With the sports world on hold, we present a countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. This is No. 14.
"He's about as inconspicuous as someone wearing a 3XL hunter orange vest at a piano recital."
They are the words of Journal Sentinel reporter Lori Nickel, referring to 337-pound lineman B.J. Raji, who was playing the wildly unlikely role of "spy" during one of the most surprising and memorable moments in the past few decades in Green Bay Packers history.
His job was to watch any Chicago Bears running back headed for a flat. If that happened, he was supposed to drop back away from the line of scrimmage, into coverage like a linebacker, and look for a crossing route. The ball came right to him.
"We were like, 'Oh, he caught it,'" said Packers safety Nick Collins, two weeks away from his own interception return for a touchdown that helped the Packers win Super Bowl XLV. "And then were like, 'Oh! He might SCORE!' That was awesome, a pick-six by a nose tackle."
Raji did score, returning backup quarterback Caleb Hanie's interception 18 yards to give the Packers a 21-7 lead with 6:04 left on Jan. 23, 2011, in the first playoff meeting between the arch-rivals since 1941. And this game came with big stakes, with the winner earning the NFC title and advancing to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay held on for a 21-14 win, the third Packers road win in that postseason. The Packers packed their bags for Dallas and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25, on Feb. 6.
Raji followed up his memorable score with an impromptu dance, punctuating the only Packers points of the second half.
"Always great to see a D-lineman do that; they never get that opportunity," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I was just happy that he made a great play like that and scored. We needed it. Momentum was kind of shifting left and right at that point. We got it back."
"Yeah, I mean you never dream of scoring a touchdown as a nose tackle," said Raji. "Feels like I'm living the dream. Second-year player, first-year starter, a chance to win the Super Bowl. Words can't describe it."
Atypical heroes galore
There was so much about the game that couldn't have been forecast.
Raji also came in on offense and helped block on a touchdown. Aaron Rodgers was indeed a hero — for making a key tackle. Punter Tim Masthay and special teams wizard Jarrett Bush were among the stars. An undrafted rookie cornerback, Sam Shields, made the clinching interception and added another pick and sack. And in the end, a squad that had to fight just to make the playoffs became the first No. 6-seeded NFC team to reach the Super Bowl (and second overall, joining the 2005 Steelers).
"I just had this feeling we were going to pull it off, and I think it's the feeling we've had since the Giants game," said safety Charlie Peprah, referring to the penultimate regular-season game. "Just the confidence that no matter what happens, we're going to win."
It didn't go according to script for the Bears either. Starting quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a knee injury late in the first half, and backup Todd Collins was ineffective after two scoreless series. So the Bears turned to Hanie, a three-year veteran from Colorado State.
Hanie completed 13 of 20 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown but also two interceptions, including the big one to Raji.
"They dropped him off from the backside," Hanie said of Raji's positioning. "I just didn't see him. I came into that window and that's where we decided to go with the read. It was one of those oops kind of things when you don't see a guy and he pops at the last second. So, that's what happened."
The second interception effectively ended the game, when he tried to force a fourth-down pass into coverage that Shields hauled in at the 12-yard line. The Bears had gotten to the Green Bay 29 with 47 seconds left but faced fourth and 5.
"Just a great feeling, with how much chemistry we have in that back end," said Collins. "We just play as one. Very sound. Don't get distracted by anything, we put everything behind us and keep moving. And when you can do that, it means you have a great team and a great secondary. It paid off."
Hanie had rallied the Bears into position after the Raji touchdown by orchestrating a quick touchdown drive, capped by a 35-yard pass to Earl Bennett. The Packers went three-and-out, but Masthay made Chicago's last drive as complicated as possible with a 58-yard boot. Devin Hester caught it near the sideline and returned it for 11 yards and the Bears started on their own 29.
Masthay and coverage-unit leader Bush kept the dangerous Hester in check all day. Hester led the NFL with a 17.1-yard average and three touchdowns on punts, including a 62-yarder in Week 3 against the Packers. But on eight punts, Hester returned three for a total of 16 yards.
"It will probably be overlooked, but for him to kick the ball the way he did and to keep it out of the hands of the most feared guy on the football field, it was a huge job by him," Packers receiver Greg Jennings said.
After Masthay got off a 53-yard punt in the third quarter but the Packers were penalized for having an ineligible player (Korey Hall) downfield, he just lined up again and boomed a 65-yarder.
"Obviously, we had to punt the ball a lot," Masthay said. "There were probably a couple I didn't hit as well as I wanted to, but I was hitting everything pretty much flush and our guys were covering great. We got the job done."
"I came into the game just wanting to get after the ball, just get after Hester," Bush said. "That was it. I tried to play with my hair on fire. In '07, we weren't able to get this far, but we came back this time and made sure we did."
Rodgers chases down Urlacher
That 2007 loss to which Bush referred was an overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. It was the last game for Brett Favre in a Packers uniform; a much-publicized divorce between the player and organization followed. The separation was gruesome, but it enabled the Packers to give Rodgers a shot, and he quickly evolved into one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
Now, that decision was bearing fruit. Rodgers had led the Packers on a thrilling postseason run, with a dramatic win in Philadelphia followed by a soaring 48-21 win in Atlanta over the top-seeded Falcons. That set the stage in chilly Chicago, where the ages-old rivals would get a chance to play a meaningful chapter in their storied head-to-head history.
