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News / Stories / September 28, 2000
Love-Hate Relationship: Bears-Packers Rivalry Always Bittersweet
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by Brian Peterson, for NFL Insider
posted 09/28/2000

The rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers began innocently on a mild November Sunday afternoon at Chicago's Wrigley Field (then called Cubs Park) in 1921.

The Bears, then named the Staleys and one of the league's founding teams, were ready to show the ropes to the Packers, who were in their inaugural NFL season (although they had existed as a pro football club since 1919).

Chicago pounded the Packers 20-0, and, for extra measure, Staleys guard John (Tarzan) Taylor threw a sucker punch that broke the nose of Packers tackle Howard (Cub) Buck. It was the opening bell in the start of a beautiful relationship.

For the past 80 years, the Bears-Packers series has had all the bitterness, intensity, and animosity normally associated with rivalries.

Along the way, however, the teams have also developed a deep admiration and appreciation for each other, and that is what makes the Bears-Packers rivalry special. Maybe it's the kinder, gentler Midwestern roots they share or maybe it is because they have won a combined 21 NFL championships.

Whatever the reason, the Bears against the Packers is professional football. Without the Chicago-Green Bay rivalry, the NFL never would have developed the way it did.

"There have been great rivalries in American sports," says Packers Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis, "but none has had the fire in the belly that the Packers and Bears have had. None has had as much winning or emotion associated with it."

At the epicenter of the rivalry stand two of the most irrepressible and influential figures in NFL history-Chicago's George Halas and Green Bay's Earl (Curly) Lambeau.

Each entered the league as founder, head coach, and player. Halas controlled the Bears from 1920 until his death in 1983, roaming the sidelines as their head coach for a total of 40 years. Lambeau was the Packers' vice president and head coach from 1919-1949.

Halas and Lambeau both were strong-willed, disciplined, and driven to win. Their recurring clashes kept the flame of the rivalry hot.

Halas returned the opening kickoff in the 1921 game 20 yards. He also scored the Bears' final touchdown in that game.

During the 1921 NFL season, Halas discovered that the Packers had played three college players, including Notre Dame's Harry (Hunk) Anderson, whom Halas had coveted. Although Chicago also had used college players, Halas's complaints contributed to the temporary revocation of the Packers' franchise.

Lambeau asked that the franchise be reinstated for the 1922 season and he promised to obey the rules. He was granted his request, but not before Chicago had signed Anderson. Halas canceled the 1922 Bears-Packers game, which had been scheduled for Thanksgiving Day at Hagermeister Park in Green Bay, when the Packers were not able to meet his demands for an increased gate guarantee of $4,000. In fact, bad weather and poor attendance dogged the Packers throughout the 1922 season, forcing Lambeau to secure a loan from local merchants. A nonprofit corporation was set up to run the team, the start of the unique public ownership that exists to this day.

"George Halas would always greet us nicely when we were warming up, but if you were tackled on his sideline during the game, you would hear him saying something like 'Kill that s.o.b.!'" says Packers Hall of Fame running back Tony Canadeo, who played from 1941-44 and 1946-1952.

The more subdued Lambeau answered Halas by building a team that won three consecutive league championships (1929-1931).

The Packers began to turn it around in 1925, when they defeated Chicago for the first time, though the 14-10 decision was not without incident. When a Bears' player went after Cub Buck's nose again, Buck broke the Chicago player's arm.

"Bears week was no fun for us," Canadeo says. "Lambeau wouldn't even let us smile that week."

"Halas and Lambeau are primarily responsible for the rivalry because each was so committed to winning," says Lee Remmel, who covered the Packers for the Green Bay Press Gazette from 1949-1974 and who has served as the team's public relations director since 1974. "All the years they coached against each other, they never shook hands after the game."

Vince Lombardi, who was hired as the Packers' head coach in 1959, remembered the rivalry in the spirit of Lambeau. Lombardi hated losing as much as Lambeau and he was the perfect nemesis for Halas.

"Lombardi said you had to dislike everything about the Bears, even Halas as he stood on the goal line during warm-ups," Davis says. "Lombardi made it seem like Lambeau had never left."

