George Halas’ memory lives on in many ways. Almost 36 years after his death in October 1983, one of professional football’s most admired figures stands the test of time today. The word Halas or affectionate nickname “Papa Bear” is synonymous with the Bears as an NFL franchise. A player, coach, and owner of the team for decades, he’s rightfully credited for helping to establish not only the Bears’ legitimacy, but the NFL’s status as the all-encompassing titan of American sports most view it as today.
Like Hall & Oates, Mario and Luigi, and Spongebob and Patrick, you can’t have the Bears without Halas. You can’t have football—a domineering beast of a sports league in 2019—without Halas. Unthinkably to a degree, you can’t have the hated rival Packers without Halas either.
Though much (most) of his help was due to financial interests, Halas understood the importance of a healthy and competitive rivalry better than anyone. The Bears and Packers made each other’s dreams come true.
Keep your frenemies close
In 1922, Halas led the charge to have the Packers reinstated back into the early iterations of the NFL after they were banned for using college players illegally. (Never mind that the violation was only discovered because of Halas.) In 1957, it was Halas who convinced the people of Green Bay to build a stadium that would later become Lambeau Field. In perhaps his greatest competitive oversight, Halas’ recommended the legendary Vince Lombardi to become the Packers’ new head coach in 1959.
Every step of the way saw Halas, seemingly inexplicably, pave the way for the one team who was supposed to most stand in the way of his professional success. The Packers were closest to the Bears in proximity—approximately 200 miles away. They were closest to the Bears in the standings, eventually surpassing them in both championships (13 to the Bears’ nine) and in the overall head-to-head series (97-95-6). They were and still remain the agonizing thorn in the Bears’ side that any other far more shortsighted and vindictive person would’ve let dissolve before any more reasonable traction was gained.
But a mutual respect and long-term vision preceded thoughts of unrelenting venom and selfishness on Halas’ part. These two organizations enhanced each others’ respective existences rather than having deterred any meaningful growth or friendship. To Halas, Bears-Packers was so much bigger than any of their 198 meetings over the last century—being bigger than the game itself acting as no small feat.
Halas never saw the Packers as his mortal enemy. His Bears were challengers’ to the Packers’ eminent greatness and legacy, and vice versa. They were the needed standard that Halas held his players and coaches to every chance he got. The Bears were the necessary bar that Lombardi held his players and coaches to every chance he got.
There was always weight to what the Packers accomplished to the specific detriment of the Bears. There was always an almost perverse pleasure in Halas having his Bears excel at the expense of their northern rivals. The Bears and Packers would forever need two to passive aggressively tango.
There are many moments that can define Bears-Packers over the length of their unprecedented runs of existence. But it might be the last rough 40 years or so that capture the glow and essence of American professional sports’ greatest, and slowest, tug of war. It’s the last four decades that help signify when these rivals were at their peaks, the other would somehow be checking in.
From 1984-1991, the Bears made the playoffs on seven straight occasions: the first consistent contender Chicago had enjoyed in almost 25 years. Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and Mike Ditka’s success often completely overshadowed one of the darkest periods the Packers have tried to repress to no avail. But even while the Bears sat near the top of the NFL, they kept the Packers in the back of their mind. This was when the Bears could put Green Bay back in its place, or so to speak.
At the height of the Bears’ excellence in 1985—a time of heavy metal, long hair, and power suits—they pettily did not forget the Packers. Try as they might, they never could and never wanted to.
Ditka had not forgotten how his coaching foil Bill Walsh had given a carry to an offensive guard to humiliate the Bears in a 49ers’ playoff win the year previous. In one of the most sordid ever Bears-Packers encounters, Ditka used 308-pound nose tackle William Perry three times as a fullback in an October 1985 Monday night affair against Green Bay. Perry would go on to clear the way for two Payton end zone romps, and more importantly, score a touchdown of his own.
As the uproarious Soldier Field crowd chanted “Fridge” over and over in reaction, that night became etched in history as one of the signature moments for one of the sport’s signature teams. When asked to explain his decision to birth the legend of Perry against the Bears’ historic rival, Ditka kept it short and sweet:
“We’ll use him until they put somebody bigger than him in there to plug the hole,” said Ditka.
