CHICAGO -- On the schedule, it was just another game. The 164th meeting between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, to be exact. But the night before, in the Packers' team hotel, safety Matt Bowen struggled to sleep.
He had grown up in suburban Chicago on a steady diet of Ditka and defense yet found himself a few hours from taking the field as one of his boyhood villains: a starting member of the Green Bay Packers. As roommate Aaron Kampman snored in the bed next to him, Bowen tossed and turned. And somewhere around 3 a.m., the unthinkable happened.
"It isn't something I've told a lot of people," Bowen said.
When the Bears and Packers meet this Sunday for the NFC championship, they will play for the 182nd time. No NFL teams have ever traded helmet paint more than these two. Theirs is a rivalry built on a winning tradition: 21 NFL championships, 47 Pro Football Hall of Famers. The names from the past are all capable of standing on their own.
Halas. Lombardi. Butkus. Nitschke. Payton. Favre.
It started in 1921 with a 20-0 Bears victory and a John Taylor punch that broke the nose of Packers tackle Howard Buck. And it will continue Sunday with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line. To put into context what it all means, to understand what makes this different from Yankees-Red Sox, Michigan-Ohio State or Alabama-Auburn, you have to hear the stories. Stories from people like Bowen, who still can't believe how he ended up outside the team hotel wearing just a towel that night in 2002. Or from announcer Wayne Larrivee, whose voice was the soundtrack for 14 Bears seasons -- including the famed '85 campaign -- but now spreads the Packers gospel through Wisconsin. You have to understand the role war played the only other time these two teams met in the postseason, in 1941, and visit places like The Brat Stop, the hole-in-the-wall tourist trap five miles from the Illinois-Wisconsin border that features an 8-foot bear hanging in effigy above the main entrance. These are the people, the places and the stories that make this rivalry what it is: one of the best in all of sports.
The Green Bay Bear
Jim Flanigan never had a choice. Born in Green Bay the son of the Packers linebacker by the same name, he spent much of his youth running around Lambeau in his dad's green and yellow No. 55 Packers jersey.
But after an All-American career at Notre Dame, Flanigan's life forever changed when the Bears selected the defensive tackle in the third round of the 1994 NFL draft. As soon as he arrived in Chicago, the questions began -- from coaches, teammates, the media, everyone.
"It came up constantly," he said. "That's all people wanted to talk about. What did my family think? Was I ostracized back home? Did anybody stop talking to me? It was a big deal. And of course anytime I went home, I took a lot of crap. Sometimes I'd go home in disguise."
It was made worse when Flanigan gave an interview in his second year and told the Chicago media, "I hate the Packers." The quote became the headline, and Flanigan single-handedly personified the rivalry -- loved in Chicago, hated in his home state.
"The rivalry just sort of brings that out in you," he said. "It becomes an emotional, personal battle out there. Especially in the trenches. And there were guys on that team at that point that I actually hated."
The Bears struggled through much of the 1990s, and Flanigan lost his first 10 games against Green Bay. But on Nov. 7, 1999, six days after Walter Payton died, Bryan Robinson's blocked field goal attempt as time expired preserved a 14-13 Bears win at Lambeau.
"It was as emotional of an NFL game as I've ever played in," Flanigan said. "I don't remember much of what my coaches said during my career, but I can still hear [defensive coordinator] Greg Blache, the night before the game, talking about not knowing when your last moment is going to be, how long life is going to last. Guys were getting choked up, wiping away tears. And then we went out there and played a heck of a game and did something nobody thought we could do."
Flanigan played one more season with the Bears before signing with the Packers in 2001. Although his private investment firm is based in Chicago, he lives in Green Bay with his wife and three children and commutes to the city a few times a month. The Flanigans will be cheering for the Packers on Sunday.
"You can't live here without being a Packer fan," he said. "It's part of the culture. I follow the Bears and I hope they do well, but I'm more excited about the Packers."
As a boy growing up in western Massachusetts, Wayne Larrivee carried a piece of the Packers with him to school each day on the side of his lunch box. There, a picture of Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor lured him into cheering for the green and gold.
"I loved it," Larrivee said. "I thought the 'G' was really cool. Jim looked so strong and powerful. And it just so happened they were winning championships under Lombardi at the time. The Packers became this mystical part of my childhood."
So in 1998, when the organization approached the announcer about replacing the retiring Jim Irwin and becoming the voice of the Packers, it was a dream come true. But there was one problem. Larrivee was the play-by-play man for the Bears and had been so for the previous 14 seasons. His voice had become synonymous with Walter Payton touchdowns and Richard Dent quarterback sacks. And even though he wouldn't have a problem getting excited about a Brett Favre touchdown pass, how would the rest of the world react?