According to players, the always intense Lombardi turned things up a notch the week before his team played the Bears.

One year, he had "Beat the Bears" painted on all the blocking bags. Other times, he would have his players switch jersey numbers and play different positions during practice-just in case Halas was spying on him.

In 1963, the two-time defending champion Packers lost only twice-both times to the Bears (10-3 in Green Bay and 26-7 in Chicago). The Bears edged the Packers in the Western Conference and went on to defeat the Giants 14-10 in the NFL title game.

"I thought we had one of our best teams in 1963," Davis says. "Lombardi got us so worked up for the Bears the week before the game [in Chicago] that I think we left everything on the practice field. We were wound as tight as a drum."

Halas seemed to relish the confrontations with Lombardi.

About five minutes before one game with Green Bay, he knocked on the door of the Packers' training room. Green Bay's equipment manager answered the door, and Halas said he needed to speak to coach Lombardi. Lombardi came to the door, and Halas told him, "Coach, I hope you have your team ready becausewe're going to kick your ass."

The influence of Halas, Lambeau, and Lombardi has extended well beyond their days as head coaches. The disdain the Packers have for the Bears-and vice versa-has been handed down through the eras.

"You didn't have to work hard to get up for the Bears because you knew they would be ready to play," says Bart Starr, who quarterbacked the Packers during the 1960s and coached the team during the late 1970s and early 1980s. "It was a great David and Goliath-type of happening-a small-town team playing another from one of the country's largest cities.

"There was a true uniqueness about it, and it always felt that way because coaches and veterans would pass it down to rookies."

Regardless of the era, the style of play has borne familiar trademarks. Punishing tackles, bone-jarring blocks, and rugged individual efforts mark Packers-Bears games.

"All of our games with the Bears were thrilling," says Packers safety Willie Wood. "It didn't matter what the Bears' or Packers' records were when we played, you knew it was going to be a fist fight the whole time. The best team didn't always win. And if you weren't careful you could get hurt."

"Sometimes the hitting was so intense that the hits were just awful to watch," says Vic Bernardi, who has had Bears season tickets since 1941. Confrontations between Clarke Hinkle, the Packers' 5-foot 11-inch, 210-pound fullback, and Bronko Nagurski, the Bears' 6-foot 2-inch, 225-pound fullback, highlighted the early years. Their most memorable match came in Chicago's 14-7 victory at Green Bay in 1933.

On a fake punt in the second quarter, Hinkle took the ball and headed around the end. With Nagurski closing in, Hinkle cut back and crashed headfirst into Nagurski. When the two collided, a thunder clap echoed through the stadium.

Hinkle was knocked backwards, and Nagurski was knocked out. Nagurski's nose was broken and blood streamed down his face.

"I remember running on the field and heading for Nagurski so I could help stop the bleeding," says Howie Levitas, a trainer for the Packers from 1928-1940. "The head trainer stopped me and told me to attend to Hinkle. I remember Hinkle saying, 'I got that s.o.b. Now I'm happy.'"

The hitting also was intense during the Lombardi era.

"We accepted the fact that we would be bruised, hurting, battered, and sore after Bears games," Davis says.

One of the ugliest incidents in the series came in 1986 when Mike Ditka was coach of the Bears and Forrest Gregg was coach of the Packers. Both men had disliked each other as players.

The Bears were the defending NFL champions, and they defeated the Packers 25-12 at Green Bay in their first meeting in 1986. For the rematch in Chicago, Packers defensive end Charles Martin wore a towel that had a hit list of Bears players written on it. Quarterback Jim McMahon was at the top of the list.

In the second quarter of the game, Martin proved his list was more than just for inspiration. After McMahon threw a pass, Martin grabbed the quarterback, lifted him in the air, and slammed him to the turf. Martin was ejected for his flagrant late hit.

"There were going to be some late hits and probably some cheap shots," says linebacker Tim Harris, who played for Green Bay from 1986-1990. "We just knew that was part of playing the Bears."

