With the annual deer hunt wrapping up at sunset this evening, Wisconsinites will be settling in for some football, and the timing couldn’t be better. Less than three hours after the end of the hunt, the Green Bay Packers take on the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Even though the teams are 10 games into their season already, it’s their first meeting of the year, with another one coming up pretty quickly on January 3 in Chicago to close out the campaign.
Ironically enough, just two days ago was the 99th anniversary of the very first game between the two teams, making it the National Football League’s oldest rivalry. On November 27, 1921, the Packers went down to Chicago and lost, 20-0. The Bears were then known as the Staleys, named after the team’s first owner, A.E. Staley, who owned a food starch company based in nearby Decatur. The year before, Staley hired a young man named George Halas to coach the team, then moved it to Chicago for the ’21 season. Halas bought the team from Staley for $100 and renamed it the Bears a year later. Meanwhile, up in Green Bay, Earl “Curly” Lambeau had started a team with financial backing from the Indian Packing Company, which gave him $500 for uniforms and equipment with the condition that the team be known as the Packers. In 1921, both teams entered the new American Professional Football Association, which changed its name to the National Football League a year later. Starting with that 1921 game, the teams would play every year, usually twice, through the 1981 season. The strike-shortened ’82 campaign wiped out both games, but they resumed in ’83 and have played twice a year ever since, with a third meeting added at the end of the 2010 season with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
When the teams meet tonight, it will be for the 201st time. The Packers lead the all-time series, 99-95, with six games ending in ties. Since that very first season, the teams have combined to win 22 NFL titles (more than one of every five) and five Super Bowls, and have 65 members in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including two of the game’s most legendary coaches, Vince Lombardi and George Halas.
When it comes to football, the NFL gets the most attention, but college rivalries can be even more intense, and many of them have lasted much longer than Packers-Bears. One of those, however, is in serious danger of being halted this year.
The battle for the Axe.
When you’re talking college football up here, you’re almost always talking about the Wisconsin Badgers. The state’s sole Division I football program has produced a long history that has included many memorable games and players, and some fierce rivalries. None of them tops the one with neighboring Minnesota, though. Almost every year since 1890, the two schools have sent their football teams against each other, making it the longest and most-played rivalry in Division I’s Football Bowl Subdivision, which is the highest tier of the NCAA’s four levels of football competition. The only exception was 1906, but it might happen again this year. The coronavirus pandemic caused the Big 10 to go through massive (and unnecessary) twists and turns back in August as the league grappled with the decision of whether or not to even play this season, and if it did, how many games should each team be allowed to schedule? Normally, Big 10 schools each have 12 games in the regular season. The winners of the league’s two divisions then would meet in Indianapolis for the conference title on the first Saturday night of December, with both teams, along with several others from the league, being invited to bowl games later in the month and in early January. If the Big 10 champ is invited to the four-team College Football Playoff, there’s the potential for two games, giving that team a 14-game season.
At first, the Big 10 said teams would play a 10-game season, spread out over 12 weeks, leaving two open dates to reschedule games impacted earlier by the virus. Then the league said no, it wouldn’t play at all. That produced outrage among fans and players, threats of legal action and even a phone call from President Trump to the league’s commissioner. Shortly after that, the league announced a shortened, eight-game schedule, to begin the weekend of October 23-24. The title game would be moved back two weeks to December 19, and each team would get to play a “crossover” game that Saturday if it wasn’t in the title game. That would mean most teams would wind up with ten games for the season, including bowls. If, that is, all went according to plan. But, of course, it hasn’t.
The Badgers opened their season at home on October 23 with a 45-7 pounding of Illinois. Less than 24 hours later, several players reportedly tested positive for the virus, including redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who’d had a sensational game against the Illini in his first college start. Wisconsin was forced to cancel its next two games, at Nebraska and at home against Purdue. With everyone off the virus list after two weeks, the Badgers went to Michigan on November 14 and cruised to a 49-11 win. A week later, though, the team played poorly in a 17-7 loss at Northwestern. Meanwhile, the Gophers had managed to play all five of their scheduled games, going 2-3. That set up the clash for Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison, set for yesterday, November 28, which ordinarily would’ve been the final Saturday of the regular season. With a COVID eruption of its own, however, Minnesota opted out of the game, leaving the rivalry streak in jeopardy.
