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Mike Ditka was back where he belongs

Updated: September 22, 2013 6:41AM



I never have pretended to understand the bewildering ways of the McCaskeys, and I’m fairly sure a Daisy Cutter bomb wouldn’t be able to penetrate Mike Ditka’s pride.

But somehow, someway, Da Coach was addressing Bears players in the middle of a practice field Tuesday as though it were the most natural thing in the world. As though Ditka and the franchise hadn’t been living in their own Ice Age for the last 20 years or so.

Somehow, someway, ownership and the coach most closely associated with the 94-year-old franchise have reconciled. (If I’m struck by lightning for describing Ditka that way, George Halas very much should be considered a person of interest.)

The earth didn’t shift on its axis with Ditka’s arrival at Halas Hall, and nobody’s life will be affected by the news. But it’s just nice, isn’t it? Ditka is back where he belongs — in the warm embrace of the Bears. Let’s hear it for the natural order being restored.

The ice first began to thaw in May, when the Bears announced they were going to retire Ditka’s uniform number. The decision came several decades too late, but better late than never. Then Tuesday arrived, with the old warrior making his way around on legs that moved like rusty gates. A warm glow had replaced the chill.

Ditka’s talk to the players
was about the bigger themes
of football, coach Marc
Trestman said.

‘‘His message was a great one: It’s about the relationships you have with your teammates,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘It’s about the camaraderie. It’s about the locker room. The money is the least significant portion of it.’’

That part about the money sounds like it came from a coach’s handbook, not from Ditka, who would sell you the stubs of his cigars if he got a percentage. But you get the idea. Embrace the sport. Don’t forget why you’re here.

Ditka couldn’t have walked in from the cold unless the McCaskeys wanted it to happen. Chairman George McCaskey reached out to Ditka, and it sounds as though there was a great sigh of relief for all involved.

The relationship between Ditka and the team never should have ended the way it did, never should have been reduced to a series of snubs and steel-toed quotes, never should have come with its own frost warning.

But it did.

Grudges often start as slights and add on layers of resentment until it’s hard to remember the core of the problem. This was different. The McCaskeys fired Ditka after a 5-11 season in 1992. Before that, his record as the Bears’ coach was 101-51, with a Super Bowl title (perhaps you’ve heard) and seven playoff appearances in 11 seasons. The estrangement pretty much started and ended with the firing, though it didn’t help when the McCaskeys put up a sculpture of iconic Bears at Soldier Field in 2004, and Iron Mike wasn’t considered good enough to be mixed in with the bronze. It looked very petty, probably because it was.

Yes, the McCaskeys own the record for most ham-handed decisions, but Ditka could be as much to fun to handle as a jellyfish. The family got tired of it in ’92. Everybody should have moved on. Ditka said he never was wounded by what happened, but neither side seemed to move back in the direction of the other. Until now.

Ditka and Trestman, along with their wives, had dinner recently. The men are about as similar as a coal mine and a think tank, but they’re both coaches at heart. And football is a common language. Let’s give Trestman credit for inviting Ditka, even though it might not have been his own idea. A less secure man might not have wanted to put himself in position to be compared.

‘‘I reached out to coach Ditka when I got the job,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘I felt that that was a great place to start, somebody who knew as much about the Bears and the traditions of the Bears as he does.’’

From there came the invitation for Ditka to visit newly renovated Halas Hall and meet the players. Ditka said this was the second time he had been back to visit the Bears since he was fired, but if this meeting had a title, it would be, ‘‘Again, with feeling.’’

‘‘He’s got an open invitation to come by any time he likes,’’ Trestman said.

Come to think of it, maybe the earth did move a degree or two.



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