The Bears-Packers rivalry also has featured some of the best moments by some of the greatest players in NFL history. A total of 52 Pro Football Hall of Fame members (28 for the Bears and 24 for the Packers) have participated in the series.

The Bears had defeated the Packers six consecutive times prior to 1935 when Green Bay unveiled a new secret weapon-Alabama wide receiver Don Hutson. On the first play from scrimmage of their first meeting that year, Hutson caught an 83-yard touchdown pass and Green Bay went on to a 7-0 victory. In the rematch, Hutson caught 2 touchdown passes in the final three minutes of the game to give the Packers a 17-14 come-from-behind victory.

In 1968, Bears running back Gale Sayers had his best rushing day as a professional, gaining 205 yards in Chicago's 13-10 victory. But Sayers also had difficult times against the Packers.

"I remember us holding Sayers to seventeen yards, and I was named defensive player of the week," Davis says. "Most teams were lucky to contain Sayers. That day we truly stopped him."

In 1976, Walter Payton became the first Bears running back since Sayers to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season when he rushed for 109 yards in Chicago's 24-13 victory that season. A year later, Payton tied Sayers's club single-game record of 205 rushing yards in a 26-0 victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field.

The Bears and Packers even shared some history as part of an instant-replay controversy in 1989.

In their first meeting that season, Chicago led Green Bay 13-7 with 41 seconds to play. The Packers faced fourth down on the Bears' 14-yard line. Green Bay quarterback Don Majkowski scrambled out of the pocket, and as he approached the line of scrimmage, fired an apparent touchdown pass to wide receiver Sterling Sharpe.

Majkowski was penalized for being beyond the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass to Sharpe, but the call was reversed by the replay official, giving Green Bay a 14-13 victory.

Ditka and the Bears' management were so angry that they ordered their pubic relations department to place an asterisk by the score of the game in the media guide, signifying that it was an "instant-replay game." It remains there today.

Only 207 miles separate tiny Green Bay and behemoth Chicago, and the rivalry has become symbolic of the differences between the people of these two cities.

"Bears week was as much for the fans as it was for the players," Davis says.

"Fans would approach us and tell us how important is was to beat the Bears. Even when we were in the race for the championship, the fans wanted us to treat Bear week even more special."

Art Olstad, who has attended Bears games since 1960, knows how important the rivalry is for the fans.

"We always get tickets from the Bears' office for the game in Green Bay, and we always sit in the end zone, three rows from the top of Lambeau Field," Olstad says. "One year, my friend, Dick Flynn, had his leg amputated from the knee down a couple of weeks before the Packers game. But there was nothing that could keep him from going to see the Bears and Packers. He hopped all the way up to row sixty, and it was cold as hell that day." The rivalry is not without its curious side. For all of the bitterness of their games, a begrudging admiration also has marked their relationship away from the field.

In the early thirties, Green Bay loaned Halas $1,500 so he could meet his payroll. Halas returned the favor in 1956 by making a personal appearance at a bond rally in Green Bay as citizens were getting ready to vote on a referendum that would pave the way for the building of Lambeau Field. Halas was a pallbearer at Lambeau's funeral. He was an off-field friend of Lombardi. "The Packers could not have had a better friend than George Halas," Packers chairman Dominic Olejniczak said after Halas died in 1983. Because the Packers and Bears have produced a lot of the league's best players, many of them got to know each other at the Pro Bowl and other offseason functions. Wood and Ditka became close friends at the Pro Bowl. Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus golfed together.

"At the Pro Bowl, I roomed with Packers center Jim Ringo almost every year," says Bears Hall of Fame guard Stan Jones. "We got to be good friends, and we even ended up coaching together in Buffalo."

"Deep down in my heart, if we couldn't win it all, then I wanted to see the Bears win it all," says Canadeo, who grew up in Chicago.

But don't be misled. Winning still is what matters most in this rivalry. "Many things have changed in the NFL since I played," Davis says. "But even today the Bears game still is the one the Packers have to win. If you beat the Bears you still have an acceptable season, no matter what else happens."

courtesy NFL
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