No other professional football rivalry can match the nostalgia, history and competitiveness displayed in the Packers and Bears series since 1921.
However, in prep circles two teams can boast that their matchups were bigger and better: Green Bay East and West high schools first met in 1905 (see picture below) and have tangled every year since 1907, often drawing larger crowds than their National Football League counterparts.
East's Red Devils and West's Wildcats—whose nicknames were Hilltoppers and the Purple, respectively, in bygone days—drew an estimated 10,000 spectators as early as 1927 and played in front of a record 15,071 fans in 1954.
The teams will meet for the 103rd time Friday night. West has fallen on tough times of late, not having won this contest since halfback Bill Denruyter rushed for 173 yards in a 30-13 triumph in 1997. East's 10-game winning streak has given it a 52-47-3 series advantage.
Some of the sport's legendary figures have suited up in this rivalry, including Earl "Curly" Lambeau, who later played for and coached the Packers; Jim Crowley, who became one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame backfield under Knute Rockne; and Arnie Herber, who along with Don Hutson became the NFL's most feared passing combination from 1935-40.
And in 1966-67, a quarterback named Jerry Tagge led West to impressive wins before he and others went to Nebraska and helped the Cornhuskers win the Game of the Century against Oklahoma in 1971 en route to the national championship.
The East-West showdowns often determined the Fox River Valley Conference title. But whereas they were the talk of the town for most of the 20th century, the addition of several more schools coupled with changing populations and demographics has eliminated some of the magic surrounding the game of the year.
However, activities commemorating the 100th anniversary in 2005 have rekindled some of that spirit. Still, the annual tussle always has created heroes. And many of those magical moments have become legendary, especially when old-timers gather for coffee or a round of golf.
Mike Van Boxel has witnessed the intensity and passion of this series as a player and coach at West, enjoying happy times and enduring disappointing ones. Through it all, he said the rivalry elicits myriad emotions no matter what the standings say.
"I remember being 5 or 6 years old and my dad taking me to watch East's games at City Stadium, and I'm glad I got to witness all of that," said Van Boxel, who became a national champion wrestler at Ripon College after playing for the Wildcats in 1969-70. "I was one of six boys who played in the series, and we had a bunch of cousins who played at East. One of them, Bernie, was there in the late 50s. I've run into some of his cohorts and sitting down for a couple of beers and them talking about how Bernie was the ultimate football player and tough guy."
Those kinds of stories dominate this rivalry, and Van Boxel recalls being involved in one during his finale against the Red Devils—at least this is his version.
"I was a defensive back and I remember one play in particular when Randy Rose, who's one of my best friends now but played wide receiver at East. Well, he came across the middle and about took his head off. I believe as Randy tells it, that one of the bolts holding his chinstrap came off. He went over to the sideline and Coach (Gene) Bray asked him what he was doing and his helmet was turned to the side, so he had to sit out a couple of plays."
Dave Mason recalls those days fondly. He was in the same backfield with Tagge, Jim Anderson and Dennis Gutzman, all of whom received scholarships to Nebraska. He said the East-West series was competitive on and off the field.
"It was a tough rivalry," said Mason, a Green Bay dentist who also joined Tagge for one season with the Packers. "In the off-season we developed friendships with some of the East players, but when it was game time, they were those ‘dirty rascals.' "
"We hadn't done floats before, but when we were seniors we had a large wildcat on a flatbed truck for homecoming, but needless to say he met his demise," Mason said. "That's when we played at Lambeau, and they decided that we wouldn't schedule each other for homecoming games anymore."
Those kinds of shenanigans have occurred throughout the game's history, but Mason and Van Boxel said they don't tarnish what the rivalry has meant.
"It may have lost some of the intensity or shine for those say age 40 and younger, some who think West vs. Southwest is bigger," Mason said. "But for those 40 and older, they know what the essence of East against West was like. It's like with the Packers, some might think the Vikings are the big rival, but the time-tested rivalry is the Packers and the Bears. East vs. West has that same history … it's the granddaddy of them all."
Van Boxel agreed wholeheartedly.
"We talk about when we played, but you have to remember the guys who paved the way and made the rivalry what it has become," Van Boxel said. "That's why I'm glad we rekindled some of that starting with the 100th anniversary game. We get together at a local pub afterwards. But our memories are nothing without the guys who came before us, and I think there's no greater tribute."
One of those pioneers was Herman Reckelberg, a standout athlete at East in 1944-45. He's currently a board member emeritus with the Packers and is treasurer for the team's Hall of Fame.
Reckelberg was one of the city's best all-around athletes, going on to play professional baseball in the Phillies and Indians organizations before participating in semipro baseball, football and basketball.
However, he still treasures his years as the quarterback at East High and battling it out against West.
"In the years I was there, East and West joined for baseball, so we had lot of good fun and became friends," Reckelberg said. "But in football, it was competitive once we got on the field. I know as a junior, we beat 'em. But in '45, we got our pants beat. Gene Evans (of West) always talked about his interception near the goal line and returning it for a touchdown (98 yards)."
Although skirmishes between supporters from opposite sides of the river—often at the Walnut Street bridge--have occurred before and since Reckelberg's days, he said nothing took place like what happened in 1942.
The ugly, three-hour situation featured about 500 students blocking streets, starting bonfires and destroying property, prompting police to disperse the crowd with streams of water from a fire truck.
"We had pep rallies, but most of us acted like we knew how to behave," Reckelberg said. "Those of us on the team didn't participate in most of the other activities. We just played football. I thought it was a big rivalry because even when you were the underdog you could win, and if you thought you had it in the bag, that's when the other guys beat the trousers off ya.
"I always enjoyed it because in our day East-West was a big deal," Reckelberg added. "I don't know what players or coaches would say today if you asked them, but I would hope they'd think it's still a good rivalry."