The Rivalry We Need…Now More than Ever

The once-legendary rivalry is dangerously approaching irrelevance after three decades of Packers’ dominance. Photo by Mike Morbeck (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It was October, 1985. In the laundry room of the humble, 2-bedroom house that was my childhood home, hung a team photo of the 1985 Chicago Bears. Although only five-years-old at the time, I had the names and jersey numbers of the entire roster memorized. This is no exaggeration. My parents would routinely quiz me on it; in fact, I would practically beg them to: 

Mom/Dad: “Who’s number 63?” 

Five-year-old me: “Jay Hilgenberg!”

Mom/Dad: “What about number 87?”

Five-year-old me: “Emory Morehead!”

Mom/Dad: “Ok what number is…Wilbur Marshall?”

Five-year-old me: “58!”

Of course, that fall the Bears were well on their way to molding themselves into what would become the single-most-dominant team for one season in the history of the NFL, perhaps in all of professional sports, morphing themselves into larger-than-life cultural icons that are forever engrained in the memories of Chicagoans young and old. I had plenty of toys and action figures like most kids my age, and I loved watching shows like G.I. Joe and He-Man, but my real heroes as a child wore navy blue and went by the names of Dent, Payton, Hampton, McMahon, Covert, and Singletary. I would often, for no particular reason, suit up in my Hutch brand Bears’ uniform (you know, the one with the plastic helmet, kickers’ facemask, and the flimsy shoulder pads?)

Later that winter I learned to dance the Super Bowl Shuffle, and I wouldn’t dare leave the house without my satin Bears’ Starter jacket, and my favorite Bears’ knit hat with the blue and orange pom-pom on top, then ubiquitous across Chicago-land. I had been fully-indoctrinated during that Super Bowl season like so many others, swept up in the euphoria that was engulfing the city. My life-long obsession with the NFL’s charter franchise was born; my blood had permanently turned blue and orange. From then on, every Sunday, while watching the games with my dad, my entire emotional state seemed to hinge upon the success or failure of the team. It was crushing when they lost, a blow to my worldview. But when they won, which they did more often than not in the mid-to-late ‘80’s, all was good in the world. 

Never was this truer than when the Bears beat the Packers. I didn’t really understand why, nor did I understand the history of the rivalry; I just knew there was something different when they played each other. There was a palpable gravity, an intensity, that even as a kid I could sense. It seemed to actually mean something to the players, the fans, and the coaches. At times, the rivalry was even punctuated with a certain nastiness. This was the case when in November 1986, during a game at Soldier Field, Packers’ defensive lineman Charles Martin body slammed Jim McMahon to the turf in one of the most blatant cheap shots in sports history, breaking McMahon’s shoulder and dashing the Bears’ chances of defending their Super Bowl XX title. The Packers, especially after that, were the bad guys, the Skeletor to my He-Man, and I grew up disliking Green Bay like any good Bears’ fan should. 

Nearly thirty years later, as fate would have it, I fell in love with (and eventually married) a Packers’ fan. My wife’s mother is from Green Bay, attended St. Norbert’s College, and was even a Packers’ cheerleader. My in-laws, long-time season ticket-holders, put their daughters on the waiting list when they were born (none of them are anywhere close to being called). My wife grew up worshipping players like Brett Favre, Sterling Sharpe, Reggie White, and Gilbert Brown. She experienced the magic of a Super Bowl victory in ’96-’97, and became fully baptized in the green and gold much in the same way that I had been with the blue and orange as a child. So when we had our son, Jack, who is now almost three, another sort of rivalry began: The competition to see whether mom or dad’s team would ultimately win their first-born son’s affection and loyalty. 

For the first year of his life, there was no indication as to which team he was gravitating toward. He had dueling sets of Bears’ and Packers’ pajamas, bibs, and blankets. For his 8-month picture, he wore a foam cheese-head along with a Bears’ onesie. In spite of the mixed messaging he was confronted with, I felt pretty confident that he would ultimately choose Bears. After all, they were 12-4 that season, on the upswing, while the Packers finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. I figured, “ok, this is perfect, when Jack is old enough to actually watch and remember the games, the Bears will be really good and the Packers, with an aging and hopefully-soon-retired Aaron Rodgers, will be on the decline.” (Foolish optimism I know, but a man can dream)

However, two years later, the rivalry within the Clapper household is going about as well as the one on the field. That is, the Packers have asserted their hegemony, mom is always is right, and no amount of Bears’ sippy cups, winter hats, or jerseys can save Jack from going to the dark side. Why? Because one team continues to win and makes his mama (and grandma and grandpa) really happy, while the other one is mired in mediocrity and frustrates dada to no end. When we were at the in-laws last month, sitting at the breakfast table on a Sunday morning before kickoff, everyone (except me) dressed in green and gold, I asked Jack whether he preferred the Packers or Bears.

