Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tomorrow's Game Renews Faded Rivalry

How big is this?  You mean this once-in-seventy-years matchup between the oldest rivals in the NFL in the biggest game they can possibly play against each other?

Well, of course it is huge.  I mean, it's "our most hated rival" and "a trip to the Super Bowl".  Heck, nothing could be bigger.

But it isn't just "big".  It's important.  It's historical.  And, it's relevant.  There's a reason this is huge to Packers and Bears fans.

But it shouldn't be more important to anyone besides Bear and Packer fans.

I have been a "Packer fan" all my life, but we all know there's a difference when you are young, wear a jersey, and go play outside while your dad watches the game on television.  There comes that point when you are completely taken in by the competition and the drama, and you are hooked.

I was raised in a Packer household.  My father, who hailed from Upper Michigan, was a reformed Lions fan who attended the Ice Bowl with 350,000 other people.  My mother was raised in Fontenoy (and a +1 to anyone who can actually place that little burg that doesn't even reduce the 55 MPH speed limit while driving through), a hop-skip-and-jump from Green Bay.

The magic day came for me on September 7th, 1980, while hanging out at my grandparents' house in Upper Michigan after recently moving to Green Bay.  As usual, everyone was watching the game while my sister and I were elsewhere.  But, for some reason that day, I decided to sit and watch the game, starting at halftime.  And naturally, it was against the Bears.  The game was tied 6-6 at the end of regulation, and just the thought of a sudden-death overtime kept me glued to the paisley couch, waiting to see what would happen next.

Over the course of the rest of the season, my obsession with the Packers would erupt.   But, the seed was planted in that overtime period, when two of the Packer names forever enshrined in my brain set up the game-winning field goal attempt:  Lynn Dickey hit James Lofton for a 24-yard gain.  Some four-eyed guy (later known to me as Chester Marcol) came out to kick the field goal, and for the first time in my life, I was on the edge of my seat along with my father and grandfather.

As we all know, even if we're too young to have seen it ourselves, Alan Page blocked that kick and I soon realized that the Bears might win if they ran it back...but Marcol took the ball and ran like a panicked chicken  along the left sideline for a touchdown.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my first Packer least, the first one that completely transfixed me.

But, since those days, the Packers/Bears rivalry hasn't been what it once was.  In fact, at my age, I almost seem to be a "parting of the Red Sea", with people older than 40 clinging to their never-dying passion that the Bears are THE team to beat in the division, while those younger than me miss the impact of the rivalry.

And, it makes a lot of sense.  No, the Bears and Packers haven't retired their rivalry with each other, and certainly, the proximity of Wisconsin and Illinois makes sure it will never fade.  But rivalries are born and bred when two powerhouses go toe to toe with each other with everything on the line, with the pride of proving oneself to the other...

...of ruining the dreams of the other team.

And no two teams did that to each other through the pre-Super Bowl years better than the Lambeau and Lombardi-coached Packers against the Halas-coached Bears.  The two teams hated each other, yet desperately needed each other to prove their worth against.  There's a reason George Halas helped bail out the Packers on more than one occasion:  Halas needed the Packers to show the world he could still beat them, year in and year out.

Admittedly, out of the 30+ games I've been in attendance at since that day in 1980, I don't think I've ever been to a Bears game.  One big reason is the primary source of my tickets, those that belonged to my Fontenoy grandmother, were distributed to her kids and grandkids each season:  but never the Bear tickets.  My grandmother attended that game every year herself.  The rest of us could squabble over the rest of the schedule, but the Bears game?  That was hers.

I can remember Mike Holmgren's first year in 1992, when asked about his reception in the community.  He smiled as he talked about the little old ladies he would meet at the grocery store, that would ask him his plans, than finish with an admonishing "Well, you just make sure to beat those damn Bears."  One of those old ladies could well have been my grandmother.

In a way, it bring a different light to Bears' coach Lovie Smith's public and nowhere-near-secret proclamation that, when hired, his first and foremost mission was the beat the Packers.  No, not win the division or win a Super Bowl...just to beat the Packers.  Whether we think he was a moron or not for doing so, he understood the history of the rivalry.

But, when I look back on the last ten years or so, what team have I scrambled to get tickets for?  The Vikings.  Whether we like it or not, the Vikings have been the rival in recent memory, and why perhaps the younger generation gets a lot more fired up about facing the guys in purple than the guys in that really, really dark blue.

