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
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.