The Bears’ William ‘‘The Refrigerator’’ Perry mixes it up with Packers center James Campen during a game on Sept. 16, 1990, at Lambeau Field.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Bad blood is needed for a true rivalry, and we got a bit of that with this Bears-Packers matchup that goes back over a century. Actually, we got a lot of it.
You could start with the fact these are the two oldest teams in the NFL. Being the oldest, they have had more times — 205 games, to be precise — than any other pair to loathe one another. And to fight about it.
Back in 1924, when the Bears had just changed their name from Staleys, the tone was set. Indeed, Chicago’s Frank ‘‘Duke’’ Hanny, an end who played both ways, as did almost every player back then, started jawboning with a Packers lineman, began swinging and apparently became the first NFL player to be thrown out of a game for fighting. (We say ‘‘apparently’’ only because detailed stats were years off and much is uncertain.)
At any rate, it’s for sure the ejected Hanny was swiftly joined on the sideline by Green Bay’s Walter ‘‘Tillie’’ Voss, the Packers player who was throwing punches back at the upset Bear. Remember, these fellows didn’t have polycarbonate helmets or titanium and thermoplastic-coated face masks back in the day, so a punch was a punch, not a video clip.
Obviously, the players didn’t like each other. And it’s interesting to ponder, at least briefly, their similarities, for it is true that familiarity can breed the strongest of anger. Both were big fellows for the time — Hanny, 6-foot, 200; Voss, 6-3, 207 — both were ends (though Voss played some at tackle) and both were born in 1897. Each was an athletic star — Hanny led his Aurora high school team to a national football championship and was a college standout at Indiana; Voss played four sports at the University of Detroit, captained two, led the basketball team in scoring two years and was the football team’s kicker.
Both men had their college careers interrupted by serving in World War I, and, oddly, each would end up playing for both the Bears and Packers.
We’ll close the book on these two pugilists now, remembering how they started something long ago. OK, we’ll also remember that then-Bear Hanny got kicked out of another game against Green Bay for fighting, two years after the first brawl. Just didn’t like those Wisconsin guys. Until he was one.
With the 2023 Bears-Packers season opener Sunday at Soldier Field, all this history comes roaring back, if we feel like checking it out. The beauty of the rivalry is that it has such roots. After all, Green Bay is only 200 miles north of Chicago, and you can get there in about three hours, if you put the hammer down. And plenty of folks attempt this, going both directions, because you see a lot of those drivers by the side of Interstate 43 on game days and nights, pleading their cases to state troopers.
Proximity and familiarity are essential for a rivalry. As are icons. Consider that NFC championship teams receive the George Halas Trophy, named for the Bears’ founder, and the Super Bowl winner gets the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for the Packers’ famed coach who won the first two Super Bowls. Consider also that Virginia McCaskey, daughter of George Halas, and the current principal owner of the Bears at age 100, was born a year before Hanny and Voss had their moment of bad temper.
Think of it — Virginia carries 50% of George Halas’ DNA, and Papa Bear, the provider, is often given credit for being the essential founder of the NFL. You don’t get much closer to the source of pro football than that.
But we were talking about this Bears-Packers thing being a fierce rivalry, not a lovefest. There have been plenty of fights through the years, but quite possibly there never was worse blood between the two teams than in the mid-1980s, when the Bears were finally ascending from two decades of torpor and the Packers were drifting after their dominance in the 1960s.
Mike Ditka was the Bears’ new coach, and, as we all know, Da Coach was feisty. Some people say nasty. In 1984, Packers guard Greg Koch said flatly of the Bears, ‘‘They’re a bull[crap] team and a bull[crap] organization.’’ In that season’s first game between the two clubs — a brutal, primitive 9-7 win by the Bears at Lambeau Field — five unsportsmanlike-conduct flags were thrown. One was against the Bears’ Yale and Northwestern-educated safety Gary Fencik for kicking Packers tackle Karl Swanke.
“Yeah, I kicked him,’’ Fencik said in the locker room afterward. ‘‘I kicked the [crap] out of him. I’m not proud of it. But in this game sometimes you get into that gray area.’’
Isn’t that so? Who will forget the Packers’ Mark Lee crazily driving Bears star Walter Payton 10 yards out of bounds, over the Bears’ bench and into a golf cart? Or the Packers’ Ken Stills destroying Bears fullback Matt Suhey as he stood watching a play that was long finished? That stuff happened in 1985, the Bears’ Super Bowl championship year, and the fury between Ditka and Packers coach Forrest Gregg was palpable. The two were Hall of Famers and former teammates on the Cowboys, but they despised each other. Well, it was certain at least that Ditka had no respect for Gregg.
In 1986, the Packers’ Charles Martin almost killed unsuspecting Jim McMahon on a wrapped-up headfirst body slam that hurt the Bears quarterback’s shoulder and which McMahon now says broke his neck.
“These things were after the play, after the fact,’’ said an enraged Ditka later. ‘‘So either you are coaching that or your players are stupid.’’
Of course, sports rivalries are about more than stupidity or violence. And in football, the quarterback is always the key. Who has a great one? Who has a nobody?
For many years, the Packers simply blew the Bears away at that critical position. Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers were a conga line of quarterback greatness, covering an incredible 47 intermittent seasons, with 25 Pro Bowls, eight league MVP awards and four Super Bowl wins among them. During that stretch dating to the late-1950s (which blessedly ended when Rodgers was traded to the Jets in April), the Bears won one Super Bowl and had one league MVP (Payton).
But now the table is cleared. Which of the young quarterbacks apparent — the Packers’ Jordan Love or the Bears’ Justin Fields — is ready to chow down, to dominate and create a Hall of Fame career like Starr, Favre and Rodgers? And wouldn’t it be something if both were able to do that? If the Bears-Packers -rivalry suddenly became one of sterling-silver quarterback play on each side?
It could happen.
Both Love and Fields were first-round picks — Love forced to bide his time behind Rodgers for a couple years, just as Rodgers had to bide his time behind Favre — and Fields was brought in to create something the Bears haven’t had since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman played: a stone-cold superstar at the helm.
No matter what, the rivalry will roll onward. Who in Illinois or Wisconsin would ever want it to end?