Yesterday, The Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears met on the barren and hallowed ground that is Soldier Field for the right to go to the Super Bowl. That was the 182nd meeting between the two teams and, without a doubt, the most important. However, it was much more than a game to most people around Des Moines and the rest of the world. It was war.
I can remember, growing up as a Packers fan in Illinois, the thinly, if at all, veiled looks of hatred toward the foam cheese wedge and green No. 4 jersey I often sported. Checking my e-mail before writing this article, I counted five messages from the past week with the subject line “Packers suck”… all from good friends. In 2005, My late uncle Al, a resident of Aurora, Ill., and a lifelong Bears supporter, called me from his deathbed. The Packers had finished with a dismal 4-12 record that year and his last words to me were “the Pack will not be back.” I’ve had more experiences like this.
This past winter break a small child flipped me off in a grocery store, I felt the aura of the rivalry which surrounds any man, woman or punk kid who bleeds green and gold or blue and orange. And I loved it.
“Hate Week,” as I came to know it, always came twice every fall. It’s been said that the most die-hard fans don’t even need to check an NFL schedule to find out when the Packers and Bears play. We can just sense it, like a great impending storm. The days leading up to the game are generally filled with a level of nervous anticipation, mental preparation and mean-spirited banter generally reserved for large-scale gang warfare and political elections.
I know “hate” is strong word, especially for a football game (note: if you actually think it was “just a football game,” please feel free to stop reading this article and go back to your crossword puzzle and chamomile tea). That’s entirely true, but this particularly rivalry/blood feud is filled with strong words. Words like “Lombardi,” “Halas” and the most profane five-letter word I will ever come to know: “Favre.” Strong words are necessary when talking about the ultimate rivalry in sports. The Midwest is not usually the sexiest place to live or talk about or celebrate, which is why the Bears/Packers rivalry may never get the national recognition of other classic feuds such as Yankees/Sox, Lakers/Celtics or Snooki/shots. That’s completely fine with us. Despite the presence of superstar QB and teen heartthrob Aaron Rodgers and noted Old Spice deodorant Spokesman Brian Urlacher, our war is far from appropriate for a national audience anyway. Maybe it should come with a parental advisory.
Why is there such an advanced level of vitriol typically flying between the G Helmets and the C helmets? I like to look at the inherent differences between the two forces. The rivalry goes way beyond a border battle between Illinois and Wisconsin. This is small, quiet town vs. big, noisy city; defense vs. offense; Ditka vs. Lombardi; bratwurst vs. Polish sausage; Leinenkugel vs. Miller; and Cheeseheads vs. “Da Bears.” Two ways of life met on that field Sunday. Only one made it out with a smile on its collective face. No one made it out without a bruise or two.
It’s what we’ve come to expect, of course. When green meets orange, we expect to end up with black-and-blue. We expect to see players covered in mud, dragging themselves up off the turf to make another bone-rattling collision. We expect to see our quarterback fearlessly fire a pass down the middle if his guy is open, whether he has a blitzing linebacker or a Sherman tank bearing down on him. We expect to see every one of the 90 men on the field hold nothing back and exhaust every muscle in his body to make sure that when the final whistle sounds, they have more points than the other guys. And we expect this whether this is the conference championship or an offseason game of lawn darts. That, ladies and gentlemen, was not a game. It was tradition. It was personal. It was Packers vs. Bears.
And so we waged our final battle (for the season); friendships were temporarily lost, families were shaken and snowballs were thrown. As I noticed on a surprisingly literate Chicago fan’s sign at last week’s game: “This one’s for all the cheese.”