Bears, Packers fans understand it’s not personal

CHICAGO – The clock had barely bottomed at its zeroes at Soldier Field last Sunday when I made the first of what will end up being 3,451 Facebook status updates on this forthcoming epic matchup between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

The Packers and Bears last playoff game was Dec. 14, 1941. This photo released by the NFL shows the Packers Hall of Fame running back Clarke Hinkle, left, trying to get past Bears defender Hampton Pool in the 1941 Western Division Playoff game at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
(AP Photo/HO, NFL Photos)

It was prematurely reflective, something about how some of the most cherished friendships in my life were going to be put to the ultimate test over the days leading up to – and probably after – the impending NFC championship.

“Nice knowin’ ya,” read a reply from a friend and Packers fan. It was posted less than a minute after my message.

“Good thing I never liked you anyway,” came another quick assertion.

Then, the kicker: “I would gladly light you on fire for a Packers victory.”

That last one came from one of my best friends in the world, a guy whose wedding I attended last summer after driving more than six hours to a town in northern Wisconsin named Rhinelander. It’s closer to Canada than it is Milwaukee.

Some of you might be thinking my in-jeopardy pal really has some nerve, but the truth is that he was right: As we head into this Soldier Field slugfest that summons odes to Halas vs. Lombardi and Ditka vs. Gregg, the only way I’d ever drive more than six hours for my buddy this week is if I could personally deliver him a pink slip from his boss.

And that would only come after nailing an eviction notice to his front door while wearing my Walter Payton jersey, of course.

Hey, it’s nothing personal, it’s just this Bears-Packers rivalry that turns otherwise polite Midwesterners into beings as blaringly obnoxious as the first few strains of “Bear Down” or as annoying as the refrain to “The Bears Still Suck,” that old favorite in Wisconsin taverns.

The Bears' Jay Cutler scrambles away from the Packers' Clay Matthews during Chicago's 20-17 win over Green Bay in Week 3. The Packers beat the Bears 10-3 in Week 17.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Like most of the other great pairings in sports, the Chicago-Green Bay intrigue is rooted in the civil proximity that normally rules our dual existence. Wisconsin residents might not like it when we take up precious real estate on their lakefronts and we might not like it when they clog the Michigan Avenue sidewalks in the summer, but the most aggression you’ll routinely hear comes in under-the-breath muttering about stupid Flatlanders or FIBs – figure out the latter at your own risk – and cumbersome cheeseheads.

All of those restraints, however, always get shed quickly and that process is happening even faster as they prepare for the 181st and biggest game of the series. As you’ve no doubt heard, the Bears and Packers are meeting in their first playoff game since 1941 and the possibility of owning that ultimate trump card – 2011! – has embedded butterflies within both camps since Sunday night.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how this will work for Bears fans come Sunday night: “Sure, the Packers might have more Super Bowl titles than the Bears, you American Movie extra. But that’s fine because we’ll always have 2011.”

(Or, if the unthinkable happens, this is how it will work from the Green Bay side: “You’re right, you Ditka-dwelling has-been, the 1985 Bears may have been the best Super Bowl team of all time. But what’s that got to do with 2011?”

If we’re all being honest, it’s really that prospect of being stuck on the losing end this weekend that’s the secret cause of all these stomach nerves. Though the rivalry’s DMZ is officially the Illinois-Wisconsin border, the separating line is much more personal and it reveals itself every fall in the thousands of mixed marriages, split offices and divided friend groups that are out there from Oshkosh to Orland Park.

Lose on Sunday and the Bears’ current 92-83-5 edge in the series will be empty. Heck, not even going 20-0 over the next 10 years of regular season matchups will mean a thing. After all, if it took 70 years for the stars to align for this postseason meeting of football’s best pair of throwbacks, who’s to say we’ll still be around in 2081 to get even with the neighbors who fly their green-and-yellow flags every Sunday morning?

Because the dirty secret of the Bears-Packers rivalry is that the two teams have rarely been good at the same time, this very much feels like a one-shot deal.

(And yes, I do know Green Bay’s colors are technically “green and gold.” But if that’s what they’re calling gold, somebody needs to go break the news to Notre Dame that they need to repaint their dome to the color of cheddar.)

In my blue-and-orange clad case, my stakes are being laid this weekend against the dozens of friends I made in Madison during the late ’90s. As a suburban Chicago ex-pat, I attended the University of Wisconsin at the height of Brett Favre’s(notes) powers at Lambeau Field as well as during a time when the Bears’ never-ending carousel of quarterbacks was making for a depressing name-‘em-all parlor game at our family’s Thanksgiving each year. “C’mon Grandma, you already said Moses Moreno.”

Over those four years, I lived a life amongst Packers fans. I ate Burger King hamburgers named after Gilbert Brown, had that always-annoying “Go Pack Go” bassline burned deep into my brain and listened to one Wisconsin homer after another make the asinine argument that they considered the Minnesota Vikings to be a bigger rival than the Bears. I even watched as students actually took to the streets to celebrate the acquittal of former tight end Mark Chmura from a babysitter’s sexual assault charge.

Vince Lombardi, left, coached the Packers for nine years. George Halas coached the Bears for 40 years.
(AP file photos)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that symptoms of Stockholm syndrome never threatened me during my time there. While I otherwise loved my surroundings, my hatred for all things Green Bay congealed like the state’s finest cheese curd.

As I often reminded everyone then, I would rather be a fan of a Bears team that went 0-16 every year than a fan of a Packers team that annually won the Super Bowl. The best part about that claim, of course, was that my Wisconsin friends said they shared reciprocal feelings. It’s that dislike – instilled by our families in our youth and honed during long winter afternoons in cold grandstands or warm living rooms – that makes the rivalry the best in professional football.

More than a decade later, we’re all still sparring in the digital world, through email rings, on the walls of Facebook and through concisely worded tweets.

My Packers fan friends say that Jay Cutler(notes) is the worst person to ever play pro football and I remind them that he can never own that title because Charles Martin already does and Brett Favre isn’t far behind.

They talk about the Packers being more than 3-point favorites on the road, while I talk about the whopping 10 points that Aaron Rodgers(notes) put on the board in a game that meant everything for the Packers three weeks ago.

They mention putting the cherry on top of a two-decade period that has seen more consistency from the Packers. I fantasize about finally getting even for all those beatdowns during the Favre era and knowing that the ultimate upper hand is only 60 minutes of good Bears football away.

Might some outsiders not understand this whole thing between us neighbors in the Great Lakes? Might they point out that we’re actually more similar than we’d like to admit? Sure.

But with the game standing just days away, the only common bond we’ll currently acknowledge is that we both see the stark extremes of the potential realities facing us on Sunday night.

Win and everything will be right with our teams, our city, our people.

Lose and – well, no one in either Illinois or Wisconsin can even think about what that would mean right now.

Kevin Kaduk is editor of Yahoo! Sports’ baseball blog, Big League Stew. His prediction for Sunday’s game is Bears 452, Packers -10.


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Updated Wednesday, Jan 19, 2011