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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Football hatred can be a lot of fun

Pro football’s longest and richest rivalry resumes today in Chicago, where the Bears and Packers will face each other for the 182nd time.

Published: 01/23/1112:05 am
Pro football’s longest and richest rivalry resumes today in Chicago, where the Bears and Packers will face each other for the 182nd time.
And that’s not counting 18 exhibition games, one of which, in 1984, found Bears coach Mike Ditka and Packers coach Forrest Gregg – grudge-match foes from their playing days in the Midwest – shouting such nasty insults at each other they had to be restrained from fisticuffs.
At issue? A timeout Gregg had called, just before halftime.
Definition of a rivalry: When a brawl almost ensues over a timeout called during the second quarter of an exhibition game.
For all the history between the franchises – 21 NFL championships, 47 Hall of Famers, and 18 retired jersey numbers – the rivalry’s roots are cultural: When the Packers and Bears collided for the first time, in 1921, Chicago was America’s second largest city, with a population (2.8 million) roughly 100 times that of Green Bay, a mill town of 33,000.
The players showed up from western Pennsylvania and eastern Texas and rural Alabama, unfamiliar with the geography that had made the Packers the state team of Wisconsin and the Bears the pride and joy of Illinois.
But it didn’t take them long to grasp what was at stake twice a season. Whenever they walked down the street or stepped into a store, there was always somebody there to remind them.
Until the Bears’ surprising rebound in 2010, the rivalry’s intensity had seemed to ebb. The Vikings were commanding the Packers’ attention over the Brett Favre affair – the, uh, other Favre affair, the one about the Green Bay icon relocating in Minnesota – but there’s no enemy like a first enemy.
“It’s simple,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said of the Packers the other day. “We don’t like each other.”
Actually, the two most hallowed names in the rivalry – Bears founder and longtime coach George Halas, and Vince Lombardi, architect of the NFL’s first Super Bowl dynasty – liked each other very much. Halas had a policy of not shaking hands after a game with the opposing coach (he preferred to get the meet-and-greet stuff out of the way before kickoff), but he made an exception, win or lose, with Lombardi.
Lombardi never referred to any other coach as “Coach.” He, too, made an exception for Halas. The mutual admiration inspired some provocative gamesmanship.
In 1964, the Packers’ Elijah Pitts signaled for a fair catch seconds before halftime. Taking advantage of an obscure rule that still applies, the fair catch was converted into an unopposed field-goal attempt. (The defense must line up 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and is forbidden to rush.) Paul Hornung’s 52-yard field goal was good, and the Packers went on to a 23-12 victory notable for the free kick that left fans baffled: What was that about?
In 1968, the Bears returned the favor when Mac Percival took advantage of a fair catch at the Green Bay 43 with 32 seconds remaining. It remains the only game-winning field goal off a free kick in NFL history.
Mutual admiration turned into pure hatred in 1980, after Bears president Jim Finks coordinated a task force to steal the Packers’ signals from videotapes.
The espionage had no evident effect during the season opener at Green Bay, where the Packers lined up for the routine field goal that would beat the Bears in overtime. But Chester Marcol’s kick bounced off the helmet of defensive end Alan Page and into the hands of Marcol, who grew up in Poland and knew little about football except how to kick one in the style of a soccer player.
Running more out of fright than purpose, Marcol scored the winning touchdown.
Three months later, the Bears gained revenge with a 60-7 victory.
Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan never called off the red dogs – Chicago blitzed long after it was necessary – infuriating the usually diplomatic Packers coach Bart Starr.
Thus began the rivalry’s era of bad feelings.
In 1985, former Washington Huskies defensive back Mark Lee chased down Walter Payton and shoved him into the bench, apparent retaliation for the Bears using 320-pound defensive tackle William Perry on a 1-yard touchdown run that humiliated the Packers on Monday Night Football.
In 1986, the Packers’ Charles Martin, his towel adorned with a hit list of cheap-shot targets, confronted Jim McMahon after an interception and threw the quarterback to the ground, ending both McMahon’s season and the Bears’ hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champions.
For better or worse – it depends on your perspective – relations between the Packers and Bears are much more civil than when Ditka and Gregg were threatening each other during exhibition season.
Aaron Rogers and fellow quarterback Jay Cutler exchanged text messages last week, arousing the wrath of traditionalists who frown on fraternization.
While texting may have replaced the taunting of 25 years ago, fans haven’t gotten the message.
Last Sunday, anticipating only the second playoff showdown in the 90-year series – the first was in 1941– the crowd at Soldier Field looked past the helpless Seahawks and began a “Green Bay sucks!” cheer.
The impromptu chorus was reminiscent of the Soldier Field memorial service following Payton’s death in 1999. As the Bears players walked off the field in single file, placing a flower in front of a painting of Payton, mourners broke the silence by chanting “Beat Green Bay!” (Which the Bears did, 24 hours later at Lambeau Field, on a blocked field goal.)
A solemn memorial service that ends with a chant of “Beat Green Bay” is as good a way as any to explain the depth of a rivalry to be renewed this afternoon for the NFC championship.
The victors will receive the Halas Trophy, the penultimate playoff prize en route to a game associated with the Lombardi Trophy.
If a brawl nearly erupts during a timeout, consider the source.