Ditka might as well have also been discussing the Bears’ stranglehold over their green-and-gold counterparts. The Packers would defeat the Bears in just three of 17 meetings in this stretch while going four years from 1985-1988 without a win against Chicago—proving they never had someone bigger to plug the hole.
Years later, after the power suits and bad hair were traded in for ripped jeans and flannel shirts in the 1990s, the goober-faced Brett Favre and the Packers returned the favor on their state neighbors to the south. Green Bay, rather appropriately, didn’t need any gimmicks to humiliate the Bears with regularity. That they held such obvious dominion over Chicago under most of Favre’s revered stead made the success all the sweeter in their eyes. If revenge is a dish best served cold, it’s far better when the leftovers of that dish keep coming.
After Favre’s Packers debut in 1992, Green Bay would suffer a total of 10 losses to the Bears in the 32 meetings the Favre era lasted in Wisconsin. The four-year stretch where the Packers couldn’t fathom overcoming the Bears in the previous decade? It paled in comparison to the mid-90s five-year grip the Packers had on the Bears. It seemed no matter what the Bears trotted out onto the field, they could never surpass Favre’s haunting, vexing magic. When the Bears finally broke the embarrassing streak of futility in 1999, Favre’s Packers would follow it up with another almost spotless four calendar years.
When the Bears built and capitalized on their most hallowed and consistent iteration of triumph, it was the Packers acting as crumbling brick wall that needed to be toppled over first. They were more of a turnstile than any strenuous obstacle to leap over or destroy, but the rite of passage on a path to greatness was all the same. When the Packers built their most consistent team of the modern era, it was the Bears who stood in the way as a listless paperweight. They were the shallow end of the pool to swim through, but the initiation through their trial meant just the same.
The Bears’ late 20th century success was given inherent, powerful meaning by stamping down on their hapless rival when they had the chance. And the Packers graciously dished it out in return as soon as a generous opportunity arose.
The rise to the top would’ve been far more empty, and hollow, without each other.
Iron forever sharpens iron
It’s funny that for such a beloved rivalry spanning the length of the NFL’s place in the American consciousness, the Bears and Packers have rarely been good at the same time. You would think tradition and mandate would mean these two would have had more classic games over the years, but that’s far from the case.
Over their almost 200 meetings, the pair have met in the second season just twice in 1941 and 2011—an even split that led to a championship each. When the Bears have been at their best, the Packers have been at their absolute worst. When the Packers exceeded expectations and ran rampant on the rest of the league, the Bears depressingly cycled through an endless lineup of quarterbacks, coaches, and front offices.
As with many things in major pop and sports culture, sometimes the regressive novelty of nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia wins out over tangible quality. But to reduce this rivalry to simple novelty misses the point, and overlooks what could be the return of something special.
To start the 2019 season, the 100th anniversary of the NFL’s initial rise to prominence, the Bears and Packers will kick off festivities at Soldier Field. For the first time in breaking what was becoming a long-standing tradition of featuring the defending Super Bowl champion on opening night, the Bears and Packers will instead take center stage to celebrate not only the NFL’s growth, but their mutual, continuous football duel.
The Bears, coming off a 12-4 season and an NFC North title, will be looking to build on their 2018 Renaissance campaign from the get-go. A promising core of players led by Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Mitchell Trubisky have painted the upcoming year as Super Bowl or bust. The Packers, coming off their second consecutive missed postseason, are seeking a Renaissance of their own. Another promising core of players led by long-time Bears tormentor Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and a young first-time head coach in Matt LaFleur want to prove they belong among the heavyweight class again. In direct contrast to most of the rest of this rivalry, both the Bears and Packers could actually be competent at the same time.
That an ambitious goal for both teams starts with a hurdle over their rival is fitting. To say it’s poetic would be an understatement.
As George Halas once notably understood, and as the classic modern moments of each have often come at the expense of the other, there’s a universal truth about this rivalry: The Bears will never be the Bears without the Packers, and the Packers will never be the Packers without the Bears.