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Mike Ditka, No. 89, the first and last of his kind

Mike DitkORG XMIT: NYWWP

Mike Ditka ORG XMIT: NYWWP

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Updated: January 9, 2014 6:27AM



He wasn’t supposed to wear the 89 that will be immortalized Monday night, more than a half-century after he first pulled the Bears jersey over his crew cut.

When Mike Ditka arrived at Wrigley Field in May 1961, he was handed No. 82.

Another Bears player had the jersey number Ditka had worn in college, and he had priority over the first-round draft pick from Pittsburgh.

By the time Ditka’s rookie season started, the other 89 had been let go.

‘‘So they gave me the number,” he said. ‘‘It worked out.’’

Before he was Da Coach or Da Pitchman, he was 89.

And 89 was the baddest tight end on the planet, the first modern pass-catcher at the position.

On Monday, the Bears will ensure no one ever will wear the number — the last time the team plans to take a number out of circulation.

His relationship with Bears management thawed into détente, Ditka will walk onto the turf at Soldier Field for, best he can remember, the first time since he coached.

If you’re looking for tears, though, you don’t know men of his generation.

‘‘I’m not gonna break down, if you mean that,’’ the 74-year-old said. ‘‘There’s always some emotion involved. It will be for a moment, and we’ll get on with our lives. And they’ll play a football game.’’

Hard-nosed history

Sentimentality creeps in, though, when Ditka talks about the Bears.

‘‘It’s kinda the end of the road,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a wonderful thing.’’

Chicago and Ditka have become inseparable now, Ditka’s Pennsylvania coal roots embraced by the hog butcher for the world.

‘‘A typical tough-guy Bear,’’ said Bob Wetoska, who played offensive line for the Bears from 1960 to ’69. ‘‘Like the old Bears, Nagurski, all that crowd.’’

On any other team, he would have played linebacker.

He was drafted to play ‘‘closed end,’’ won the 1961 rookie honor and, as a devastating blocker, was named All-NFL in the first four of his six seasons with the Bears.

‘‘Him against [Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray] Nietschke,’’ Wetoska said, ‘‘was like two Neanderthals going at it.’’

A harness held his shoulder in place. His dislocated foot still gnarls, his arch crushed, when he works out. Back then, it was injected so he could play.

‘‘That was our job,’’ he said. ‘‘That doesn’t make me a hero, or dumb.’’

It wasn’t all mud and blood.

George Halas made him the first tight end to be split out wide.

As a rookie, he averaged 19.2 yards per catch. That would be third-best among qualified players this season, one of the pass-happiest in NFL history, and more than Calvin Johnson has ever averaged in a season.

‘‘With him coming up that year, it made the tight end more recognizable as really part of the offense,’’ said Ronnie Bull, a Bears running back from 1962 to 1970. ‘‘Before then, there hadn’t been anyone that stood out like he did.’’

In 1963, five weeks after catching a team-record four touchdowns against the Los Angeles Rams, Ditka hauled in maybe the most famous pass in team history. He dragged five Pittsburgh Steelers like a horse would a tangled, dismounted rider, gaining 63 yards. The Bears tied the game, allowing them to play for, and win, the title.

‘‘It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,’’ Wetoska said.

In 1988, after 427 catches and 5,812 receiving yards, Ditka became the first tight end inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

‘‘I was in the game at the right time,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘They really created the position.’’

Back in the family

Marc Trestman was 11 when Ditka was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and 16 when Ditka retired after four years and one Super Bowl victory with the Dallas Cowboys.

‘‘I remember him breaking tackles, I remember him making catches,’’ the Minnesota-raised Bears coach said. ‘‘It’s a flicker in the back of my mind.’’

Bears chairman George McCaskey and CEO Ted Phillips met with Ditka at his restaurant late last year. They invited him to practice in August, and Ditka and Trestman have stayed in touch since.

For years after he was fired as coach in 1993, Ditka clashed with then-chairman Michael McCaskey, George’s brother. Having his number retired is ‘‘something I never expected,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘For George and [general manager] Phil [Emery] to make the decision to do what they did wasn’t easy.’’

The Bears don’t intend to retire another number again, McCaskey said, or until the NFL changes its policy on position-specific numerals.

He said his grandfather — who ‘‘didn’t always get along’’ with Ditka ‘‘because they were so much alike’’ — would approve.

‘‘Mike Ditka,’’ McCaskey said, ‘‘is the Chicago Bears.’’

‘The greatest honor’

It’s not lost on Ditka that Monday night’s opponents will wear stars on their helmets.

Tom Landry, for whom he played and coached in Dallas, and Halas were the two most influential people in his career.

‘‘You don’t play the game initially with the idea you’re going to be in the Hall of Fame or get your number retired,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘You play the game because you love the game.’’

Win in Chicago, he told this year’s Bears team, and they’ll love you forever.

As No. 89, he did.

And they do.

‘‘That would be the greatest honor, I would assume,’’ he said. “Having your number retired from one of the original organizations in pro football.’’

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley



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