Packers-Bears Rivalry Renewed

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | july 2017

The recent addition of the statue of a Lumberjack Band drummer to the start-point of the Packers Heritage Trail prompts a couple of thoughts for this football historian.

First, it's a link to the Packers' colorful — sometimes-quirky and quaint — legacy. And, hey, who cares if the big-city teams and their fans sneer at our “small-market" hoorah? Our retort includes the most championships of any NFL team, the only team ever to three-peat (twice) and the approaching predominance of Packers-related busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

If you can't stand the charm, put down the hard lemonade and get off our porch swing!

Second — and even more precious — is the tie the Lumberjack Band represents to the love-hate relationship Packers faithful have always relished with “Da Bears" and their fans.

[A very brief interlude here for a shout-out to Mr. Bears fan, Mr. Live Music-Green Bay and fellow-“Frankly" contributor, Tom Smith.

Now, back to the venom.]

Plaid Mackinaws

What few might realize is the nearly-parallel universes represented by the Packers and Bears creation stories. Both began in 1919 during the “town team" era — the Packers, that year's installment of a Green Bay sandlot team; the Bears, aka “Staleys," a company team hailing from Decatur, Ill. At the helm of each was a bona fide football man — Curly Lambeau, Packers; George Halas, Bears.

In 1920, the Packers furthered their dominance in the town-team circuit while the Staleys moved to the Windy City to become founding members the APFA/NFL. When the Packers joined the “big league" the following year, a clash was inevitable.

On the gridiron, it might have been 11-on-11, toe-to-toe, but these two towns couldn't have represented a more-staggering contrast size-wise. Green Bay's population hovered a bit over 31,100; Chicago's soared at 2.71 million.

Their first-ever football contest — on November 27 the following year — is the stuff of legend.

Led by the Lumberjack Band — formed as an all-volunteer marching menagerie that same year — 500 Packers fans traveled by special railroad car to Chicago from Green Bay.

The hooting, hollering and horn-blowing began on the train, but once in “Shy-Town" the soiree really got rolling. Heading from “The Loop" toward the Stratford Hotel near Lincoln Park, the band and ensuing fans commenced parading and “whooping things up," according to Press-Gazette sportswriter Cal Calhoun.

“The Bay rooters trailed up the street from the depot and let everyone know who they were and why they were there," Calhoun penned.

The gala continued — full-throated — at Cubs Park (Wrigley Field in 1926).

While the game ended decidedly in the Staley's favor, 20-0 — the Packers' biggest loss of the season — the team and its fans earned some ancillary accolades. The fans had put on a “remarkable display of spirit," Calhoun recorded. Even the players “won their way into the hearts of the Chicago football fans for their gritty brick."

Partying resumed back at the “Strat" despite the loss — with some Bears fans in the mix according to the chatter. Equal parts small-town cheer, solid football and north woods hokeyness evidenced by the Lumberjack Band's plaid mackinaws — the invasion had made quite an impression on the Chicago crowd.

No one could have predicted it that day, but alone and together these two franchises would burgeon to represent the two greatest franchises in NFL history — bar-none: 22 league titles and 64 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame between them and tons of football history — both shared and not.

If anyone at the “Strat" that day had foreseen that level of success and the great stories that would arise from the rivalry, it would have birthed another round of illicit toasts. (It was Prohibition, though neither town paid that particular mind.)

Ebb and Flow

The Packers-Bears rivalry isn't the NFL's “oldest" (that's the Cardinals-Bears, folks), nor its “longest-continuous" (the Packers-Lions). However, it is its best and most-heated over the long haul and its “longest" in terms of the most games played between any two teams.

Not always cordial, over the years sparks from the rivalry could have ignited a conflagration powerful enough to burn down a town — maybe, even, a behemoth burg like Chicago.

No, the two teams and their fans haven't arrived gently at the current impasse of 94 wins-94 losses and 6 ties. Often, the fire has burned red-hot only to cool as the Minnesota Vikings entered the mix — then rage, yet again, thanks to the latest melee on the playing field … or in the stands or parking lot amongst the fans … or in the milieu of the media.

