‘When I get through with Chicago, they’ll be loving me.’ Looking back at first words from the Bears’ top draft picks.

Is there ever a more optimistic day about a team’s future than when its brightest new star is introduced to fans?

Here’s what some of the Bears’ first-round draft picks from the past six decades have said when they started their careers in Chicago.

Mike Ditka (Dec. 27, 1960)

Pick: No. 5

After winning a coin toss to draft ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bears selected Pittsburgh’s All-American end Mike Ditka with their top pick.

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 11, Mike Ditka

After weeks of weighing his offers, Ditka signed with the Bears shortly after returning home from the Hula Bowl in Hawaii. If Ditka made any comments about the decision, then they were not recorded in the Tribune. The announcement of Ditka’s signing was rescheduled to avoid a conflict with the Cubs’ annual winter press luncheon.

Bears owner George Halas, however, told reporters: “Ditka fits well into our plan for more offensive football next fall. He is rugged enough to take those important first down passes over the line in heavy traffic and from all we have seen, he is strong enough to clear the way for our backs.”

Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers (Nov. 28, 1964)

Pick: No. 3 and 4

The selection of Butkus and Sayers in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft remains the only time a team has selected two future Hall of Fame players in the first round of one draft.

The Bears acquired the No. 3 pick from the Steelers and used it on Butkus, a Chicagoan and a wildly popular choice whose name remains synonymous with Bears folklore. Yet, the All-American center and linebacker from Illinois was conflicted — and there was a tug-of-war for him between the Bears and the American Football League’s Denver Broncos.

“I hate to make a decision — you see, I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Butkus said. “Chicago’s my home and all things being equal, I probably would prefer to play with the Bears, but there are other things to be considered.”

Days later, Butkus signed with the Bears.

“I didn’t really like Denver’s approach. There’s more to it than just money and that’s all Denver wanted to talk about,” he said. “The only thing really on my mind right now is that I want to get back and get caught up with my schooling. I’ve been missing out too much.” (Butkus was a physical education major.)

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 2, Dick Butkus

Sayers, who was drafted fourth, also had been in doubt about signing with the Bears. He was also picked by Kansas City, which was owned by the rival AFL.

I’m happy to be a Bear,” Sayers told reporters after signing a contract with Halas. “I just got back from New York, where I was invited over to (Kansas City team owner Lamar) Hunt’s hotel. When millionaires start opening the door for me, I get suspicious.”

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 4, Gale Sayers

Neither Hall of Famer expressed any jealousy or animosity toward the other.

“I met him early on in the All-Star games before we even got to the Bears,” Butkus said. “And I like to think we are good friends ever since. So there was never any animosity between offense and defense.”

In his autobiography, Sayers said of Butkus: “We remain great friends and have so many shared memories.”

Walter Payton (Jan. 28, 1975)

Pick: No. 4

When the Bears drafted Walter Payton in 1975, they landed a player who would leave the game as the NFL’s career-rushing leader. And in fact, they got much, much more: the standard against which all future Bears would be measured.

Payton became the prototype of what the Bears would seek in a player, particularly a high draft choice. He would give rise to a phrase that has now become commonplace, even if the ideal it represented was not.

“I used the term all the time, ‘the total package,’ ” said Bill Tobin, the team’s former vice president of player personnel. “I used him as the example for all our people, our scouts, other owners, everyone I talked to about hiring the total package — ability, intelligence, grace, compassion.

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 1, Walter Payton

“He was the whole package, not just on the field. It was how he conducted his personal life, how he practiced, how he cared about the people around him, how he put the team first. Walter always put the team first, always.”

Tobin, who scouted Payton while on the Green Bay Packers staff, was hired by then-Bears GM Jim Finks as the team’s director of pro scouting in January 1975. He was involved shortly thereafter in drafting Payton.

Payton, a 5-foot-10 1/4-inch, 200-pound halfback from Jackson State, was the best college runner in the country.

“When I get through with Chicago, they’ll be loving me,” he said. “I’m glad I went that high in the draft. I hadn’t really given much thought about who I was going with. I know Chicago is a nice place. … I know it’s cold in Chicago.”

