Here it is, the 182nd and most significant game in the glorious rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. The winner of Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field heads to Dallas and Super Bowl 45. Sure the Packers and Cowboys waged classic duels in the Glory Years and renewed that post-season rivalry when Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre lifted the Pack back to prominence in the 90's. The Minnesota Vikings might be the more intense rival, especially over the past few years. In my mind, longevity wins out and the Packers-Bears is not only the NFL's oldest and most played, it's the best rivalry in professional football. As another chapter is about to be written, I thought I'd pass along a few personal memories of the Green and Gold against the Monsters of the Midway.
My first experience of the Packers-Bears came in section 7, row 14 and seat 21, my touchdown ticket I called it in the yes, kids only section of Lambeau Field. It was November 3, 1968 and at the end of a hard fought game, I watched the Packers punt and Chicago called a fair catch with only a couple of seconds to play. A tie ballgame I figured, but then I saw the Bears line up in a kickoff formation. Mac Percival placed the ball on the tee and with no one rushing, lifted the kick through the uprights for a game ending field goal. The free kick rule, seldom used, did in the Bears the same way a few seasons earlier by Paul Hornung and Chicago sent this 10 year old home crying after the 13-10 loss. Fast forward to 1980, my first year on the beat as a reporter. Opening day at Lambeau and it was the most bizzare finish imaginable. Another tie game, this one in overtime and the Packers lined up for the game winning field goal, but Alan Page of the Bears blocked the kick, directly back into the stunned arms of kicker Chester Marcol who on sheer instinct, started running. He covered the 25 yards around the left side for the game ending touchdown in the Pack's 12-6 victory. My first visit to Solider Field was for the rematch, December 7, the Pack's day of infamy. The Bears showed no mercy against Bart Starr's team throwing bombs and blitzing even as the pummeled the Pack to the tune of 61-7. The strike of 1982 wiped out both games in the series, ending the longest continuous rivalry and the following year, after the Packers made the Super Bowl tournament, they were on the brink of the playoffs again. In the regular season finale, they grabbed the lead 21-20 late in the 4th quarter on a bitterly cold day along Lake Michigan. But the Bears drove downfield with Starr unwilling to use his timeouts to save some clock and Bob Thomas kicked the game winning field goal at the gun, not only ending the Packers season, but Starr's tenure as coach, fired the next day. I'll never forget the rosy hue on Starr's cheeks, sharpened by his rising temper when questioned hard about his strategy in the closing moments. By 1985, the Bears became the NFL's best team with Mike Ditka as coach. Forrest Gregg succeed Starr in Green Bay and the rivalry turned personal and ugly. The teams played each other twice in a three week span that year. On a Monday night in Chicago, the Bears beat the Pack 23-7, the arrival of William "The Refrigerator" Perry as a folk hero. After twice plowing open holes as the lead blocker, Perry got the handoff for the final touchdown of the night, crushing George Cumby in his wake. Gregg was so incensed by the play, he allowed his team to unleash a fury in the rematch two weeks later. Walter Payton's TD run in the 4th quarter gave the Bears a sweep at Lambeau but the game was spiced by a pair of wicked plays, Mark Lee was ejected from the game for driving Payton over the bench on the Bears sideline sparking a near riot and Kenny Stills was flagged for arguably the latest cheap shot hit in history against Matt Suhey. In 1986, Gregg signed an enforcer for his defensive line named Charles Martin and when the teams met at Solider Field, he drew a league suspension for picking up Jim McMahon and slamming him to the ground after an interception. Now those were the days.
Chicago had won 8 straight in the series until November 5, 1989. That's when the Magic Man delivered. Trailing 13-7 in the 4th quarter, the Packers were driving. Don Majkowski broke out of the pocket and found Sterling Sharpe for the apparent 14 yard game winning touchdown but he was flagged for crossing the line of scrimmage. The instant replay system, still in it's infancy, reversed the call and when the referee made the annoucement after several minutes, Lambeau erupted and Ditka exploded. The Packers won 14-13 but Chicago was so irate, team president Michael McCaskey ordered his PR department to place an asterisk by the game in the team's media guide for the next several years.
The Packers siezed control of the rivlary under Holmgren and Favre, winning 10 straight games but there were a couple memorable shows. The Halloween monsoon of 1994, when in a driving, wind swept rain, the Packers crushed the Bears 33-6 on a Monday night at Soldier Field when Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers had their jersies retired. There was Robert Brooks' 99 yard touchdown catch over Donnell Woolford in 1995, Dave Wannstadt disdained a shot at overtime and went for 2 and failed in a 24-23 Packer win in 1997. The Soldier Field renovation in 2002 brought the game to Memorial Stadium in Champaign and the Packers rolled again 34-21.
In just the past couple of years, Green Bay has put up unforgettable performances, the 37-3 blowout in Lambeau in 2008, Greg Jennings game winning 50 yard TD catch to open the 2009 season and the playoff clinching 10-3 victory just two and a half weeks ago.
I've had the privalege of covering more than one third of the games played in this great series and I can't wait to watch the next chapter unfold Sunday in what will easily be the biggest game in the NFL's best rivalry.