I purposefully said “Packers” first, even softening my voice somewhat, followed by an emphatic “Bears,” thinking that surely he would pick up on the intonation and choose the latter as opposed to the former. It didn’t work. With a smile on his face, he proudly and excitedly proclaimed his loyalty for the Packers, to the amusement and applause of grandma, grandpa, and mama. I asked Jack one more time, employing even more obvious non-verbal cues, but the answer was the same. All I could do was shake my head in defeat, much like the Bears have done since 1994, where they have suffered 41 losses while mustering only 13 victories. 

I have asked myself countless numbers of times in the last few years, why we as Bears’ fans should continue to care about this “rivalry” when the players surely don’t seem to. In week 12, when the Packers secured their 100th win in the all-time series in a dominant performance, ask yourself if that looked like a motivated Bears’ team that cared about an historic rivalry. In 2014, when the Marc-Trestman-led Bears gave up forty-two points to the Packers in the first half at Lambeau, in one of the single-most embarrassing performances I have ever witnessed as a Chicago sports fan, did that feel like a rivalry game? The answer is an emphatic “NO.” 

Of course, the players will tell you otherwise, that Bears-Packers does mean something. They will rattle off a bunch of hollow, meaningless platitudes, mumbling half-hearted clichés like, “they don’t like us, and we don’t like them,”  “playing against them gives us that extra motivation,” or “if you can’t get up for this rivalry then you shouldn’t be playing.” The T.V. broadcast will flash the iconic images of a stoic George Halas and a grinning Vince Lombardi, coupled with old black-and-white reels of Bears and Packers’ players donning leather helmets. They will show you menacing images of Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, followed by pre-snap stare downs between Brian Urlacher and Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers. The announcers will dutifully inform us of the all-time season-series record between the two teams, and give us the obligatory reminder that this is the oldest rivalry in professional football. Blah Blah Blah. 

The reality is that as much as it hurts us Bears’ fans to admit, it’s been a long time since we could appropriately call Bears-Packers a rivalry. For a rivalry to exist, the other team has to win once in a while. This is difficult for us to accept, because just as the red cape is to Superman or the DeLorean is to the Back to the Future franchise, a healthy antagonism between the Bears and Packers is an integral component in the maturation process of any true Bears’ fan. It is central to our identity, and unless the Bears can change the narrative and start winning, beginning this Sunday, it is at grave risk of becoming irrelevant.  

This is the real problem for the Bears’ organization as a whole. With every loss against the Packers, it feels as if our identity as Bears’ fans, often forged in childhood memories, is being dissolved, and we gradually and ever-so-subtly become untethered to the franchise we adored from an early age. Just as Marty McFly and his siblings, the children of George and Lorraine, gradually begin to disappear from that photograph in Back to the Future….so too has this once-storied rivalry already begun to fade into obscurity. Every 4th quarter collapse against Green Bay, as was the case in week 1 in 2018, and a little piece of us dies inside. A last-second touchdown to a wide-open Randall Cobb with the NFC North title up for grabs in 2013, and our legs vanish. A B.J. Raji touchdown to seal the NFC Championship in 2010, and our torso becomes invisible. Every time our defense can’t get off the field on third down against Aaron Rodgers…well you get the point. The Bears’ need to make us whole again, and the time is now. If they don’t get to the proverbial Enchantment Under the Sea dance at Hill Valley High School and rescue the future Mrs. McFly from Biff Tannen, the children of Bears’ nation, including my own, will never know that a rivalry ever even existed between these two teams.

So while we can’t change the past and erase the pain of so many lopsided and painful outcomes in this Bears-Packers rivalry, we do have an opportunity, starting this Sunday, to build the future and usher in the process of restoration. This Sunday is a must-win for the Bears. They have to find a way to beat Green Bay, at home, with both teams playing for real stakes, with a playoff-berth likely on the line for the Bears. If they can’t, they may just disappear from the hearts and minds of Bears’ nation entirely.

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