"It was pretty difficult," Larrivee said. "People in Chicago got mad. They took it as if I was insulting them and the Bears by picking the Packers. And the people in Wisconsin wanted no part of the Bears voice calling Packer games. Even people in broadcasting looked at me like, 'What are you doing? Are you nuts?'"
The transition took time. And even now, 12 years later, Larrivee admits he had no idea what he was getting into.
"From my standpoint, of course I was going to do the Packers," said Larrivee, 55. "I figured I'm just an announcer, who cares? I didn't realize how your voice becomes embedded as part of the fabric to those people. And looking back, if I would have gotten it, if I would have understood how difficult it would have been on both sides, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to make the change."
On Sunday, Larrivee will sit in the press box high above Soldier Field and broadcast the NFC Championship Game to Packers fans across the globe. He is the only person ever to work as the play-by-play man for both teams.
"It's been the highlight of my career to be part of both the Packers and the Bears franchises," he said. "You have two amazing fan bases. And they're so very similar. Both extremely passionate and knowledgeable. What happens in the game makes or breaks their week. And they are hard on their teams. The Packers come home after a win and all the talk is why [coach Mike] McCarthy did this or did that. And in Chicago, I think the last people to take the Bears seriously this year were actual Bears fans.
"This game? This is what we all were waiting for and hoping for. You can go back 50 years and count on one hand the number of seasons both teams were good and the games actually meant something. I can't wait for Sunday. It's what great football is all about."
A deeper meaning
At 84 years old, World War II veteran Gene Rezabeck admits that his memories grow fuzzier by the day. But the die-hard Bears fan still remembers the last time the Bears and Packers met in the postseason -- a 1941 clash that served a greater social significance than the outcome on the field.
The Bears and Packers split the season series that year and finished tied atop the Western Division at 10-1. Thus, the two teams met in the NFL's first-ever playoff to determine who would face Central Division champion New York for the NFL championship.
But Rezabeck, then a 15-year-old kid from Berwyn, Ill., remembers the game for something altogether different -- it took place one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and provided a much-needed diversion during a challenging time in the country.
"Everyone was in such a sobering mood," Rezabeck said. "There was the initial shock and then this sense of disbelief, very much like 9/11. But football -- and, more specifically here in Chicago, the Bears -- helped bring people back together. It was important in solidifying the unity of the country behind our effort to go to war, get rid of our enemies and move on to greater pastures."
The Bears beat the Packers 33-14 that day and the following week beat New York 37-9 for their second straight NFL championship. When the season ended and the U.S. entered World War II, many NFL players enlisted in the military, including Bears running back Norm Standlee, who scored two touchdowns against the Packers that day; George McAfee, who rushed for 119 yards against Green Bay; and Packers guard Howard "Smiley" Johnson, who was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Johnson is the only former Packer to die defending his country. Bears coach George Halas joined the Navy halfway through the 1942 season and spent three years in the South Pacific, as well.
And then there's Rezabeck, who, on his 18th birthday, motivated by what happened in Pearl Harbor, joined the Navy and spent two years in the Pacific Islands. This Sunday, Rezabeck will cheer on his Bears with friends and other World War II veterans at the Belmont Village Senior Living Center in Carol Stream, Ill.
"If the Bears can't beat 'em, I hope the Packers go all the way," Rezabeck said. "But on Sunday, I want nothing more for the Packers to lose. That's our rival."
A fine line
The line itself is impossible to find. It doesn't even exist, actually. But if there were an official divider between the Bears Den and Packer Country, it likely would run alongside Highway 50 in Kenosha, Wis., and end inside the cheese shop at the famed Brat Stop restaurant.
Here, 99 types of cheese are for sale, everything from Muenster to Monterey Jack. Most of it is from Wisconsin. And the preferred snack upon which to spread your cheese is, of course, a piece of Chicago flatbread.
"We try to please everyone," owner Gerry Rasmussen says.
With his restaurant a mere five miles from the state line and just a football toss from Interstate 94, the main connector between Chicago and Wisconsin, Rasmussen has no choice. After all, this is a town in which the local newspaper every day this week featured a full-page picture of a Packer and a Bear.
Rasmussen opened this glorified roadhouse 50 years ago, and even though a fire forced him to rebuild in the 1980s, not much has changed. Five bucks gets you a Wisconsin bratwurst served in a plastic basket with a bag of chips. Carpeted and/or wood-paneled walls and Bon Jovi tunes are included at no charge.
