The debate over who most influenced pro football has always served as an undercurrent to the history of Bears-Packers. Proximity between Green Bay and Chicago, it doesn’t matter. Inter-divisional knowledge between two teams with almost 200 meetings shoved off to the side. History with the most championships and Hall of Famers between them be damned. There is no history in Bears-Packers—any relevant documentation, anyway—without the efforts of George Halas and Vince Lombardi. Two names that to this day should still be viewed through the same prism of respect and honor when both men, long since deceased, were still living. The ebbs and flows of on-field competitiveness, bitter feelings, and a friendly hostility in Bears-Packers are only present thanks to their sacrifices.
Somehow, and against all odds, Halas and Lombardi’s paths intersected on the biggest of stages. Any other random roll of the dice would’ve seen this pair brush by each other without the faintest of glances. Mere strangers passing each other on the street with an awkward half smile, if they ever even got the opportunity. But as is often the case in life, you find it is indeed a small world.
In this small world a special bond would be formed to define a special rivalry.
On his terms
Take one look at George Halas and you couldn’t have dreamed of him becoming the instrumental figure in the NFL’s rise to cultural monolith. This is a sports league that owns a day of the week, Sundays, and it’s largely thanks to Halas.
Born and raised in Chicago as the son of Czech-Bohemian immigrants, and a University of Illinois alum, Halas was no stranger to the blue collar image and mentality of his hometown. It was instilled in him from a young age on the city’s near-West side and shaped almost every part of his life. While a talented athlete that would find himself featuring for the Yankees at one point, he lived and breathed hard work every day.
It wasn’t until he seized a chance with starch company A.E. Staley that his life would transform forever.
Halas’ motivations then could no doubt be relatable to any modern office worker. He took a cushy sales job out of necessity and comfort. He played on the company baseball team, as most would network now with softball. And he moonlighted as coach of the Decatur Staleys—who would later come to be known as the Chicago Bears—in his spare time. It’s no small detail he made sure the team’s colors would reflect Illinois with the trademark blue and orange most are familiar with. The memories of the formative years of college, ugly and beautiful as they may be, never fade for some. Unless there was a drastic, last minute, and unexpected change, the future unofficial NFL patriarch seemingly had his individual future lined up and settled.
Until he didn’t.
Citing financial issues over daily maintenance of the team, A.E. Staley’s company founder turned over complete control of the Staleys to Halas in 1921. From there, he’d rename the Staleys to the Bears (to honor the baseball-playing Cubs) and take a $5,000 investment that would help proliferate their growth. A little over a year later, the NFL would be founded in all of its raw, untapped, and vastly flawed glory. The rest, for the son of two Slavic immigrants, was quite literally history. A true rags-to-riches story for the man affectionately nicknamed “Papa Bear”.
From 1921 to 1963, no one won more games than Halas’ Bears: 312. No one won more NFL championships, six to be exact, than Halas’ Bears either. Whether he was an active coach, decided to step back and pull the strings as owner, or actually featured as a player, the Bears were the cream of the crop under Halas’ watch. For over four decades, the Bears were the gold standard and defined what it meant to have a stranglehold over competitors that routinely said “uncle”. They were an example of excellence that hadn’t become a reality in the American sports consciousness. They gave legitimacy to a league which needed legs to stand on. And they were on top of the world as long as Halas allowed them to be.
Until his somber retirement in 1969—marked by physical ailments—Halas, for better or worse, never relented. If he let up, he would let the Bears lose ground to opponents seeking the smallest gasp of air. An unacceptable proposal at every level. As long as he could stay on top, so would the Bears. For the sake of legacy, comfort, and platitudes, the greats always try to retire on top.
“I have made this decision with considerable reluctance, but no regrets,” Halas told a gathered press contingent on the day he stepped down as coach on May 27, 1968. “But looking at practical realities, I am stepping aside now because I can no longer keep up with the physical demands of coaching the team on Sunday afternoons.”
Like so many legends before him and many after, Halas preferred to retire before he lost his fastball, rather than take in a game that had almost literally passed him by. At the tender age of 73, the humble immigrants’ son and the native son of Chicago, knew it was his time.
Like so many of his famous and best Bears teams through the years, he was going out on his terms.
Bigger and humbler than the game
Before Vince Lombardi’s tragic death in September 1970, there was one thing that always stood out about the man whose name is embroidered upon the NFL’s trademark hardware.
It wasn’t strict disciplinarian tactics of which rubbed many of his great Packers players the wrong way before most saw the light. It wasn’t his propensity for powerful quotes, in and out of context, because he wasn’t trying to inspire anyone; he was just speaking frankly. (Seriously, though: You could write a book, epic novellas, on Lombardi quotes.) It wasn’t his trademark wide grin and booming infectious cackle embedded in Packers lore. And it wasn’t any of his six championships as a coach, though winning was obviously important to Lombardi’s mythos.