But, as I said, your rivarly is your peers, the ones whose dreams you destroy, and the ones who destroy yours.  Since I began my obsessive Packer fandom on that day in 1980, I have lived through the Super Bowl Shuffle years, the days when the Bears were the dominant team in the division.  From 1983 to 1988, the Bears went 10-2 against the Pack.  In those days, those embarrassing days to be a Packer fan, the Bears took pride in kicking us around, but face it:  we weren't the #1 target on their list.  When you are a Super Bowl contender, year in and year out, beating the worst team in the division is just another mark on your checklist.

The Packers developed a lot of animosity towards the Bears in those days, but the rivalry didn't intensify because the Packers could never return the knockout blow.  We were so wrapped up in our Forrest Gregg-Walter Stanley years of implosion, how could the Bears view us as anything else besides a sure win?

Don't understand where I'm coming from?  Fast forward to the mid-1990's, when the Packers were the team to beat in the division.  From 1992 through 2003, the Bears won just four games against the Packers.  Do you think when the Packers were struggling to get through the playoffs in those early Holmgren days, we were really putting the Bears in the center of the bullseye?

Of course not.  We didn't think of the Bears and Vikings and Lions as the teams we needed to beat.  The teams that we were focused on were the Cowboys and the 49ers.  Those were our peers, the ones who had shown us the door in the past, and the ones we knew we had to defeat in order to advance to the dream. 

The Bears? They were just another sure win on the way to the playoffs.  Not that they liked it that much, and there's a reason why Smith made beating the Bears his #1 goal, just as the Vikings suddenly geared up to beat the Packers as soon as we came down from the Holmgren High we had been on for so long.  They resented being the easy win.

The Vikings instigated a rivalry with the Packers in the early 1990's, and we unfortunately viewed it likewise, simply because we had come back down to earth and viewed our division foes as rivals again.  And the Vikings and Packers have had some pretty epic games since then, thanks to guys like Chris Hovan, Antonio Freeman, and of course, Brett Favre.

When it comes down to it, since 1980 (and probably even before that) the Packers and Bears haven't been in the position to ruin each other's dreams very often.  Read that team always seemed to be in the driver's seat, while the other was just looking up at them.  It has been a rarity for the Packers and Bears to be truly fighting it out for a division crown in the same season.

And that is what makes this game so important...maybe even more important than the win itself, this game gives new life to the rivalry.  For many fans, it may be the first time they've ever truly seen the Bears as a bigger game than the Vikings.  And, as the Vikings have proven that "they are who we thought they were all along", shriveling up and finishing in last place in the division, there couldn't be a better time for the NFL's most historic and treasured rivalry to blossom once again.

This game represents the biggest possible game the Bears and Packers can play.  The winner of this game will have a bullseye on their back for years from the loser.  We'll have the "rematch games" next season, the "revenge games" in the playoffs in future seasons.  We'll be interviewing Aaron Rodgers and asking him about this game, even years from now.  This game will be featured in 20 years on ESPN as one of the greatest games in the rivalry, the one that started the rivalry anew.

This game...this real.  It's isn't bred from redneck defensive players like Chris Hovan or Jared Allen trying  to make a name for themselves.  It isn't about a longtime loser like the Vikings trying desperately to pick our roster and use it against us.

The Bears rivalry has been in mothballs far too long.  It is as real as NFL football can get, and just like Lambeau and Halas, we need this rivalry to sharpen our blades, to prove ourselves against.  While Jay Cutler is almost as clownish as Favre in Purple, he still represents the true target that the Packers defense must crush.  He's the new Punky QB that the Packers want to turn into Punky Brewster.

There are no pretenders in this game, not like Hovan or Old Favre or Charles Martin or Kenny Stills.  There are warriors on both sides of the ball, veterans desperate for a ring (Brian Urlacher, Charles Woodson, Donald Driver, and Olin Kruetz), and young players in their prime ready to get it for them (Devin Hester, Tramon Williams, Julius Peppers, and Aaron Rodgers).

That silence you've heard most of the week is respect...respect for this rivalry, perhaps respect that (other than Cutler), there are no punks or pretenders on either side.  Either team can win this game, and send the other home while taking a trip to the Super Bowl themselves.

There will be a winner and loser tomorrow, but both teams win in a bitter, closely-fought game that sets the table for years of division battles, hated rivalries, and border wars.

We may hate the Bears, but we are a better team for having this long-storied rivalry.  It's been asleep for far too long.  It's time to wake up the Bears and unPack the whoopass. 

And tomorrow's game is just the beginning.  Enjoy every second of it.

1 comment:

BigSnakeMan said...

A perfect summation. No more needs to be said. Let's line 'em up & play.