This game wasn't Rodgers' best. He finished 17 of 30 for 244 yards with no touchdowns and two picks, though he did rush for a short touchdown (with Raji leading the blocking charge). It was Rodgers' tackling that took center stage after one of those interceptions.
On a snap from Chicago's 6 in the third quarter, Brian Urlacher picked off Rodgers and returned it 39 yards, where Rodgers made the touchdown-saving tackle.
"Once I threw it, I started sprinting," Rodgers said. "I was hoping I could catch up to him. When he turned to face me, I had to make a stand. I figured I'd make the tackle or he'd score."
With Collins under center, the Bears went nowhere on the ensuing series and punted it back. Likewise on Rodgers' other interception, the Packers defense held.
Rodgers also took a shot to the head from Julius Peppers, but the elite pass rusher was mostly kept in check, even with starting lineman Chad Clifton briefly leaving the game with an injury. T.J. Lang subbed in.
"I was going against one of the top pass rushers in the game and I let it get the best of me," Lang said of his nerves. "But I felt like I settled down. It just took longer than I wanted it to be."
It all added up to a return to the Super Bowl, and an immense victory on the home turf of a heated rival.
"I'm numb," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy (and we presume it was emotional, not physical given the temperature). "It's a great feeling."
How the moment lives on
The Packers, as mentioned, went on to win the Super Bowl for the fourth time.
Raji followed up his season with a Pro Bowl campaign in 2011. He missed the 2014 season with injury and walked away from football after the 2015 season.
Masthay was also out of football after 2015, having spent the entirety of his career with the Packers. He was replaced by Jacob Schum. Bush likewise never played a game for another NFL team and was done after 2014. Shields, a Pro Bowler in 2014, was knocked from football two years later by head injuries, though he was able to make a comeback in 2018 and played in all 16 games with the Rams.
It was one of several satisfying chapters for Packers fans against the Bears in recent years. In the 2019 season, the two teams met for the 200th time.
With Raji's touchdown-scoring moment as the main photo, the Journal Sentinel headline for the NFC title game was perfect: "Super Sized."
The Final Step
Since winning the first two Super Bowls, the Packers have been to eight NFC championship games. In other words, since the dawn of the Super Bowl era, the Packers have gotten at least one step away from the big game 17% of the time.
1995 season: Dallas 38, Green Bay 27. The Packers led heading into the fourth quarter, but Emmitt Smith ran for a go-ahead score early in the final period, and a Larry Brown interception led into another quick Dallas score. The Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl. An affirming win in San Francisco during the divisional round, 27-17, was one of the biggest stepping stones toward the Packers' run of success.
1996 season: Green Bay 30, Carolina 13. The Packers came back the following year with a vengeance, rampaging to the Super Bowl with a dominant showing at Lambeau Field. Green Bay outgained Carolina, 479-251, and won the turnover battle, 3-2. Edgar Bennett's touchdown late in the third quarter was a dagger. The Packers went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
1997 season: Green Bay 23, San Francisco 10. Playing in the mud at 3Com Park in San Francisco, the Packers wore down the 49ers and rode a trio of Ryan Longwell field goals. When Dorsey Levens scored to make it 23-3 with less than 4 minutes to go, it was over. The Packers were upset by Denver in the Super Bowl.
2007 season: New York 23, Green Bay 20. The overtime loss at freezing Lambeau Field still sticks with many Packers fans. Brett Favre threw an ugly interception to Corey Webster in OT that allowed Lawrence Tynes to win the game with a 47-yard field goal. It was Favre's final game in Green Bay. New York went on to shock undefeated New England in the Super Bowl.
2014 season: Seattle 28, Green Bay 22. You know what happened here. Next.
2016 season: Atlanta 44, Green Bay 21. The Falcons just had too much for the upstart Packers, a team that toppled top-seed Dallas one week earlier. Before they blew a 21-3 lead in the Super Bowl, the Falcons built an insurmountable 31-0 lead against Green Bay.
2019 season: San Francisco 37, Green Bay 20. The Packers enjoyed a charmed season under first-year coach Matt LaFleur, but the magic ran out in the NFC title game against San Francisco, a squad that subsequently lost the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Rules of the 50 in 50 series
- Moments are recorded over the 50-year window from 1970 to 2019 (sorry 2020, but you're disqualified)
- These are moments and not achievements, although that largely goes hand-in-hand.
- These are "greatest" 50 moments, so you won't see moments that are pivotal but ultimately heartbreaking (like the NFC Championship loss to Seattle, Kareem getting traded, etc.)
- You also won't see (many) moments that came to be recognized for their greatness later, such as the day the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo or the day the Packers traded for Brett Favre.
- Moments considered include teams based in Wisconsin and Wisconsin athletes competing in individual sports or as part of national teams (such as the Olympics), or moments on Wisconsin soil.
- These are singular moments. You're supposed to remember where you were when they happened.