NFC Championship Game: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
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Highway 50 is sometimes considered the 50-yard line in the rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Squatting at that spiritual midfield -- if not exactly the geographical one -- is the Brat Stop, a sprawling restaurant/bar/concert hall/cheese shop just off Interstate 94 at the edge of Kenosha, Wis.
The Bears and the Packers will play in the NFC championship game in Chicago 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. Traveling the distance and occasionally venturing from the highway for a mile or three, vestiges of the NFL'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 Sunday afternoon, and the Packers beat the Atlanta Falcons 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, site of the 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, Dec. 14, 1941 -- a week after the attacks 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 NFL championship game against the New York Giants 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 Monday morning, there was no sign that the Bears had 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, 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' team won eight championships. He died two years before the Bears won their 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 pro 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 Monday, Bears coach Lovie Smith called the Packers the "No. 1 rival."
Milwaukee sits roughly halfway between Chicago and Green Bay, but it is firmly Packers territory. The Packers protected that turf often, scheduling 169 games there from 1933 to 1994 but only one 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 the 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, the only time the teams met halfway.
Lambeau was born in Green Bay in 1898. He attended East High, which this year will graduate its 150th class.Among other alumni: deceased sportswriter Red Smith and "Monk" star Tony Shalhoub.
Lambeau coached the school team and worked as a shipping clerk for the Indian Packing Co. before he decided to form a pro team. A new East High was completed in 1925, and the Packers settled in on its new field.
A new "City Stadium" opened in 1957 a few miles away, christened with a 21-17 win against the Bears. By then, Lambeau had won six championships and retired from coaching.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, the new stadium was renamed Lambeau Field.
But back at East High, as dusk and steady snow fell on the Packers' earliest roots, assistant principal Lori Frerk put everything back in perspective. Her grandparents went to school at East, lived a few blocks away and attended Packers games. They likely saw many of the 181 games played against the Bears. 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."
What: NFC championship and the right to go to Super Bowl XLV.
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Line: Packers by 31/2.
Of note: The teams play for the 182nd time in their long history, but it will be the first time they have met for an NFC championship. ... The Bears lead the series, 92-83-6. ... Their only other postseason meeting was Dec. 14, 1941, in Wrigley Field, but it wasn't for a championship. ... Tickets on the re-sale market were averaging $1,018, according to FanSnap.com.
First Published January 21, 2011 12:00 am