Packers and Bears, this time for a title
CHICAGO – Love those big rivalries all you want — Lakers-Celtics, Yankees-Red Sox, Ohio State-Michigan.
They've got nothing on Packers-Bears for grit.
For 90 years, from a time of leather helmets to these days of instant-replay challenges and excessive-celebration penalties, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have played rough. Through cold and wind and snow and bitter winters, these two bloody-knuckled pioneers of the NFL and their founders, Curly Lambeau and George Halas, have left marks on the game that will never go away. Twenty-one NFL championships between them, dozens of Hall of Famers who line the walls in Canton and a combative history of rugged, emotional matchups.
The names alone resonate throughout the game.
There's Lambeau Field and Halas Hall. This Sunday, when the Bears and Packers meet for the 182nd time, they will play for the Halas Trophy in the NFC championship. From there, the winner goes to the Super Bowl to chase the trophy named for legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
"When I think of Green Bay and Chicago, I think of football at its best," said former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, now an assistant coach with the Vikings.
"I think that's what it's all about. I think the rivalry, the tradition, George Halas, Lombardi, Butkus, I mean all of the names and greatness and Hall of Famers. It's quite a history there. So it's going to be very interesting."
Halas of the Bears and Lambeau of the Packers made it a point not to shake hands after games, their competitiveness raging already in those early years, spawning the spirited series that has not diminished over the decades.
One season, as former Packers star running back Paul Hornung tells it, Halas knocked on Green Bay's locker room door, asking to talk to Lombardi and then telling the Packers' coach who built a dynasty in the 1960s that the Bears were about to whip his backside, a psychological ploy if there ever was one.
Dick Butkus defined meanness at middle linebacker with his bone-jarring hits and relentless play. Butkus remembers getting ready for the Packers during a practice at Wrigley Field and said Halas was carefully eyeing the apartment buildings that surround the neighborhood home of the Chicago Cubs. He was making sure no one from up north was watching his team.
"The old man (Halas) would get a security guy there. We were always worried about spies during Packers week," Butkus said. "I'm sure Green Bay did the same thing."
Hornung, the centerpiece of Lombardi's famed Packers sweep that featured the ominous pulling guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer, recalls a couple of conversations with Halas during a game at Wrigley Field.
"Coach Halas paid me the biggest compliment I ever had," said Hornung, adding that he initially hoped to join the Bears after winning the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame.
Hornung pointed out to Halas that he had strayed too far down the sidelines from the bench and, according the Packers' star, the coach was almost in the end zone while he was "raising hell" with the referees.
"He said, 'Shut up Hornung.'"
"I came over and made a block near the Bears' bench and he said, "Hornung, you SOB.' And I went up to him after the game and said, 'Thank you.' He said, 'What for?' I said, 'You made me the happiest guy in the world, you called me an SOB.'"
Through all their confrontations over the years, the Bears and Packers — their cities separated by about 200 miles — have met only once previously in the postseason, making Sunday's game at Soldier Field all the more meaningful.
The 1941 playoff game, contested one week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, saw the Bears earn a 33-14 victory when they limited Green Bay's great receiver Don Hutson to a single catch.
There are so many memorable games since the series started in 1921. In that initial meeting, the Bears, then known as the Staleys, shut out the Packers 20-0.
Among the others:
— In one of the most bizarre endings ever, Chester Marcol's field goal attempt was blocked in overtime by the Bears' Alan Page and somehow the ball bounced right to the Packers' place-kicker, who grabbed it and ran into the end zone to give the Packers the 12-6 win in 1980.
— In a 1989 game at Lambeau Field, Don Majkowski passed to Sterling Sharpe for a TD with about a half a minute left, but officials ruled the Packers' quarterback was over the line of scrimmage when he threw. But upon further review, and after a replay, they ruled that Majkowski didn't cross the line of scrimmage and the Packers ended up with a 14-13 victory. The Bears were so angry they initially marked the score with an asterisk in their media guide, denoting it as the instant-replay game.