Payton was supposed to be in Chicago for the draft, but he didn’t make his plane out of Jackson, Miss. He reportedly got on the plane five minutes before takeoff, but got off at the last minute, the Tribune reported.

Dan Hampton (May 3, 1979)

Pick: No. 4

The Bears knew they drafted a good tackle out of Arkansas, but did they know they also acquired a humorist?

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 9, Dan Hampton

Here’s how he got reporters’ attention when he was introduced:

“Fayetteville is just a little bitty town. You don’t really buy tickets on the local airline. You buy chances.”

“I used to drink a gallon of milk a day. Not the pasteurized stuff. Right out of the cow.”

“My mother is a real dear lady. She gave me two pigs for Christmas. I still have one of them. The other was killed when a buddy of mine ran over it in a car. He apologized to Mom. He thought she would be all broken up. He asked her if she wanted him to bury it. She said, ‘No, I think I’ll go skin it out. Dan will be hungry tonight and he’ll want some ribs.'”

Jim McMahon (April 27, 1982)

Pick: No. 5

McMahon was the first quarterback taken by the Bears with their top pick since Bob Williams in 1951. He had been the top-rated quarterback in the draft that year even though McMahon was drafted after the Baltimore Colts chose Ohio State’s Art Schlichter.

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 56, Jim McMahon

When introduced, McMahon made it clear he wouldn’t take a back seat to current Bears starting quarterback Vince Evans.

“All the other teams have established quarterbacks. I’d say my chance to start with the Bears are pretty good,” he told reporters. “I have no feelings toward Vince Evans. I don’t feel at this time that I’m better than he is. I have seen Evans play, and I don’t know about his consistency. He is terrific one game and the next game he doesn’t do well.

“Consistency has never been one of my problems. I have never had too many bad games, times I played terrible.

“I wanted to be known as the best college quarterback ever, and now I want to be known as the best quarterback who ever played in the NFL.”

Jimbo Covert (April 26, 1983)

Pick: No. 6

The Pitt tackle was not originally among coach Ditka’s top three offensive linemen or even his first choice at the position (that was Northwestern’s Chris Hinton, but he was drafted by Denver). Yet Covert was expected to fill a dire need at left tackle, or “a hole through which 33 pass-rushers sped last season; sacking (McMahon),” Tribune columnist John Husar wrote.

Chicago Bears great Jimbo Covert’s long journey to the Hall of Fame leaves him overwhelmed with gratitude: ‘Biggest and best part — going through this with family and friends’

Amid all the chaos was Covert, who came to Chicago from his home in Conway, Pa., across the river from Aliquippa, which was Ditka’s old stomping grounds.

Covert was so motivated to play for the NFL that he refused to hear offers from the United States Football League, whose Chicago Blitz scooped up Notre Dame All-America lineman Tom Thayer in the fourth round.

“They’d have to come up with an incredible offer for me just to listen to them,” Covert told reporters.

Mark Carrier (April 22, 1990)

Pick: No. 6

When Baylor linebacker James Francis and North Carolina State defensive tackle Ray Agnew both refused contract proposals from the Bears prior to the draft, then-USC safety Mark Carrier became their top pick. (He may also have been the only one willing to accept the Bears’ take-it-or-leave-it offer).

By signing Carrier as they drafted him, the Bears were assured he would not miss training camp like previous draftees of the team did.

Ranking the 100 best Bears players ever: No. 61, Mark Carrier

“It was Bill Tobin’s (idea) and Mike McCaskey gave the OK,” Ditka said. “Training camp is where you really get the gut check and conditioning.”

Carrier said even he was surprised to be drafted so early in the first round.

“Going by the projections from what you just read about, anywhere between 10 and 20 in the first round, maybe the second,” he said of pre-draft expectations.

Curtis Enis (1998)

Pick: No. 5

The Bears didn’t draft troubled but talented Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss. They didn’t trade for the defensive players they liked.

“Football’s most competitive division made the biggest splash in Saturday’s NFL draft, leaving the last-place Bears with as many challenges as they had going in,” Tribune reporter Don Pierson wrote.

