It was fifteen years ago this season that the Instant Replay game made history.
For a insider's memoir of this game, check out Don Majkowski's tale from the best seat in the house - the huddle. In the meantime, I offer my memories from my seat in section 13, row 24:
I grew up in Green Bay where if the Packers lost to the Bears, we could commiserate with family, friends and neighbors. Cable didn't make it to our little town until the early '80s, and sports on the internet was still science fiction. It was easy to avoid anyone who might - gasp - be rooting for the Bears.
Then I went to college and found out I wasn't in Titletown anymore. Leaving the GB city limits for Marquette University in Milwaukee where I found Chicago-area sports fans to be very vocal and very annoying reality. The Bears won the Super Bowl when I was a senior, and their dominance of the Packers continued up to their date in Green Bay on Nov. 5, 1989.
Chicago rode an 8-game win streak against the Packers into town. The '89 Bears still boasted names like Matt Suhey and Dennis McKinnon from their championship year -- plus Da Coach of course, while Green Bay and second-year coach Lindy Infante brought in a starting lineup of Perry Kemp, Brent Fullwood and Don Majkowski.
Intensifying the usual festive football atmosphere were a couple factors. First, the Packers trailed the Bears by just one game in the NFC Central at the half-way point. Second, we were accompanied by four close friends from Chicago who scalped tickets in order to make their first pilgrimage to Lambeau Field. We showed them the real way to tailgate with brats in the Lambeau lot, then sent them on their way into the upper reaches of the stadium. One of the Chicago contingent braved the crowds despite being nearly 9 months pregnant. Such is the power of the Packers and Bears.
The stats certainly don't add up to a classic. Fullwood was the Packers' leading rusher with a paltry 38 yards. Perry Kemp led the team with four catches. It was Majkowski who had a day to remember, going 23-for-40 for 299 yards.
Of those 299 yards, 14 of them made history.
Majkowski had spread his passes around, finding 10 different receivers. His 24-yard TD pass to tight end Clint Didier opened scoring. After that opening score, the Packers hit a drought that found them down 13-7 late in the game. Part of the problem was that star receiver Sterling Sharpe had only one catch for 5 yards entering the game's final minutes.
It all came down to the final drive. Majkowski took the Packers as far as the Chicago 7, but then fumbled after a wallop by Bears linebacker John Roper. Blair Bush saved the ball and the game by recovering the fumble back at the 14. Now Green Bay faced fourth and goal :32 left on the clock. Under pressure, Majkowski scrambled for what seemed like an eternity while receivers struggled to get free in the end zone. Finally "Majik" let loose a last-gasp pass. Sharpe broke free at the same instant, wide open in the middle of the end zone. In a blink of an eye, the atmosphere went from desperate to delirium as the pass zipped into Sharpe's sure hands.
"I was waving my arms and I was hoping that Don saw me," Sharpe recalled in Steve Cameron's book ‘The Packers!' "I was just praying that no one was behind me. Don saw me at the last minute and threw a strike. Touchdown."
I have been in Lambeau Field more than 100 times. Better times and bigger games have come and gone, but the sound of the crowd at that moment stands out as one of the most intense moments I've ever experienced. Equally unforgettable is the dramatic swing of the emotional pendulum as the reality of the yellow flag hit – hard.
My first thought was "holding." Anytime the quarterback scrambles that long and that desperately, it's a good possibility. Whether or not it's called is usually the issue.
Instead, the flag was thrown because Majkowski was thought to have crossed the line of scrimmage. That would be an illegal forward pass which carries a slim 5-yard penalty and – in this case fatal – loss of down.
Maybe the spirit of the south end zone get the credit, or maybe the officiating crew on the field or up in the booth experienced a rare moment of self doubt. In any case, a review was called for by official Bill Parkinson asking line judge Jim Quirk to review his call.
It took forever. The late-autumn sky darkened and mist began to fall. Fans were angry, nervous, confused. A few fights broke out , the teams milled around, Ditka admitted to turning to prayer. I just looked up at the gray sky, looking for a little divine intervention myself.
When referee Tom Dooley walked to the center of Lambeau Field, it was as tense a moment as I've spent there in well over 100 visits. In the seconds before the announcement, we tried to read his mood, his movements. His solemnity led me to believe the news was bad.
"After further review, we have a reversal…."
No one heard the rest. If they say they did, don't believe them. Even before Dooley's arms signaled touchdown, a thunder erupted from Lambeau that just wouldn't stop. The roar swallowed Chris Jacke's decisive extra point, drowned out Ditka's protests and lasted all the way through the Bears' forgotten final drive.
The only thing that lasted longer than the ovation was Ditka's tantrum. He insisted that the game be marked with an asterisk in the Bears' media guide and labeled as the "Instant Replay Game" for the official record. That designation lasted through 1992, as did Ditka in Chicago.
Other after-effects will live on in my own memory. It seemed that no one wanted to leave the Lambeau Field parking lot, no one wearing Green and Gold, anyway. With the charcoal remnants smoldering in the cement containers, the continued mist in the air and the echoing of fans continuing to shout and cheer, one Chicago DJ likened the Lambeau atmosphere to a scene out of Mad Max. He was right – and it was great.
Our Chicago friends didn't share my opinion. Plans for me to show them around my beloved hometown were cancelled, as suddenly decided they'd better home. But if they want to forget this game, they are out of luck. A baby boy – Nicholas Szynal – was born one week later in Chicago, Ill. to two native Chicagoans. Fifteen years later, he still lives in Bear country - and is a die-hard Packer fan.