On any given day, the customers at the Brat Stop range from truck drivers to businessmen in suits and ties. Rasmussen says the majority of his customers are Bears fans traveling to and from Chicago. A random sampling of lunchtime customers one day this week revealed 19 people who planned to cheer for the Bears this weekend and 12 who supported the Packers. Everyone had an opinion.
Rasmussen himself loves the Packers, which -- despite his politicianlike "please everyone" mantra -- is obvious, given the umpteen Packers signs on the wall and the plastic 8-foot Chicago Bear hanging in effigy above the main entrance. Next to the brats, the Bear seems to be the star of the place.
"I bought that up at a grocery store in Stevens Point for $200," Rasmussen says. "The rope I think I had laying around. It's just for fun. The Bears fans know I'm just messing around."
At some point Sunday afternoon, lights will flash, sirens will blare and foghorns will blast when a touchdown is scored. By either team. For Rasmussen, the NFC championship matchup is truly a dream come true. Because no matter what happens, he'll have a team in the Super Bowl.
"The way I look at it," he says. "I can't lose."
The near-naked truth
When he tells the story now, some eight years later, Matt Bowen doesn't even flinch. Yet there he was eight years ago, a member of the Packers on the eve of his first start against his hometown Bears, tossing and turning at the Packers' team hotel in Champaign, Ill.
He had signed with the Packers the year before. The moment he put on the green and yellow for the first time, everything changed.
"As soon as I got there, I wanted the Bears to lose so bad," Bowen said. "I don't know what it was. But you put on that helmet, you put on that jersey and you just transform. I wanted to win and I wanted to see the Bears lose every week."
Bowen played against the Bears once in his first season with the Packers, but that was in Green Bay. And that was as a backup. Although the 2002 game wasn't played at Soldier Field, which was undergoing renovations at the time, it was still in Illinois. At the stadium the Bears were temporarily calling home. The stands would be filled with people he grew up with. He was starting. And it was "Monday Night Football" -- the entire football nation would be watching.
"I was so, so, so excited," Bowen said. "I can't even put it into words how much that game meant to me."
It meant so much that, when Bowen rolled over at some point around 3 a.m., he realized his sheets were soaking wet.
"I had completely pissed my bed like a 2-year-old," he said. "And then I started thinking, 'Now what the hell am I going to do?'"
He didn't want to wake Kampman, his roommate. So Bowen quietly stripped his bed, wrapped the sheets in a towel and bundled them up. Then, with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist, he quickly headed outside to throw the sheets in the hotel trash bin so no one would find out what had happened. But there was a problem: The door locked behind him.
"And of course I didn't have my key," Bowen said. "So I walked into the front entrance -- with this shaved head, wearing just a towel -- and tried to tell them that I was Matt Bowen. I played for the Packers."
But no one believed him. For about 10 minutes, Bowen and the overnight front desk clerk went back and forth, with the strong safety reciting his Social Security number, Kampman's name, anything he could think of to get back in his room before someone spotted him half-naked in the hotel lobby. Eventually, the clerk believed Bowen and let him back into his room, where he flipped his mattress over and went back to sleep.
"The next morning, Kampman is like, 'What happened to your sheets?'" Bowen said. "I didn't know what to say. I made something up that I spilled coffee or whatever. I don't think he believed me."
The Packers beat the Bears 34-21 that night thanks to a 300-yard, three-touchdown performance from Favre. Bowen said he had a few key pass breakups in the game but mostly remembers a pass-interference call that went against him in the end zone.
"I've never been more excited about winning a game in my life," he said. "I just wanted to win so bad. And as far as what happened the night before, the bottom line is that's how passionate I was about that game. I couldn't wait to get on that field and play in that game against my hometown team."
Since retiring in 2006 after a seven-year NFL career, Bowen returned to Chicago, where he earned his master's degree and helped launch The National Football Post. He also writes from a player's perspective for the Chicago Tribune. But on Sunday, his heart will lie with the Packers.
"I'm kind of split on the two teams. I really am," he said. "But more of my allegiance goes to Green Bay because I wore that helmet. I was part of that incredible tradition."
Bowen believes Sunday's game is the biggest sporting event in Chicago since Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Cubs and Florida Marlins. As for a prediction, Bowen believes the Bears will prevail 23-17, based on their superior special teams as well as their ability to stop the run and force the Green Bay offense to be one-dimensional.
"It's tough," he said. "My heart will be pulling for the Packers, but my head tells me it's going to be the Bears. I guess we'll see."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.