Instead, they brushed off offers from other teams and selected Penn State running back Enis with the No. 5 pick.

Enis told reporters he takes a cold-water-and-ice bath the night before games. He said it helped him focus and prepare for the pain to come on game day. He wanted to be drafted by a cold-weather team.

“When you see a snowflake coming down and the snot coming out of your nose, it’s just a feeling where … you don’t wear sleeves under your uniform and you are playing football the way it was meant to be played,” Enis said.

That throwback player mentality was partly why he was so thrilled to be picked by the Bears.

“I’m excited to go out on the field and hear the ghosts of Walter Payton and Gale Sayers,” he said.

Brian Urlacher (April 15, 2000)

Pick: No. 9

Faced with the prospect of deciding between Urlacher, a late bloomer in high school who almost wasn’t recruited before becoming a college All-American, and Michigan State receiver Plaxico Burress, regarded throughout the NFL as gifted but immature, the Bears did not have to choose.

Pittsburgh selected Burress with the No. 8 pick, so the Bears were left with their “other” first choice and took the 6-foot-3-inch, 248-pounder Urlacher.

Bears great Brian Urlacher a first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer

Urlacher was signed by the Bears in June 2000, after attending the team’s minicamp where he told reporters he already felt “a little heavier and a lot stronger” than when he was a college player.

“The biggest thing is that mentally, I’m better prepared,” he said. “I was kind of scared after minicamp, but I’m definitely a lot more confident now. I’m going where I’m supposed to go when I’m supposed to go there.”

Cedric Benson (April 23, 2005)

Pick: No. 4

Benson was one of the most prolific rushers in NCAA history and a Texas high school legend at Midland Lee, the archrival of Odessa Permian, the school featured in “Friday Night Lights.”

The nation watched as Benson cried after the Bears chose him. In his introductory news conference at Halas Hall, Benson said those were tears of relief after being grilled by NFL teams over two arrests during his college years.

“Imagine growing up and you live in a West Texas football town, and you’re watching the Barry Sanderses and the Emmitt Smiths and Troy Aikmans and Michael Irvins, and you’ve seen some of the Walter Paytons and the Super Bowls,” Benson said. “Imagine seeing that year after year after year after year after year after year, and all you can think about is being there. I want to be Barry Sanders or Michael Irvin. It’s a dream come true and it’s a long road to get here.”

Kevin White (April 30, 2015)

Pick: No. 7

Chicago hosted the first NFL draft conducted outside of New York City in 50 years. Boos showered Commissioner Roger Goodell but morphed into cheers shortly before 8 p.m. when “The Chicago Bears are on the clock” was announced throughout the Auditorium Theatre.

The crowd rose to its feet when West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White’s name was announced. Fans sang along as “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” was played over the sound system.

The cruel and empty odyssey of Kevin White

White told reporters at his Halas Hall introduction that his on-field tenacity comes from rivalries with his brothers and dad that stoked his fire and gave him a cutthroat edge. No competition was too trivial.

“Chess, basketball, video games,” White said. “Who can do the most pushups? Who lifts the most weights? It goes on and on.”

So, too, did White’s confidence.

“You have to feel like you’re the only one who can do what you can do,” he said. “I don’t practice it or anything, it just comes natural.”

Leonard Floyd (April 28, 2016)

Pick: No. 9

The Bears, for the first time in 20 years, traded up for a first-round pick. With it, the team selected Floyd, an outside linebacker at Georgia.

Floyd, who didn’t begin playing organized football until high school, was enthusiastic during his introductory news conference at Halas Hall on April 29, 2016.

When asked how he eventually found his permanent niche on defense, he replied: “Shoot, guys who sack the quarterbacks get paid the most. I stuck with that.”

Mitch Trubisky (April 27, 2017)

Pick: No. 2

“Ten years from now, every Bears fan will still be talking about Thursday night and that jaw-dropping moment this football-crazed city will never forget,” Tribune reporter Dan Wiederer wrote.

The Bears traded away a massive amount of draft currency, sending the 49ers a four-pack of picks — Nos. 3, 67 and 111 in that year’s draft plus a 2018 third-rounder — to slide up one peg to No. 2 on the draft board to draft Trubisky, a quarterback at North Carolina.

