A young Green Bay fan wears a cheesehead hat as he watches warmups before… (Rebecca Cook / Reuters )
The NFL's oldest rivalry is traditionally epitomized by the steam rolling off the craggy head of Ray Nitschke, the snot flying from the mangled face of Dick Butkus, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears battling on a field covered in ice and frozen in time.
Yeah, well, it's also about a guy who had this crazy idea while fixing his mother's couch.
His name is Ralph Bruno, and 25 years ago he was an apprentice pattern maker from Milwaukee who was reupholstering his mother's living room furniture when he found himself holding a leftover cushion.
On a whim, he burned holes into the cushion until his mother shooed him outside because of the awful smell. In his backyard, he painted the cushion yellow and fitted it on his head.
That night, in a direct rebuttal to the Chicago fans who have long ridiculed Wisconsinites with the infamous one-word mockery of their state's most beloved product, he wore the invention to a baseball game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox.
Ralph Bruno thus became the Original Cheesehead.
"All my friends made fun of me; they thought I looked like an idiot," Bruno recalled this week. "But then a bunch of pretty girls came over and asked to wear it."
And the rest, as they say, is cheese-tory.
Sunday's NFC championship game between the Packers and Bears — their 182nd meeting in a rivalry that has lasted 90 years — is built on a enmity that is perhaps best defined by that silly man and his strange hat.
The two fan bases are separated by only 208 miles of Lake Michigan coastline but live in different worlds. Packers fans have long looked down upon their southern neighbors as rude city folk who litter their countryside during summer vacations. Bears fans, in return, view their northern neighbors as small-town simpletons.
"They come here and vacation in our state and give us lots of money and treat us like crap," Bruno said, laughing. "We have everything they want but they know they can't have … like, say, fresh air."
The Wisconsinites once referred to Chicagoans as "flatlanders." In return, the Chicagoans began referring to Wisconsin folks as "cheeseheads." But, led by Bruno, instead of cowering from the insult, Packers fans have thrown it back in Bears fans' faces by literally wearing it.
"They want to call us cheeseheads, hey, that's what we are, I've got no problem with that," Bruno said. "Maybe it's because I've got foam on the brain, but I thought it was something we should be proud of."
Bruno's redecorating impulse has turned into a big business, with his Foamation Inc. selling everything from the traditional $20 adult cheeseheads to $11.50 baby cheeseheads that come with chin straps. Foamation also sells everything from cheese earrings to neckties to hanging dice known as rear view cheese.
"The great thing is, what was once meant to be an insult from Bear fans, now those fans have to see it all over the place," said Nick Richards, Foamation's media relations consultant.
He's only a consultant because the company has fewer than 10 employees who make the cheeseheads by hand in a nondescript warehouse near Milwaukee. Business gets so big before Bears games that they brought in several temporary workers this week, but the operation is still as modest as the man who founded it.
Not only does Bruno, 49, not have Packers season tickets, but he's been to only a couple of games in his life. If the Packers win Sunday, he has no idea whether he would be able to wrangle his way inside Cowboys Stadium for the Super Bowl.
"Everybody thinks I hang around with royalty, but I'll only get in if I can ride on somebody's coattails," Bruno said. "I'll probably just be standing outside selling cheeseheads, which is fine with me."
That seems to be the entire point of the cheesehead mystique. Though Green Bay and its 101,000 population is one-thirtieth the size of Chicago, and though the Packers have nine fewer victories than the Bears in the series, Packers fans remain quietly proud of their identity and staunchly defiant of those who would diminish it.
Cheeseheads might not be the most attractive of memorabilia — OK, let's face it, the hat looks ridiculous — but is anything worn with more pride? A cheesehead not only defines the owner but, in one case, it even saved the owner's life.
In 1995, Frank Emmert of Superior, Wis., claimed that jamming a cheesehead over his face saved him from death during the crash landing of a light plane during his return from a Packers game.
"We all know that Bear fans only make fun of us out of envy," Bruno said. "Cheese envy."
Today, you can find a cheesehead in football video games and on the noggins of normal folks walking around Milwaukee grocery stores. You can find them in rap videos and even in the Smithsonian Institution.
What you won't find is the original cheesehead. It is sitting on a shelf in Bruno's closet. But with the Packers on the verge of their fifth Super Bowl appearance — the Bears are vying for their third — you could be seeing it everywhere else this month, beginning Sunday at Chicago's Soldier Field.
Bruno won't be there, of course, but he will be watching and cheering and giving thanks to the fans who are wearing his product — and especially to the ones who are booing it.
"Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike Bear fans," the Original Cheesehead said. "I hate to say it, but I guess I've made a living off them."