Giants-Bears goes from classic rivalry to just another game

Honestly, it looks like a misprint: The Chicago Bears and New York Giants have played 59 times in their history, playoffs included. Fifty-nine? There was a time when it seemed they had a shared foot in every big moment the NFL produced.

Big Blue and the Monsters of the Midway?

Fifty-nine times?

“The Bears and the Giants brings to mind some powerful images, doesn’t it?” Wellington Mara asked me, maybe two years before he died. “The players: Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski, Frank Gifford and Rosey Brown. The weather: It always seemed like we played on cold and gray days. The stadiums: the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium for us, Wrigley Field and Soldier Field for them.”

Mara smiled then.

“And the stakes,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “there was always something important at hand, you know?”

Sunday, of course, the Giants and the Bears will meet at Soldier Field, and it will be an encounter featuring two of the most dysfunctional franchises in the sport. Both teams are reeling. The Bears, 12-4 a year ago, still haven’t recovered from gift-wrapping a playoff game to the Eagles last year, and their franchise quarterback’s confidence level is in the dust.

Charley Conerley (right) and Frank Gifford celebrate after their 1956 title victory over the Bears.
Charley Conerley (right) and Frank Gifford celebrate after their 1956 title victory over the Bears.AP

And the Giants? Well. You know.

“They’re battling through their season like we are,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said last week. “It’s time for us to go out and get a victory. We have to do the things necessary to do that. It starts with practicing the right way and then certainly by playing the right way.”

He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t dissolve the melancholy of a Giants-Bears game, played at Soldier Field at 1 o’clock on a Sunday in late November that is meaningful only for pride. It is a pairing that evokes so much more than that.

It was the Bears, after all, who helped prove nearly a century ago that professional football was a viable risk in New York City, that the $500 Tim Mara had laid out for the Giants was perhaps the greatest futures bet ever secured.

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The Giants were foundering and $50,000 in the red. Tim Mara was trying to unload the team but couldn’t find a sucker to do it. Then, on Dec. 6, 1925, Red Grange and the Bears came to town. Grange had been the most famous football player of all as a collegian at Illinois, had picked the Bears over the Giants because the Bears gave him a financial stake in every game they played. Grange played well for the Bears that day, capped by a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The Giants drew 70,000 to the Polo Grounds that day, including such interested observers as Gov. Al Smith and Babe Ruth, and the Giants took in a franchise-saving $143,000 gate. Grange’s cut was $30,000 for 60 minutes work (about $441,000 in current dollars).

And that was just the start. There were two NFL title games the Giants won by opting for sneakers instead of spikes on slick surfaces. There was the 1963 title game at Wrigley Field, Papa Bear Halas insisting on holding it there instead of Soldier Field despite the fact they could’ve sold 50,000 more tickets (and, also, Wrigley Field’s end zones were cut off at the corners). There were the mid-’80s, when the teams traded off years being the league’s most ferocious and intimidating teams.

It will be important to remember those roots Sunday, when this version of the Bears hosts this version of the Giants. There was a time, and not too long ago, when Bears-Giants, among almost any game the Giants would play, would command its own TV slot. Instead, it’ll share 1 p.m. in the New York market with Jets-Raiders.

Just another game now.

But there was a time …

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