In tough economic times, many of us have had to take a long look at ourselves and define who we really are. It’s often so easy to fall back on our accomplishments, pointing out various awards we’ve received over our lives or careers. It’s a much harder and deeper look into our souls to figure out who we really are, and why we do the things we do.
Our trophies and accomplishments don’t define who we are. Like Reggie Bush, those trophies can be taken away, and we are still left looking at the man in the mirror. What drives us? What gives us meaning in the eyes of others, as well as ourselves?
A little deep for game day? Sure, but if there is day for existential thought for the Green Bay Packers, it is Bears Day. You see, the Packers have a rich and deep history, a championship history pockmarked by eras of darkness that introduce a reinvented team to a new generation, time after time.
There are few that can match the history of the Packers: ninety years in the smallest market in any sports venue. Thirteen championships. Four Super Bowl trophies. The Packers have become the green-and-gold standard for the NFL. And proudly, the Packers showcase those honors in the stadium and in their Hall of Fame with perhaps the most fervent fan base any team in any American sport could have.
But, when you deal with such historical superlatives, it’s easy to lose your reference points as to who you are today, what brought you here. Every great hero in every great story has a nemesis; an enemy that, despite all the genius and power and talents of our hero, has the ability to match up toe-to-toe and deliver blows and losses. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and Optimus Prime…each one counts their victories not just in simple wins and losses, but in who they defeated. When Holmes defeats Moriarty after a classic cat-and-mouse chess match to the death, it’s not just another day at the office.
That’s the win that defines you.
In many ways, the genre of the arch-enemy is often a darkened version of the hero, which helps him understand that the battle is not only against him, but with himself. And it is why the Chicago Bears are, and have always been, that standard the Packers always have to measure up with.
Moreso than any other team, and perhaps moreso than any other rivalry in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers need the Chicaco Bears, and vice versa. There’s few teams that have this much hatred for one another, paired with so much similar history. The Vikings can never measure up to the Packers or the Bears, they who play in a diaper-covered dome and have never claimed so much as a championship, much less a Lombardi Trophy. And the Lions? While they garnered four early championships, mostly in the 1950’s, they’ve won only one playoff game since 1957. These are not worthy peers of the Packers and Bears.
The Bears are the yang to the Packers’ yin, the dark version of ourselves that make us hate them all the more. You want a legendary coach with a trophy named after him? Check. Teams that eschew comfortable domes for permafrosted winter football games, making their passionate fans battle the elements just as much as the players? Check. A total of 56 players in the NFL Hall of Fame (with the Bears holding a 30-26 edge)? Check.
Sure, there are teams that have been around as long as the Bears and Packers, but come on…the Cardinals and their two championships comparing to the twenty-two earned by both Green Bay and Chicago? And sure, there are other teams that have more Super Bowl trophies (like the Steelers, Cowboys, and the 49ers). But, all of their success came after the Lombardi and Halas eras ended.
Looking over the Wisconsin-Illinois border at one another, and playing each other a total of 182 times over the last ninety years builds something that transcends what we normally define as a “rivalry”. The Packers have come out on top more often than not since 1992, but the Bears still hold the 92-84-6 edge in the historical series.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
And contempt there has been over the decades. The other element that defines the Packers and Bears is the relentless passion and loyalty of their fan bases. Hard times still find packed stadiums with fans reminiscing about glory days until the next enlightenment comes along. Yet, no matter the records, any Bear/Packer game is a toss-up on any given Sunday, and the fans will be there in full force booing their enemies as much as they cheer on their team.
And those passions have been filled with hatred at times. From Packer fans cheering seeing a certain Punky QB body-slammed to the ground and injured in the 1980’s, to today mocking a certain socially-stunted QB for faking injuries, there’s been no shortage of targets. We might scratch our heads and wonder why Bears fans would continue to rally around these easy targets, yet then we might have to reflect why we defended a certain waffling quarterback ourselves for so many years. To be sure, he was a pretty easy target for Bears fans, too.
If the Vikings up and moved to Los Angeles, most Packer and Bears fans would probably shrug their shoulders and look to see who’d be next up in the division. Sadly, most Viking fans would probably do the same. That’s the difference in passion and loyalty that these two teams have, and the one thing in the end they respect about each other. They expect greatness, even when it isn’t there that year. Viking and Lion fans perpetually get their hopes up, and every year face disappointment and jump off the bandwagon.
In January of 1922, Halas thundered into the annual NFL owners’ meeting and demanded that Green Bay have its franchise revoked from the league. Why? Just two months earlier, the Packers and Staleys played their first game, and Lambeau had signed some college players whose seasons had ended. He put those players into that monumental first game, infuriating Halas.
The NFL mulled the argument until August, when it granted Green Bay its first official NFL franchise. Halas graciously approved the re-admittance…mostly because the Bears had just signed the player the Packers had been courting.
Lambeau and Halas immediately set the tone for this rivalry, refusing to shake hands after games and forbidding their players from doing likewise. Halas would literally go to the locker room of the Packers pre-game and announce to the coach they were going to have their asses handed to them.
But when the chips really fell, Halas knew that the rivalry defined his team. The Packers were the yang to his yin, and they were forever and indelibly linked. In the pivotal year of 1956, the Packers were on the eve of dissolution. The Glory Years of Lambeau were long gone, as were many of the heroes that fans once cheered for. A series of political machinations on the Board of Directors had reduced the Packers to a shell of their former selves, coming down to a bond referendum to decide if the smallest market would survive.
That night, a very familiar voice came over the radio, begging for a “yes” vote on the referendum. What was shocking (and moving) for so many Packer fans was that the voice belonged to George Halas, who decades after working to throw Green Bay out of the league, came back to petition for them to stay. On the day of the election, Halas stood side-by-side in Green Bay with exiled coach Curly Lambeau. The vote passed.
It is in that very action that we value our arch-rival so much that we realize we can’t stand to be without them. On that day, we realized the true impact of what the Bears mean to the Green Bay Packers. There’s no love lost, to be sure. But the rivalry must be respected for what it is: a twice-a-year measuring stick for two teams that have no equal other than each other.
When the Packers look in the mirror, they can see the dark side of themselves in the reflection of the Bears. And if you ask a Bears fan, they’d tell you the same about the Packers. It’s a series never short on controversy, passion, or both-barrels taunting. One team can make the other rise up to their level, or if necessary, sink down to their level.
Hate the Bears, hate their fans. Love the rivalry. It is what NFL football, and frankly, all sports should be about.