Why did the Bears draft Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson?

“I’m just going to do the right things like I’ve always done,” Trubisky said when introduced at Halas Hall the next day. “Stay true to myself, and you’ve got to be a leader. You’ve got to be the first one in the door and last one out. You’ve got to be the hardest-working guy. You’ve got to be the most knowledgeable, and you’ve got to be competitive. I don’t think anyone wants to win more than I do. Hopefully I can bring that to this organization.”

That vow to stay true apparently meant sticking with his old car for a while longer.

“There are some hub caps that are missing, and the thing is just kind of falling apart,” then GM-Ryan Pace told reporters. “We joked at that moment. Like, ‘Hey, you need to bring this car to Chicago. Don’t change.’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to make it to Chicago.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care if you have to change the engine, but you have to bring the shell.’ So hopefully he brings it.”

Roquan Smith (April 26, 2018)

Pick: No. 8

Pace drafted Smith over, among others, Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (No. 11 to the Dolphins), Virginia Tech inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (No. 16 to Bills) and Florida State safety Derwin James (No. 17 to Chargers). Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey went at No. 9 to the 49ers.

Pace and his scouts were attracted to Smith’s instincts, play speed and physicality.

As they say in Bears draft pick’s hometown: ‘There’s only one Roquan Smith’

“The Bears, the organization and the fans are getting a relentless player,” Smith said at Halas Hall the next day. “Tremendous leader on and off the field. High-character guy. Do things the right way. Extremely rangy. I feel like on the field (they’re getting) my sideline-to-sideline and my striking ability.”

Among the other nuggets Smith shared: it was only the second time he had been in the Chicago area. The first was the Georgia native’s pre-draft visit to Halas Hall a few weeks earlier.

“I have a lot of students who I went to school with, a lot of my peers, that end up moving to Chicago, and they tell me what a great place it is,” Smith said.

Justin Fields (April 29, 2021)

Pick: No. 11

“The combination of the Bears quarterback depth chart, the team’s dismal history at the position and pressure on (Pace) and coach Matt Nagy to boost the fortunes of the franchise made it overwhelmingly clear the team had to make a move in the first round of the NFL draft,” Tribune reporter Brad Biggs wrote about the team’s maneuvering up to select Ohio State’s Fields.

How the Chicago Bears found the perfect opening to snag QB Justin Fields in the 1st round: ‘We knew there was going to be a sweet spot for us’

It marked the fourth time Pace traded up for the headliner of his draft class.

On a video call with reporters, Fields was asked if he understood the Bears’ troubled history at quarterback and how the resulting impatience and expectations might affect his journey.

I don’t think there’s pressure on me at all,” Fields said, “because I expect myself to be a franchise quarterback. … I came from a big program at Ohio State where the fan base is very passionate. So there’s definitely no added pressure.”

Darnell Wright (April 27, 2023)

Pick: No. 10

New Bears offensive tackle Darnell Wright was in the middle of a three-hour stretch of interviews with local sports radio personalities, TV broadcasters and sports writers on April 28, 20023, at Halas Hall when he was asked about the expectations he faces in his new home.

After months of buildup, the Bears selected Wright at No. 10 as the likely starter at right tackle going into his rookie season. As the Bears try to build up their offense around Fields, general manager Ryan Poles and his staff believed Wright could be a tone-setter on the line.

Wright, who started 42 games over four seasons at Tennessee, didn’t back away from those hopes.

“I embrace expectations upon myself,” he said. “I have expectations upon myself bigger than just football. I have expectations to take care of my family. I don’t know what my role for the team is, but whatever that role is I’m going to take it full on and do the best I can.”

Wright was the first pick of a key draft for Poles in his second offseason rebuilding the roster.

Note: The Bears did not have a first-round pick in 1970, 1978, 1997, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2019, 2020 and 2022.

Sources: Tribune archives and reporting; NFL; Pro Football Reference; Chicago Bears

Subscribe to the free Vintage Chicago Tribune newsletter, join our Chicagoland history Facebook group and follow us on Instagram for more from Chicago’s past.