Bears and Packers: To Call Them Rivals Is Understatement

Yankees-Red Sox? -Yale? Conan-Jay? Those are schoolyard squabbles compared with Bears-. The teams will meet Sunday at Soldier Field for the third matchup this season and the 182nd time in their shared history, and, hyperbole aside, the stakes have never been higher: the N.F.C. Championship and a berth in XLV in Dallas on Feb. 6 will be decided.

If only the late, great John Facenda of NFL Films were around to provide Voice of God narration.

This is that big, even if some people intimately involved with the series can’t pinpoint why it evokes such passion. They just know it does.

“I’d have people come up to me during the lean years and say, ‘Well, we didn’t do very well, but at least we beat the Bears,’ ” said Bob Harlan, the Packers’ chairman emeritus who worked for the team for 37 years and ran it as chief executive for 19. “When Gene Ronzoni was hired to replace Curly Lambeau as coach, there was strong opposition to him because he had played for the Bears.”

Ronzoni lasted less than three years. There are other, more successful examples of Bears-Packers cross-pollination: Bob Harlan’s son Bryan was the Bears’ media relations director for 16 years, and brothers Jack and Jerry Vainisi were front-office operatives for the Packers and Bears, respectively, about 25 years apart.

The Vainisis grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and their parents operated an Italian deli frequented by many Bears players. But young Jerry’s Bears allegiance shifted abruptly when Jack, older by 14 years, took a job as a scout for the Packers after mustering out of the Army following his playing career at Notre Dame.

“I was a ballboy in training camp,” Jerry said, “and I became such a Packer fan that I didn’t know if I could root for the Bears after they hired me. It was easier once the paychecks started coming in.”

But there are Bears, and there are Packers. Jim McMahon won a second Super Bowl ring as the Packers’ backup quarterback in 1997, but he wore his Bears jersey on the team’s White House visit because the Bears never got to go — the Challenger blew up on the day they were scheduled in 1986.

Packer backers might resent Chicago’s uppity disdain for their small-town ways, but Green Bay probably owes its existence to George Halas, the Bears’ founder and patriarch. As pro football was coming of age in the ’50s, Halas backed the concept of pooled TV income and other revenue-sharing measures that meant economic survival for a minimarket team like the Packers. He also traveled to Green Bay to campaign for a new stadium, which the Packers needed to retain their place in the N.F.L. And when the team sought a new coach after a 1-10-1 season in 1958, Halas recommended Vince Lombardi.

He got the job, and he would cuff Halas’s Bears around with gap-toothed glee, winning five titles in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi was a New Yorker, and influential New York writers like Red Smith helped shape the Lombardi legend as the Packers became pro football’s glamour team, built around the nine Hall of Famers Jack Vainisi drafted from 1950 to 1960. The Bears, meanwhile, floundered — the Halas mom-and-pop approach was hopelessly outdated in an increasingly sophisticated N.F.L.

Jerry Vainisi joined the Bears in 1972 and helped Jim Finks assemble the swashbuckling collection of characters responsible for their smash-and-grab victory in Super Bowl XX. was the coach then, and didn’t he relish winning 8 of 10 from the Packers while his crusty rival Forrest Gregg was their coach from 1983 to 1987.

The animosity spilled over to the field. In 1985, Ditka put Refrigerator Perry in the backfield and had him score a touchdown against the Packers in a Monday Night game.

A year later, Charles Martin wrecked McMahon’s shoulder by driving him into the ground on a blatantly late hit. Thus began the Bears’ deterioration, and it accelerated as Halas heir Michael McCaskey gradually purged them of all things Ditka. The Packers could empathize, having fallen off precipitously post-Lombardi.

Green Bay had three winning seasons and two playoff appearances in the ’70s and ’80s combined, Harlan said. “We had to do better.”

Hiring Ron Wolf as football czar in 1991 was the first step. Wolf brought in as coach, traded for to play quarterback and signed as a signature defensive player. Thirteen seasons of .500 or better followed, plus two Super Bowl trips. Now they’re trying to replicate the formula with Ted Thompson as chief football brain, Mike McCarthy as coach, Aaron Rodgers as franchise quarterback and and Clay Matthews anchoring the defense.

The Bears are a more eclectic mix. They finally tired of the 21 vagabonds who started games at quarterback while Favre was a Green Bay fixture and traded their future for Jay Cutler, with games like this in mind. Brian Urlacher and Matt Forte are products of the draft, and Julius Peppers represents an ambitious free-agent plunge.

So whose approach is the right one? We’ll find out Sunday, after the hoopla subsides.

“I hear these players from Florida and Texas saying, ‘I hate the Packers’ — where does that come from?” Vainisi said. “There’s psychology at work here.”

Or something. I’ve got Bears, 16-13.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org

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