When the announcement was made earlier this year that the Chicago Bears would retire Mike Ditka’s number 89 jersey in a ceremony at halftime of the team’s game vs. the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, the reactions from football fans likely ranged from "duh" to "they hadn’t done that already?"
Despite the shock that came with realizing anew that Ditka’s number wasn’t already retired by the Bears, it is high time that the team honored the man who, perhaps more than any player or coach not named George Halas or Walter Payton, shaped this franchise and created the image by which it is known today.
Whenever fans talk about the team now, inevitably comparisons arise to the 1985 team that ended up winning Super Bowl XX in runaway fashion. Under Ditka’s watchful gaze, that team played some of the meanest and most aggressive football that the league has ever seen. Players like Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael would destroy any player that came near them, and guys like Mike Singletary could pinpoint a weakness in an offense from a mile away.
It was Ditka’s tutelage that taught the 1985 Bears to be killers, and that intense desire for perfection was nurtured in Ditka from his earliest days with the franchise. This story from Ditka’s rookie season in 1961 comes from Rich Cohen’s excellent book “Monsters: The 1985 Bears and the Wild Heart of Football”:
“Ditka had the hands but caught the ball in the untutored way of the sandlot. Turning what you’ve always done by instinct into a practice, a trade –that’s what makes you a professional. Halas brought Sid Luckman back to work with Ditka, teach him the proper way to catch. Sid was forty-four years old, faded soft, ancient, a figure of lore.
“He had a method, a way to concentrate the rookie. He gathered a pile of footballs and wrote a number on each: 27, 61, 33. Ditka ran pattern after pattern. As soon as he made a catch, he had to call out the number on the ball. This would teach him the art of high focus: just you and the ball, watching it all the way into your hands.
“In 1961, Ditka caught fifty-six passes for 1076 yards. He scored twelve touchdowns. No tight end had ever done anything like it. He was named Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl, an honor he would secure in each of his first four seasons.”
Ditka’s intensity, which he displayed so often as a coach, really was chiseled into his being during those years with the Bears. As the first tight end to fully embrace the concept of being able to block and catch passes, Ditka was paving the way for the current generation of greats like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, as well as potential future Hall of Famers like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune put it really well in his column about Ditka’s jersey retirement ceremony:
“As a tight end, Ditka was Gronk before Gronk, the model for the Dave Caspers and Kellen Winslows who would follow. This jersey retirement should have happened years ago but, like a good downfield block, better late than never.”
Whether it was the strained relationship between the McCaskey family and Ditka after his firing in 1993 or some combination of other factors (the Bears had already retired 13 jerseys, and have said that this will be the last one that they will give the distinction to), it’s good to see that the family and the organization that brought Ditka up and helped him become the all-time great that he is today has finally decided to embrace Da Coach again, and it will be a thrill to see his number go into the pages of history on Monday night.