Besides being natural geographic rivals, often competing for recruits from each other’s states, the Badgers-Gophers series features a unique trophy, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The teams have played for possession of it every year since 1948. Previously, the teams had played for the Slab of Bacon, a piece of black walnut wood that was awarded to the winner from 1930-43. Discontinued during World War II, nobody knew what happened to the final Slab, which was refused by the Gophers’ coach, George Hauser, after his team won the ’43 game. Hauser felt it was inappropriate to play for a trophy during the war. It turned up 51 years later in a storage room at UW’s Camp Randall Stadium, and it’s now on display in the school’s football offices. The Axe was instituted in ’48 and by tradition, the team that has it based on the previous year’s game brings it to the next game, keeping the trophy behind its bench. The winning team seizes the Axe and proceeds to carry out a mock “chopping” of each goalpost. This has sometimes led to confrontations; one year, the Gophers refused to let the Badgers chop down both goalposts, but cooler heads prevailed.
Wisconsin’s 14-year run from 2004-17 enabled the Badgers to finally overhaul the Gophers in the series, and it currently stands 61-60 for UW, with eight ties. But the cancellation of the November 28 game puts the series’ continuation in doubt, at least for this year. There’s a possibility the Big Ten might allow the Badgers and Gophers to play on December 19, since neither of the teams will qualify for the league title game that night.
I’ve attended three of the Badger-Gopher games and the rivalry is especially intense when it’s experienced in person. Sue and I went to a pair of games in Minneapolis in the days when the Gophers played at the Metrodome, and two years ago I was in Madison along with my son Jim and cousin Wally Hemple, watching in disbelief as the Badgers were thoroughly outplayed in the game that ended their long winning streak. It was said that after that game, the Gophers rubbed it in by filling the locker room with Axe body spray before they left on their triumphant bus ride home.
I hope they are allowed to play on December 19. The Badgers looked at 2020 as a year when they might actually compete for a first-ever berth in the College Football Playoff, while the Gophers were looking to build on a successful 2019 season that ended with a win over 12th-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl to finish 11-2. Neither team will achieve the heights they sought in 2020, but at least playing for the Axe would be something.
I had my rivalry series, too.
High school teams can have pretty intense rivalries. During my days at Potosi High, down in the southwest corner of the state, our natural geographic rival was Cassville, about 15 miles along the Mississippi River from us. But we actually had a more emotional rivalry with another team in our league, Bloomington, and only then because they had whipped us pretty handily on the football field and basketball court for years. We finally turned that around during my senior year. The football team ended a years-long losing streak against the Bluejays by winning by something like 33-18 on our field, and in basketball we triumphed, 59-48, on their floor late in the season, ending their six-year home-court winning streak. I watched the football game from the sidelines as an excited spectator, but in the basketball game I was right in the middle of the action, finishing with 18 points. The emotion in the locker room was like nothing I’ve felt, before or since. It was the school’s first varsity basketball win against them in something like five years, and more often than not the games had been lopsided in their favor. Not that night, though.
That rivalry is gone now. In 1995, Bloomington merged with its smaller neighboring district, West Grant, to form the River Ridge district. The floor where we played that epic game in ’75 is now home to the junior high team; the high school teams play in what was the West Grant gym (where I also played, with somewhat less success). As for renewing the Cassville rivalry, that’s out, too; the schools now have co-op teams in many sports, including football and baseball. But perhaps today’s PHS athletes now have their own rivalries, maybe even with the River Ridge Timberwolves.
Although feelings might be intense when the game is underway, hopefully those feelings turn more toward brotherhood as the years go by. I remember meeting several former opponents during my college days at UW-Platteville, and even though our athletic battles were only a few years in the past, we were still able to share good memories of games won and lost. Certainly the surviving members of Lombardi’s Packers and Halas’ Bears from their great clashes in the sixties can raise a glass together when they see each other these days. After the final whistle tonight, this year’s Packers and Bears will mingle on the field, congratulating each other and issuing good-natured challenges for the next game. And that’s how it should be. Back in my day, when my Chieftains wore maroon and the Bluejays were in blue (and they had very plain uniforms, by the way, not nearly as stylish as ours–just saying), there was sportsmanship on display after the games, too–I think there was, anyway. I haven’t run into any of those Bloomington players for a long time, but hopefully one day I will…and I might just bring up that basketball game in 1975.