Thursday, January 20, 2011

Folks, it doesn't get any better than this

Here in Chicago, those of us who are sports fans are in the midst of a frenzy this week that we haven't seen since, well for me since the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last year. For most however, that is to say those who don't give a hoot about hockey, the match-up between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers this coming Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, is indeed a once in a lifetime event. True the two football teams play each other twice every year, and in every game the tradition of the Bears/Packers rivalry is hyped ad nauseum during the incessant sports-babble that takes place before and after each professional football game. No matter how poorly one or both teams may be at any given time, there are always expectations usually fulfilled, that the game will be exceptionally emotional, intense and brutal, even by football standards.

Of course this game is different, it will determine which team will go to Super Bowl XLV, the Promised Land of professional football. As the Packers and the Bears are both charter members of the National Football League, this is by far the league's oldest continuous rivalry. To give an idea of the significance of these two teams to the NFL consider this, the winner of Sunday's game will be awarded the George Halas Trophy, named in honor of the founder, owner and long time head coach of the Bears. The winner of the Super Bowl in two weeks will be awarded the Vince Lombardi trophy, named in honor of the legendary coach of the Packers .

Despite all the hoopla, the Bears and Packers have hardly ever faced each other in a post-season game. The last time that happened was right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Bears won that one by the way, 33-14 at Wrigley Field and went on to beat the New York Giants the following week to win the NFL Championship Game. Of course hardly anyone cared as we had just entered World War II.

Much as we in the Midwest like to make of this rivalry, it did not make ESPN's list of the top ten great sports rivalries. There is indeed much to quibble about the list, not the least of which is the fact that it only includes sports played in North America.

The point has to be made however that in recent history the Bears and the Packers have rarely been good at the same time and have seldom played against each other in a game of real consequence for both teams. A notable exception was the year 1963, the last time the Bears won the NFL Championship before there was a Super Bowl. The Packers won the NFL Championship the two previous years but 1963 was the Bears' turn. They beat the Packers twice that year, in fact they were the ONLY team to beat them in 1963.

The big game that people watch mostly for the commercials, the one that is measured in Roman numerals was first played in 1967. Can you guess who won Super Bowls I and II? I'll give you a hint, it wasn't the Bears.

Since then both teams have had their moments in the sun, including two Super Bowl victories between them, but they have not played against each other in a championship game.

That is until now.

As I see it, great sports rivalries are based on at least one of three criteria:
  • one or both teams possess tremendous historical success,
  • the teams are in the same division and continually battle for position in the standings, or
  • the teams' fans would despise each other regardless of any team affiliation.
The Packers and the Bears rivalry is special in that all three criteria apply. It may be hard to imagine today but both teams were once powerhouses in the NFL. The Bears have a total of nine NFL championships, most of them coming in the 1930s and 40s. They are second only to the Packers who have twelve. The two teams are of course division rivals and as mentioned above play each other twice per season.

It's the third category that is the most salient, where a game becomes more than just a game, but a measure of national or civic pride. Imagine a cricket match between India and Pakistan. Or the rivalry between two great cities such as Madrid and Barcelona when their teams face each other on the soccer pitch. Or the 1969 world ice hockey championship when the Czechoslovak national team defeated the USSR just months after Russian tanks rolled into Prague crushing the original Velvet Revolution.

Some would say that at least north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border, the rivalry between the Bears and Packers is as intense as all three of the above put together. Just ask Bears players who tell stories of their team bus being pelted by rocks thrown by grandmothers sitting in lawn chairs along the highway leading to Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Or go up to the Brat Stop just north of the border off I-94 and see the enormous stuffed bear wearing a Chicago Bear jersey hung in effigy. True, our two states have never been officially at war, and neither has ever held dominion over the other. Yet there remains, especially with our neighbors in the great state to the north, a great deal of animosity towards those of us living south of the border. I can't honestly say the reverse is true but perhaps my father-in-law who insists on wearing his full Packer regalia whenever he visits us down here in Bear country would disagree.

Like any great passion, the love of one team and abject hatred of another is usually handed down from generation to generation. Not so with me. My parents both hated football and I spent a lot of time as a child in Milwaukee, so I didn't grow up to be a Packer hater.

No, my true hatred of the Packers officially began on November 23rd, 1986. It was the season after the Bears won Super Bowl XX and they were having another tremendous year. That day the Packers were playing the Bears at Soldier Field and Charles Martin a defensive tackle for the Packers was shown on TV, wearing a towel with two numbers on it, 9 and 34, the numbers of the Bears Jim McMahon and Walter Payton respectively. It was to be his hit list. Now the indestructible Payton was no match for any defensive player no matter how large, tackling him was usually more painful for the tackler than for the intended victim. McMahon was another story. In the second half, after McMahon threw an interception, Martin body slammed McMahon to the ground dislocating his shoulder and ending his season. The Packers argued that the play was justifiable as a quarterback after throwing an interception is considered fair game. The refs disagreed and kicked Martin out of the game and the league for his cheap shot, suspended him for two games. Despite their 14-2 record, the Bears without McMahon went on to lose to Washington in the first round of the playoffs, and to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, for me it was the beginning of a beautiful enmity.

Still I have to respect this Packer team which on paper at least is probably superior to this year's Bears. Fortunately as they say, that's why the game is played on the field and not on paper. The Bears and the Packers split their two games this year, the Bears won (or more accurately the Packers lost) the first game in Chicago and the Packers held on and won the hard fought last game of the regular season up in Green Bay.

For the fans of the two teams, this game is far more important than the Super Bowl which this year will seem rather anticlimactic. Of course there are those who couldn't care less, and question why any of this matters. They see sports, football especially as modern day tribal warfare, a barbaric ritual enabling fans, mostly men, to return to their caveman roots, to cheer on warriors doing their bidding on the field to beat the crap out of other warriors fighting for our rival tribes in neighboring towns or states.

Well they're probably right. There is certainly much to be said about the outright hostility and violence that fans sometimes exhibit toward one another. Fortunately, at least in this country, sports hooliganism is fairly uncommon and rivalries like the Packers/Bears are usually played out in good humor. On the positive side, a winning season brings a community together in ways that no other public event could. This week I've seen perfect strangers, people who otherwise would not give each another the time of day, strike up conversations with one another about the game. It is a cause to celebrate and goodness knows, those causes are few and far between these days.

I dare say that a Packers victory on Sunday would mean more up in Wisconsin than a Bears victory would down here. I'm reminded about a front page article in the local paper I read while visiting the in-laws in Wisconsin on the day the Packers were to play a big playoff game several years ago. It was a point-counter point article between two Roman Catholic priests who seriously debated whether or not God was a Packer fan.

How foolish. Everybody knows that God wears blue and orange every Sunday. This Sunday I'll be sitting in my man cave cheering on my team as they hopefully beat up on the invading tribe from the north.

Go Bears!

Post script:

The Packers alas beat the Bears who seemed to have forgotten to show up for the game in the first half. The second half was another story and after losing their starting quarterback Jay Cutler to injury, and their second stringer Todd Collins to incompetence, third stringer Caleb Hanie led the team on two spirited scoring drives while the defense ended up playing heroically stopping the much lauded Packer offense on a number of key drives, keeping the Bears in the game until the end. Final score: 21-14.

The Packers will play the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl LXV on February 6th in Dallas, to which I will add:

Go Steelers!

Post-post script:

Guess I was wrong. Congratulations, gulp, World Champion Packers.

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