Vince Lombardi was many things, but it was his view on life, success, and personal achievement of which made him one of the most impactful figures the NFL’s ever seen. It wouldn’t be a stretch, depending on whom you speak to, to say he was the most impactful of all of them. That’s because he took steady care to teach legitimate life lessons to his players and coaches. He took scheming and practice beyond the minimalist perspective of a game played on a grass grid. This all-encompassing vantage point, like Halas, was molded from his childhood.
Instead of growing up in Chicago, Lombardi was a Brooklyn baby. He was the oldest child of two intensely religious and Roman Catholic Italian immigrants, who opened up a butcher’s shop in Manhattan around the time of his birth in the 1910s. Most of Lombardi’s largely comfortable but strict upbringing would be shaped by his time working in that butcher’s shop. He believed he could climb life’s mountain unopposed from a young age, with hard work, and never wavered in his belief. It was what would push him toward a game like football and a goal of making something of himself outside of his family’s means: paving your own path, a noble ambition.
After a playing and coaching career at Fordham University, a subsequent short stint at a New Jersey Catholic high school, and a formative assistant coaching tenure at West Point, the humble Lombardi found his way to the Giants in the 1950s. As the offensive coordinator, with a scheme characterized by innovation and for the first time a concrete exploitation of opponents’ weaknesses, Lombardi became one of pro football’s first great assistants. He approached football in a calculated fashion, with a unique touch of organic humanity and established numbers, and always knew how to strike the perfect balance. (Tom Landry ran a versatile defense alongside him, and it’s a wonder those Giants teams only captured one title.)
Seeing as how the Giants would only win one title with Lombardi in 1956, their main influence would not be their success. It was in giving Lombardi a platform to showcase his unique gifts of charisma and moxie he would seamlessly transfer over to the Packers. Every instance of hardship, coaching tribulation, unresponsive players, and a similar blue collar mentality to Halas—the man that would recommend him for the job in Green Bay in 1959—shaped Lombardi’s perspective.
Most who were around in that era—as Lombardi turned the Packers into a league powerhouse—would say his methods were justified, if not a little unorthodox for his time. Most who were around in that era would say his model of efficiency, perfection, and companionship was necessary and a welcome introduction into the world of sports. If sports are supposed to teach life lessons to last generations, Lombardi was the first major NFL proponent to use football so wisely. He took his teaching even further than that. While Lombardi took his endeavor as the head man in Green Bay seriously, he was one of the first to treat football as something more meaningful than a simplistic, if violent game. It was an outlet, a tool for him to be a mentor and father figure to grown men. He was the epitome of tough but eminently fair love, and he took this responsibility seriously.
The Packers eventually taking graciously to Lombardi’s style should’ve been no surprise. His coaching and push for achievement, his care, was something they needed. They just didn’t realize it until he entered the picture.
Pillars to last
After dominating the Bears-Packers season series for most of the 1950s, George Halas experienced a rare humbling moment: he lost to the coach he gave a recommendation to in his first game. In a slog of an early 1959 season battle, Lombardi’s Packers overcame the Bears 9-6. Though not quite the student surpassing the teacher, it was clear from the outset that Lombardi’s team would not go quietly into the night against Halas. Defeat for the Bears, amidst what would become one of pro football’s greatest coaching chess matches in the ensuing decade, was the picturesque example of Halas and Lombardi’s relationship.
Unlike how many would view Bears-Packers, there was plenty of love between Halas and Lombardi, and most of it wasn’t lost. In direct contrast to every other NFL coach, Halas and Lombardi uncommonly respected each other. Halas, as the only man to ever beat Lombardi five times, was reportedly the only coach Lombardi would refer to as “coach.” Lombardi understood what Halas had managed to accomplish in the nearly 40 years before he took over in Green Bay, and used it as a model for his success, a bar to reach. Respecting history as a means to teach himself to be better.
Meanwhile, Halas’ belief in what the Packers stood for and what they meant to him and the Bears has been well-documented. Lombardi’s tough love only helped to accentuate this notion. Two sons of immigrants from two contrasting but somehow still similar backgrounds. Two transcendent legends of the game with a clear understanding of one another.
Both Halas and Lombardi, masters of ingenuity, likely would’ve found a way to thrive on their own in the NFL. But it was the presence of the other that helped take them to new heights. It was the respect and admiration they showed each other despite their rivalry that enhanced both’s reputation more than they could’ve imagined.
At his retirement press conference, Halas made sure to maintain his exit was permanent. It’s the manner in which he characterized it of which for once, did him a disservice.
“After you lay out a year now you’re through,” Halas said. “The game is progressing so fast and there’s too much with which you have to keep up.”
That’s where Halas is wrong. Football and the NFL have evolved in unfathomable ways in the half century since “Papa Bear” stepped aside and Lombardi’s death. There don’t seem to be any signs of it slowing down for now. But even with the increased power of the game and league, it will never pass these two giants up.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.