The Bears and the Packers will play in the N.F.C. championship game in Chicago on Sunday. The only other time the teams met in the playoffs was in 1941.
“This is bigger than the Super Bowl,” said Gail Khayat, working behind the Brat Stop’s bar.
Two neon helmets lighted the bar’s back wall. One had the “C” of Chicago, the other the “G” of Green Bay. Between the two, only one opponent matters.
About 200 miles separate Chicago and Green Bay. In a route that travels the distance and occasionally ventures from the highway for a mile or three, vestiges of the N.F.L.’s oldest rivalry can be found tucked away in unexpected places between Soldier Field and Lambeau Field: cemeteries, old stadiums, even the halls of a high school.
There was no better time for such a trip than Monday. The Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon, and the Packers beat the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night, and the span between the cities and their teams shrank with the shared excitement of playing the other for a spot in the Super Bowl.
As if the historical significance was not tangible enough, the conference winner receives the George Halas Trophy, named for the Bears’ founder and longtime coach. The Super Bowl winner receives the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for the famed leader of the Packers.
But Soldier Field, the site of Sunday’s game, is hardly where the Bears-Packers rivalry was forged. For most of their history, the Bears shared Wrigley Field with their baseball-playing cousins, the Cubs. It was the site of the previous playoff game with the Packers, on Dec. 14, 1941 — a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
With war declared but not yet fully reverberating through the Midwest (newspaper reports surrounding the game made little mention of it), the Bears won, 33-14, in front of 43,425 fans.
That set up an nflchampionship game against the Giants for the next week.
“What the Monsters of the Midway figure to do to the New Yorkers is enough to make women weep and strong men shudder,” Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote. The Bears won, 37-9.
Daley sounded like people at the Brat Stop, lamenting that the Packers and the Bears had to play other teams.
“Chicago is not nearly so excited for this fray as it was for the Western playoff a week ago,” Daley wrote. “Of course some 11,000 wild-eyed fans from Green Bay were on hand then.”
At Wrigley on Monday morning, there was no sign that the Bears ever played there. There are statues outside of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Harry Caray, but not a whisper of Halas, Sid Luckman or George McAfee.
The closest hint hung diagonally across the street from home plate. The name of the Cubby Bear, a bar established in 1953, is a nod to the tenants who shared the building from 1921 to 1970.
Halas, born in Chicago in 1895, founded the Bears in 1920, originally as the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys, for the Staley Starch Works, then the Chicago Staleys, and finally the Bears in 1922. He was the team’s coach for 40 of its first 48 seasons, including that 1941 playoff game.
On Monday morning, snow covered his family’s granite mausoleum at St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles, just west of I-94 and a few miles east of O’Hare International Airport. The step in front had no fresh footprints, and fake pink flowers and a small American flag poked up from planters on either side. Visible through the small window were eight resting places inside. The one on top on the right side read, “George S. Halas, Feb. 2, 1895-Oct. 31, 1983.”
Halas’s team won eight championships. He died two years before the Bears won their first — and, so far, only — Super Bowl.
As Halas formed the Bears, Earl Lambeau, known as Curly, built the Packers in Green Bay. The teams first played each other in 1921. The Chicago Staleys won, 20-0, in Chicago, and American professional football’s longest-running rivalry was born.
Halas Hall, the Bears’ glassy, modern headquarters, sits in the trees just east of I-94 in Lake Forest. There on Monday, Bears Coach Lovie Smith called the Packers the “No. 1 rival.” A few hours later, in Green Bay, Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said it was “really a privilege and honor now to be part of this great history with the playoff game against the Bears.”
Milwaukee sits roughly halfway between Chicago and Green Bay, but it is firmly Packers territory. The Packers protected that turf often, scheduling 169 games in Milwaukee from 1933 to 1994.
They dared play only one of those games against the Bears: Nov. 10, 1974, at County Stadium, home of baseball’s Milwaukee Braves and Brewers.
County Stadium is gone, having made way for Miller Park. But amid the new ball field’s acres of parking is a stadium for children called Helfaer Field. Near it are memorials for the Braves. One sits atop a base marking the “historic site of Milwaukee County Stadium, 1953-2000.”
Buried in Monday’s snow was no mention of the Packers, who played up to three times a season there for 40 years, or of their 1974 victory there over the Bears, 20-3.
I-43 from Milwaukee to Green Bay was covered in snow on Monday. Its shoulders and median were dotted every few miles by cars that skidded off the highway. It is in that stretch, near the western shore of Lake Michigan, that Chicago, with an estimated population of nearly three million, and Green Bay, a city of 102,313 (if the precise accounting of the city limit sign is to be believed), feel worlds apart.
Lambeau was born in Green Bay in 1898. His childhood home, a tidy brick house on North Irwin Avenue, can be rented for events.
A few blocks away is City Stadium, now called “Old” City Stadium, next to the imposing blond-brick East High School and backed against the East River. A sign over the entry calls it “home of the Green Bay Packers 1925-1956.” It also was, and remains, home of the East High Red Devils.
The Packers spent their first few seasons on patches of nearby grass, first at Hagemeister Park, then at Bellevue Park, where “crowds of 4,000-5,000 stormed the fences to boo the hated Chicago Bears,” according to Lambeau Field’s Web site.
Lambeau attended East High School, which this year will graduate its 150th class. (Among other alumni: the sportswriter Red Smith and the “Monk” star Tony Shalhoub.) There are photographs near the gym of Lambeau playing football for the school from 1913 to 1916, and school officials have yearbooks and memorabilia from the early days, including Lambeau’s transcript.
Lambeau coached the school team and worked as a shipping clerk for the Indian Packing Co. when he decided to form a professional team. A new East High was completed in 1925, and the Packers settled in on its new field. Eventually, the field was surrounded by metal bleachers (since removed) and accommodated about 25,000 fans.
The Packers outgrew it. A new “City Stadium” opened in 1957 a few miles away, christened with a 21-17 victory over the Bears. By then, Lambeau had won six championships and retired from coaching, and Lombardi would arrive in 1959 to lead the Packers to five more, including victories in the first two Super Bowls. A 12th title came at the end of the 1996 season.
After Lambeau’s death in 1965 — he is buried in Green Bay’s Allouez Catholic Cemetery, under a simple square marker — the new stadium was renamed Lambeau Field.
Yet no one from Chicago to Green Bay has seen a game between the Packers and the Bears as anticipated as this one.
“That’s kind of what everyone was hoping for — those two teams,” Frerk said. “The only thing better would have been if it were here at Lambeau.”
Or, even, out the door at old City Stadium. Perhaps 200 miles away at Wrigley Field. Or somewhere in the memories in between.
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