Doug Buffone had not put on a Bears helmet for the first time when he learned what it was like to play the Packers.
As a kid from the hills of western Pennsylvania who had played at Louisville, he had no idea what more than four decades of Bears-Packers battles had produced when he arrived to play in the 1966 College All-Star Game before heading to training camp as the Bears’ fourth-round pick. It so happened the college kids were playing the defending NFL champion Packers.
“It’s an all-star game and they came out to pounce our ass,” Buffone said. “I remember what Jimmy Taylor’s first words were: ‘You guys didn’t come up here to play football, you came up here to count your money.’ I told him as he was screaming at me, ‘Look, you (jerk), I was drafted by the Bears. There is no money.’
“It turned into a free-for-all. I got into it with Taylor. There was fighting and kicking. It was unbelievable. That’s how I got my first taste of it.”
When Buffone arrived in Rensselaer, Ind., for training camp, his new teammates busted his chops for weeks for losing to the Packers, 38-0. Buffone, who played 14 seasons from 1966 to ’79, played in more games in the rivalry than any Bear. Until 1975, the teams played annually in the preseason Midwest Shrine Game, including a classic in 1971.
“We lost 2-0 in a (bleeping) storm in exhibition season in Milwaukee, and Dick Butkus and I played the whole game,” Buffone said. “Exhibition games were World War III.”
The Bears and Packers meet for the 182nd time (not counting preseason) in the NFC championship game today at Soldier Field. The winner goes to Super Bowl XLV. The loser must deal with the most stinging loss in a series that dates to 1921, one year after the formation of the NFL, when John “Tarzan” Taylor of the Chicago Staleys reportedly sucker-punched Cub Buck of the Packers.
Cheap shots, championships, Hall of Famers and rich history have followed in the league’s longest-running rivalry, which is filled with colorful anecdotes but has only one previous postseason meeting. That’s what makes this game so special. When Buffone talks about it, he sounds like he’s ready to suit up.
“You’ve got to understand, there’s football games and then there’s Bears-Packers,” said Dave Robinson, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker and member of three Packers championship teams in the 1960s. “You don’t need this game to be the NFC championship game to bring out the best of both teams. All you’ve got to do is know it’s Bears-Packers. That’s it.”
Buffone says “players have softened on the deal maybe a little bit, but fans never have.”
The rivalry was born with George Halas squaring off against Curly Lambeau for three decades. Then Vince Lombardi entered the picture, and as Robinson described, Halas was the only man Lombardi ever called “Coach.” It was Halas who helped a stadium initiative that kept the Packers from leaving Green Bay.
“It’s different cultures,” former Bears safety Gary Fencik said. “You have a small little city versus the big city of Chicago. For me, memories are probably most vivid with Mike Ditka and Forrest Gregg. Both of those coaches dialed up that significance.”
During that era, the Packers’ Charles Martin body-slammed Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, putting him out of commission in 1986. The Packers’ Kenny Stills hit Bears fullback Matt Suhey three seconds after a play ended. But there was never vitriol between the sides.
“There were some really good guys in those Green Bay games,” Fencik said. “It’s such a different experience up in Green Bay, it’s really hard to say you just hated them. There was a lot of respect on both sides.”
Robinson recalled how when the Packers traveled to Chicago, they would have a walk-through at Wrigley Field on Saturdays. Lombardi would put in a dummy play each time, often something exotic, because he told his players Halas and George Allen were spying on them from the buildings across Waveland and Sheffield avenues.
“We put something in to make them stay up at night thinking about,” Robinson said. “To this day, I don’t think Halas spied. It was just something for Vince to throw at us to get us fired up a little bit more.”
Robinson, 69 and retired in Akron, Ohio, feels the buildup for today’s game just like Buffone. He’s on edge too.
“If we were playing for the world championship and playing the Bears, the fact that we were playing the Bears would have been more important than winning the championship,” Robinson said. “That’s how we played.”
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