"It is hard to erase 17 years [with the Bears]. Nothing much else to say but 'Thank you, I appreciate it.' But this, too, shall pass."
Those were Mike Ditka’s final words from his final, very painful press conference at his January 1993 firing. And now, in a good way, that has passed. He doesn’t have to try to erase anything anymore.
The Bears are bringing Mike truly all the way home, retiring his number at halftime of the Bears-Dallas Cowboys game Monday night. Even with the monster cold that’s predicted, this is completely fitting: Mike won an NFL championship with the Bears (1963); won a Super Bowl as a player (1971) and assistant coach (1977) with the Cowboys; and won a Super Bowl with the Bears. Of course this should happen at a Bears-Cowboys game. And Mike wore No. 89 as a Cowboy as well.
Actually, Mike and I go back a long time. A long time, although he doesn’t know it.
Back to 1959 when my Dad took me to my first-ever college football game, to see the Pitt Panthers (in Pitt Stadium, naturally) play Ernie Davis and Syracuse. The Orangemen tramped Pitt 35-0, but you remember things. Like No. 89.
The Panthers were being blown out and there was this 89 crashing down from his defensive end spot, chasing Davis from across the field, even though the game was really over.
Funny to remember Ditka as a defensive guy, or maybe not so funny. He was a better defensive player than an offensive one. He only caught 16 passes that season and never more than 18 in any of his three years at Pitt, and that included 11 his senior year. Yet he was to go on and redefine a position with his receiving abilities.
Somehow the Bears’ retiring of Ditka’s No. 89, which Pitt did back in 1997, brings a feeling of closure.
My first year covering the Bears was 1992, which was Mike’s last. It was painful, with myriad incidents on and off the field. But the most painful came after the season, when Ditka was left dangling in job limbo for two weeks by the team that he had given his soul to for so long, from his being drafted in the 1961 first round out of Pitt to that day in Lake Forest when he gave his farewell address while doing a not-so-great job of holding back the tears and emotion.
That is all just history now, with Chairman George McCaskey making it amply clear that the doors of Halas Hall are not just unlocked, but truly open to Mike, and Marc Trestman making it doubly clear that Mike is welcome, to the point of inviting him to practice to address the team.
“I remember him as a tight end, I remember him breaking tackles, I remember him making catches,” Trestman said. “And then to see the transition as a coach, I can remember him on the sideline when he was with Dallas as a coach…. Mostly as the head coach of the Chicago Bears and his love for the game. Knowing some of the assistant coaches who coached with him at the time, how much he loved them and showed them his appreciation for them in different ways. The guys that worked for him loved to coach with him.”