— One of the wildest games ever at Soldier Field came on Halloween night 1994, with 50 mph winds and driving rain turning the game into a virtual monsoon and making all forms of kicking and most passing nearly impossible. Fittingly, the teams were wearing throwback uniforms and Green Bay's Brett Favre played like a happy kid on a rainy sandlot, hurdling into the end zone after a long TD run and leading Green Bay to a 33-6 victory.
— And how about when the Refrigerator, William Perry, Chicago's 300-pound plus defensive lineman, was used as a backfield battering ram by coach Mike Ditka? Perry rumbled into the end zone for a TD in a Monday night game to spark a victory over the Packers during the Bears' run to the Super Bowl after the 1985 season, an anniversary they are celebrating this season.
That was the era when the bitterness between the teams really escalated, as did a feud between Ditka and Packers coach Forrest Gregg, both former fiery participants as players. As coaches, they got into a shouting match during an exhibition game at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1984 when both benches were on the same side of the field.
The animosity peaked in a 1986 game when Green Bay defensive lineman Charles Martin slammed Bears quarterback Jim McMahon to the turf after he'd released a pass, injuring McMahon's shoulder and leading to a suspension for Martin.
"We always wanted to beat Green Bay. That was part our demeanor," Ditka said. "They went after a couple of our players. We never did that. It's part of what happened. Why it happened I don't know. We had the better team at the time."
Dan Hampton, the Bears' Hall of Fame defensive end, put it this way: "It was a long time ago. There was a lot of bad blood, and it was fostered by both head coaches. Unashamedly."
Ditka's earlier memories of the series as a run-over-the-defender tight end centered on how many great players he competed against and some of the tough physical battles with Green Bay's Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke.
"It is what it is. As good as it gets. You're talking a small town like Green Bay and Chicago. I think our rivalry was never based on dislike, it was based on respect. I really did. I did not hate anybody," Ditka said.
Butkus said he also held no grudges against the Packers, who were in championship form during his early days.
"It's always a challenge just to see how well you could do against championship teams. Not playing for a championship is no reason not to play hard," he said.
And no complaining about the field conditions, either, no matter how difficult they might be.
"You could drop a ground ball on the pitcher's mound and it would go all the way to the end zone," Butkus said of winter days at Wrigley Field, where the Bears played before leaving after the 1970 season. "You didn't hear anybody complaining. You get what you get. That's why you are a professional. You play in all kinds of weather. Even if it was a corner high school field, it was no big deal."
Bart Starr, the Packers' Hall of Fame quarterback who led Green Bay to wins in the first two Super Bowls when the NFL's reputation was riding on a victory over the upstart AFL, remembers games at very cozy Wrigley Field, where the Bears played their first 51 years before moving to Soldier Field for the 1971 season.
"That south end zone at Wrigley Field, that was a hazard. Oh yeah," Starr recalled. "It was a unique competition. The ferociousness of it at times was part of the tradition. Games were just very intense and at a high level."
If Butkus and Ditka and Nitschke were among the toughest players of all time, so was Packers Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor.
"You had to defend yourself and meet the challenge," Taylor said. "Sometimes it was chilly, sometimes snowy. Whatever the conditions."
Longtime-Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler came to Green Bay in 1990 from the sunshine of Florida State. It didn't take him long to find out that playing the Bears was a bigger deal than he could ever have imagined, both to fans and participants.
Suffering from the flu during a "Bears week" early in his career, Butler said he was approached by then coach Mike Holmgren, who delivered an impassioned get-well speech to his talented defensive back.
"Put on 10 pounds, they're going to run the ball. This is the black-and-blue division," Butler said he was told. "I said, 'OK.' He said, 'You don't understand. This is the most physical game you are ever going to play in. Get well, because we don't lose to the Bears."
AP National Writer Nancy Armour and AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this story.