The series hasn't usually been tied either. The Bears have held the edge since 1933. They've also boasted a 24-game lead on two occasions — 1960 and 1992. True to form, the blue-collar Packers have chipped steadily away to carve out the current deadlock.

The nadir for relations likely occurred during the mid-80s with the teams coached by former players Forrest Gregg and Mike Ditka. Gregg and Ditka had formed their mutual disdain honestly enough — they'd both done dirty duty in the trenches of the rivalry in the 1960s.

The Gregg-Ditka era reflected hard play (mostly by the Bears; the Packers sucked often in the stretch) and cheap shots (most-conspicuously by the Packers).

Gregg's players took to wearing towels with numbers scrawled on them — “hit lists" indicating the jersey numbers of the Bears players they were going to “take out" that game.

During a November 3, 1985 contest, Packers cornerback Mark Lee sent Bears halfback Walter Payton flailing over a bench well out of bounds. Lee was given the boot. Minutes later, Packers safety Ken Stills took a running start at Bears fullback Matt Suhey that sent Suhey flying — egregiously after the whistle.

Later in the game, Ditka tabbed Bears lineman William “the Fridge" Perry to catch a touchdown pass — adding insult to injury after Perry's first-ever rushing touchdown at Lambeau earlier that season. (Oh, and the Packers had put fresh horse shit in the Bears' locker room the morning of the game.)

A year later — the date that will live in infamy if you're a Bears fans — Packers defender (offender? perpetrator?) Charles Martin body-slammed Bears quarterback Jim McMahon to the ground on his shoulder following an interception — a virtual eon after the play had ended.

Martin — who'd begun the game sporting one of those towels — was ejected and suspended for two additional games. McMahon was out for the season.

When McMahon joined the Packers in 1995 as Brett Favre's backup en route to the team's 12th NFL title and 3rd Super Bowl, he repaid the favor by wearing his Bears jersey to the White House celebration. Appropriately, he did manage to find his Packers jersey for Favre's number retirement ceremony.

With Favre and Aaron Rodgers behind center, the Packers have pretty much owned the Bears. Since 1992, the overall record stands at 37-14 — including playoffs — while the Bears have started 29 quarterbacks in general futility.

Other key moments and controversies are memorable: the “Instant Replay" game decided in the Packers favor in 1989, the Chester Marcol blocked kick for a touchdown in 1980, the
“Monsoon Bowl" in 1994, the “Thrashing Games" in 1980 (61-7 Bears; 49-0 Packers), the “League Championship" game in 1941, the “NFC Championship" game in 2011 and countless others. Fans of both teams can add their personal favorite here.

As for the Lumberjack Band, history was made in 1931 when they first played the official Packers fight song, “Go You Packers! Go!" They would be a rousing presence at Packers games — acknowledged by Curly Lambeau as part of the team's early success — until 1957, when Vince Lombardi cleaved the mackinaws, homespun demeanor and the name like many other aspects of the Packers' past.

A Prediction

With OTAs and mini-camps in the books, this year's training camp gets underway on July 26. All too soon, the 2017 NFL season will be upon us.

Following the dour Jay Cutler era, the Bears will be in rebuilding mode while the Packers field a star-studded offense and a rejuvenated defense. Season's end should see the Packers holding a two-game edge in the all-time stats.

But here's another prediction — an even-safer one: Whatever the particular ups and downs of either team, whoever the current players, whatever other NFL rivalry might burn brightly for a year or two, history and these team's fan bases will keep the Packers-Bears rivalry alive and well forever.

This year meet-ups — numbers 195 and 196 — will further a great rivalry and legacy. One you can appreciate while studying the newest statue of a plaid-jacketed drummer now standing on the downtown corner of Washington and Cherry Streets.

And — since it's July — you just might be able to savor some of the historic heat of this rivalry, too.

2017 remains on cruise control — summer humming along. Meanwhile, author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson ponders and writes about all things Titletown from a horse farm west of Green Bay and a cobblestone cottage near Lakewood.

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