing and @SI_JimTrotter gear up for the NFC title game at twitter.com
THIS RIVALRY "IS THE HEART OF THE NFL," SAYS BUFFONE. "EVERY TIME IT WAS LIKE A LITTLE SUPER BOWL."