And there was an edge that wasn't present on other Sundays. "There are gonna be more penalties," says Mike Singletary, the fierce Hall of Fame linebacker for Chicago's Super Bowl winner. "Guys are gonna hit harder. Guys who are hurt are gonna play. It's like any rivalry you have in college. Make sure. You beat. The Packers."
Buffone says, "Every time you played the Packers, it was like a little Super Bowl."
One Tuesday night early in his eight-year run with the Packers (2000 to '06, and '09), running back Ahman Green was taking out the trash at his home. "Some high school kids roll by," says Green, "and they shout 'Hey, Ahman Green, do your thing, and the Bears still suck!' It was amazing to me."
That emotion can take the rivalry down darker pathways. In December 1980 the Bears crushed the Packers 61--7 at Soldier Field. Coordinator Buddy Ryan's defense buried the Packers in daylong blitzes. A few years later the Bears admitted to having decoded the Packers' system for signaling plays. In the year following the Bears' Super Bowl season, Packers defensive tackle Charles Martin slammed McMahon, the Bears' quarterback, to the turf long after he had thrown a pass, drawing a suspension from the league, ending McMahon's season and essentially thwarting Chicago's hopes of repeating as champions. Martin had been wearing a hand towel inscribed with a hit list of Bears players. "They had guys go outside the rules of the game," says Ditka. "I won't ever forget that."
Butler won't forget one game in which he was penalized for a late hit on Bears quarterback Erik Kramer yet rewarded by his teammates. "I got flagged for 15 yards," says Butler. "Then on Monday, I had like a thousand bucks in my locker from, like, 10 guys and a note saying, 'You're the man.' I just hit him late. I didn't mean to do it. Another time I got flagged for hitting one of their linemen late, and the referee said, 'Son, you can't do that.' I said, 'Do you understand—this is Bears week, and that means something?'"
They are driven by emotions that they can't fully understand, grown from seeds planted nearly a century ago, when the game was something entirely different but the passion was much the same. Now they play again. At stake is the right to walk on football's biggest stage and play in its biggest game.
It matters only a little more because these are the Packers and the Bears. Like the man wrote so long ago, they play for keeps.
Now on Twitter
@SI_PeterKing and @SI_JimTrotter gear up for the NFC title game at twitter.com