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Mike Ditka revels in having No. 89 retired

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Updated: February 8, 2014 3:23AM



The game clock read “89:00.’’

The play clock read “89.’’

The Fathead poster handed out at the gates had “89’’ on the side and the bottom.

And, of course, number 89 was on the jersey of the player you could pull from the backing and stick to your kitchen wall.

Indeed, number 89 was in the air at Soldier Field on Monday night the way frozen molecules were. Appropriately, it was 8 degrees at kickoff with a minus-9 wind chill.

“Da Coach! Number 89!’’ screamed Bears president George McCaskey. “Mike Ditka!

This whole ceremony was —needed. It was late by about a decade, a grand jersey number retirement for a man who was an All-Pro player for the Bears, a Super-Bowl winning coach, and a Hall of Fame tight end.

We all know how it ended professionally for Ditka and the Bears: the emotional and public face of the franchise was fired unceremoniously after a 5-11 season in 1992, with little recognition for the six years he spent as a star player here and the 112 victories he led the team to in 11 seasons as coach.

There were no good feelings between Da Coach and the McCaskey ownership family at the time.

Ditka was hurt; the Bear of all Bears was deeply wounded. There was no blood, but there was a stab in the heart.

He went off, almost mythically, on a kind of self-imposed journey/exile to silly New Orleans where as coach of the Saints he traded all his draft picks one year for oddball running back Ricky Williams, opened a restaurant (of course), tried to believe the Saints were the Bears South and Williams was Walter Payton reborn, and none of it was true.

But Ditka never left Chicago. Not really.

He had grown up in Aliquippa, Pa., which is almost to Pittsburgh what Gary or East Chicago was to our city, back when manufacturing and steel were a huge part of our fabric. He was a feisty, up-by-the-bootstraps Grabowski, and at some point — maybe it was George Wendt and the Superfans skit that did it — he was adopted as a Chicagoan through-and-through.

He showed that time can heal things. He stayed here when fellow blue collar Hall of Famer Dick Butkus went to Hollywood, settling in — impossible — the hills above Malibu.

He stayed here as Bears president Michael McCaskey was moved upstairs and new family members began their reign. And he never, ever forgot the debt he owed to Papa Bear himself, George Halas, the man who traded him as a player, but then gave him a chance no one saw coming — to coach the Bears in 1982.

“I’ll never forget what he did for me,’’ Ditka has said reverently of the “Old Man.’’

And now Ditka himself, the man of a thousand advertisements, is everywhere in town. Was that him the other day promoting “the Invisible Miniscopic Hearing Aid’’ in a full-page newspaper ad, plus “$50 FREE GAS!” if you get one soon? It was!

He’s at his two restaurants, he’s on TV, he’s on radio, he’s as recognizable as his trademark mustache and V-top hair logo.

So when George McCaskey announced at halftime that retiring Ditka’s No. 89 had “been a long time coming,’’ the roars of the frozen fans were hot and passionate.

Clad in a black overcoat that ­Halas himself would have worn, Ditka strode down the red carpet to the midfield platform just above the he orange “C’’ on the frozen grass. His ’stache might be gray and his V a little less lush, but the man is the man. He watched, his breath shooting out as turbo steam in the frigid wind, as players from his past praised him in a video shown on the end-zone screens. Hilgenberg, Fencik, Gayle, ­Tomczak, Thayer, Hampton, Moorehead, Dent, even the Fridge, Ronnie Bull, Bob Wetoska and Johnny Morris spoke.

“It’s been a heck of a run,’’ Da Coach said at the mic. “I’ve been living a dream for 74 years. I hope it never ends. It will. But I hope it never ends.’’

What else was there for the finally-honored man to say?

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! And Go Bears!’’

Then it was time to get Ditka off the field and into some warmth. A wild bear would have hibernated right through this, after all. But this tame one did one last thing there underneath the stadium.

He mentioned a philosophy that has endeared him to this city like almost nothing else.

“I think when you don’t have time for people, you got a problem.’’

All good. Forever.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander



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