Would the world end if the Bears-Packers rivalry disappeared?
It would end for devout Cheeseheads and Bearheads, that is.
What would an NFL season mean if Chicago didn’t play up north?
What would it mean if the Bears didn’t cross the Cheese Line — Wisconsin’s southern border — and go deep into Bart Starr/Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers territory as invading raiders?
What would football life be worth if the Packers didn’t bring their Vince Lombardi mythology into the heart of Chicago and unpack their wagons once a season and do battle at Soldier Field?
The Packers against the Bears brings together so many key elements of violent sports competition that it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe a word from Da Coach is a fair jumping-off point.
Awhile ago, while reflecting on his time as a player and coach for the Bears against the Packers, Mike Ditka said: ‘‘You have to understand, I don’t hate the Packers. The Old Man [Bears founder George Halas] tried to instill that in me, hatred. He tried to drum it into me. But I never hated the Packers. I never wanted to kill them or see them as mortal enemies. I respected those players because I knew they were part of a great organization — one of the best, as far as I was concerned.’’
So you can start with respect between the teams. It was always there, except, well, when it wasn’t.
When Packers players came out with hit lists on their towels back in 1986, that wasn’t about respect. When Packers defensive back Ken Stills blindsided Bears fullback Matt Suhey a full three seconds after a play, it wasn’t respect. When Packers defensive back Mark Lee blasted Walter Payton when Payton was out of bounds, knocking him into the wall at Lambeau Field, it wasn’t about respect. (Note here: The cheap shot got Lee thrown out of the game just minutes after it started and fired up Payton so much that he had 100 yards rushing by halftime.)
This isn’t to say the Bears always have been saints, either. It’s possible the debut of 320-pound meat package William ‘‘The Refrigerator’’ Perry at running back against the Packers in 1985 wasn’t a respectful moment. Thank you, coach Ditka. (One could ask Packers linebacker George Cumby, who was obliterated on Fridge’s scoring crunch, how considerate it was.)
The testiness goes way back, if truth be told. The first ejection of players for fighting in an NFL game happened in 1924, when the Bears’ Walter Voss and the Packers’ Frank Hanny were tossed for punching each other.
And in 1921, Halas got the Packers kicked out of the league to keep them from signing a certain player, then had them reinstated after the Bears signed that player themselves.
But as the Packers-Bears season opener at Soldier Field approaches — on ‘‘Thursday Night Football’’ before a jacked-up home crowd and a huge national audience — the excitement is almost off the dial because of the teams’ history. Consider that they have played each other a league-record 198 times in the regular season and playoffs.
The rivalry means something because Halas basically started the NFL and the Packers were there at the beginning. Also, one team or the other usually has been quite good. They have 22 NFL championships between them, and a victory by the lousier team can fluff up an otherwise-dismal season.
The difference between the cities couldn’t be more stark. One is a huge, vibrant metropolis with many splendors but too much violence and debt. The other is a single-note manufacturing and former lumber town where, years ago, a black Packers player was asked to join a police lineup because there weren’t enough African Americans around for the suspect to get a fair shake.
Then you can choose your colors: green and gold or blue and orange. Great contrast.
This season, we’ve got the legendary Rodgers going against rising young Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky. That’s drama right there.
The Bears and their fans think they might have a great team. The Bears can’t afford to lose this game, like they did a crazy 24-23 disaster at Lambeau in Week 1 last season.
One last thing: Try to enjoy the game, folks, wherever it leads, especially if you’re at Soldier Field. Consider that there is a 90,000-person waiting list for season tickets at Lambeau. The actual wait time, by some calculations, is 955 years.
Even for aged cheese, that’s too long.