Two-bar facemasks are for wimps: Mike Ditka in 1963. (USAT Sports Images)
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Ditka said via a team statement. “It’s something that I didn’t anticipate or expect, but it’s a great honor. When you think of all the great Bears players who have had their jerseys retired, I can’t say that there’s any greater honor. I’m very humbled by it and very thankful that [team chairman] George [McCaskey] made the decision to go ahead and do that because it’s really great."
Ditka was selected in the first round by the Bears in the 1961 NFL draft out of Pittsburgh and went on to define the franchise's tough-minded mentality as much as anyone who's ever been a part of it. He caught 316 passes for 4,503 yards and 34 touchdowns in six years for the Bears at a time when tight ends were generally afterthoughts. But contract negotiations with George Halas went south when Ditka famously said that Halas "throws nickels around like manhole covers," and he was traded to Philadelphia. His playing career ended in Dallas in 1972, and Tom Landry immediately hired him as an assistant coach. Halas brought Ditka back into the fold by hiring him as the Bears' head coach in 1982. And in 1985, Ditka's Bears won Super Bowl XX with one of the greatest defenses of all time. He became the first person in the modern NFL to win an NFL championship (1963) and a Super Bowl with the same team as a player and as a coach.
“Mike Ditka embodies the spirit of everything the Bears are about,” McCaskey said. “He’s an icon. The last time we won the championship Mike Ditka was our coach, and the last time we won before that Mike Ditka was a player. The organization knew it was the right thing to do. He revolutionized the tight end position as a player and grabbed an entire franchise by the throat as a head coach and willed it to victory in the Super Bowl. We have more retired numbers than any other team in the NFL. After this, we do not intend to retire any more numbers but we thought if there is going to be a last one, there is no more appropriate one than 89.”
In 1988, Ditka became the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s the consummation of a career," Ditka said of the Bears honor. "It’s one of the greatest things you could be honored with. When you mention [Gale] Sayers and [Dick] Butkus and some of the guys who have had their jerseys retired, it’s an unbelievable group of men and great players in the NFL and for the Chicago Bears. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s just fantastic and I’m very honored and very pleased. I can honestly say that if it wouldn’t have happened it wouldn’t have mattered because the joy I had from playing with the Bears was unbelievable. I had a lot of fun doing what I did. I had a great career and a great time.”
The Bears have also retired the numbers of Bronko Nagurski (3), George McAfee (5), Halas (7), Willie Galimore (28), Walter Payton (34), Gale Sayers (40), Brian Piccolo (41), Sid Luckman (42), Dick Butkus (51), Bill Hewitt (56), Bill George (61), Clyde "Bulldog" Turner (66) and Red Grange (77). McCaskey's statement would seem to intimate that anyone looking for the Bears to retire the number of linebacker Brian Urlacher, who retired from the NFL on Wednesday, may have to wait a while.
And in honor of Ditka, we proudly present his greatest fans:
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