Bears' rugged style mirrors city
CHICAGO — In a city divided by North Side and South Side, Cubs and White Sox, there is one team that has united Chicago for decades: The Bears.
From founder George Halas to present-day coach Lovie Smith, the Bears have reflected what many Chicagoans think of their city and themselves, a tough relentless bunch confronting the elements and their opponents.
The Bears matter to Chicago just like the Packers matter to Green Bay and Wisconsin.
That's why today's NFC Championship Game is so fascinating. A trip to the Super Bowl is at stake. So, too, are bragging rights in the Upper Midwest, between two places where professional football took root and thrived.
And yes, a sense of identity also is thrown into the emotional mix triggered by a big game.
"We're proud to be a unifying force in the city. Baseball divides Chicago, but the Bears unite the city," said George McCaskey, vice chairman of the Chicago Bears and grandson of the team's founder.
The modern-day Bears players know just how important the team is to the city. They hear the cheers every Sunday and the constant talk on radio.
And when they enter Halas Hall at the team's training base in Lake Forest, they can see for themselves that they are part of a team's singular history. In display cases are wool jerseys, battered helmets, including one in leather, and the trusty fedora worn by Halas, a reminder of a time when pro football coaches prowled the sidelines while dressed in their Sunday best.
"Everywhere you go in Chicago, they talk Chicago Bears football," safety Chris Harris said. "Michael Jordan won six championships here (with basketball's Bulls). But all they talk about is the 1985 Bears," the last Bears team to win the Super Bowl.
The team and the sport have come a long way since Halas organized a semi-pro outfit known as the Decatur Staleys.
Halas was there in 1920 in that Canton, Ohio, showroom, at the birth of the American Professional Football Association, forerunner of the NFL.
"There weren't enough chairs for all of us," Halas once said. "Autos in those days had running boards, you know. So we all sat around on the running boards and in something like 10 minutes we organized the league and elected Jim Thorpe president."
For decades, Wrigley Field was the team's home, an intimate venue to witness a rugged game.
"People said that sitting in the upper deck they could hear Bill Wade barking out the signals at the line of scrimmage," McCaskey said. "When the ball was punted they could hear the thump of the punter's foot on the ball."
The Bears owned the city. They brought championships here, too, the last one under Halas in 1963 and another one in the Super Bowl to cap the run of the 1985 Bears.
"The Cardinals were here through 1959, but they were pretty forgettable," said Steve Riess, a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University. "There was no college team in town. No offense to Northwestern."
Riess said the Bears "represent how Chicagoans see themselves. Chicago was the city of big shoulders, rough, tough guys."
The Bears also played a style of football that suited the city — a rugged, grind-it-out offense and a staunch defense that matched a nickname, "Monsters of the Midway."
And throughout the history, the Bears had a great rival, the Packers.
McCaskey said his grandfather, "Papa Bear" Halas, was truly competitive with the Packers. He said the attitude could be expressed like this: "All wins are satisfying, but wins over the Packers are that much more satisfying. And all losses are disappointing, but losses to the Packers are that much more disappointing."
McCaskey said he recently heard a story from Bruce Allen, general manager of the Washington Redskins and the son of the late Hall of Fame coach George Allen, who was once part of Halas' staff in Chicago.
McCaskey said the two Georges, Halas and Allen, were in the front seat of a car riding down to training camp in Indiana. In the back seat, the younger Allen sat and listened as the two men got into an "animated and profane conversation."
"Bruce said at one point Coach Halas turned around and said, 'Listen young man, you don't repeat this conversation. You don't repeat those bad words. If you want to call someone a bad name, you call him a Packer.' "
Yet Halas helped rally support in 1956 in Green Bay for the building of a new football stadium.
The Bears of Halas and the Packers of Vince Lombardi have given way to new generations of coaches, players and fans.
"I think the players have a lot of respect for each other," McCaskey said. "The organizations certainly have a lot of respect for each other. . . .
"They say that the fans get into it more than the players. But the players, I think especially for divisional games, know to ramp it up a little bit. How could you have a better situation than this• The greatest rivalry in the NFL, in my opinion, maybe the best rivalry in American professional sports and the winner gets to go to the Super Bowl. How could you write a better script?"