CHICAGO — Before Mike Ditka was DITKA, he was one of the NFL's best tight ends. Although he played in an era when the position was a glorified grunt, blocking alongside the offensive linemen, Ditka helped revolutionize the position into more of how we know it today.
For his contributions as a player, the Chicago Bears — with whom Ditka played for six seasons, under famed head coach George Halas — retired Ditka's No. 89 at halftime of Monday's game between the Bears and the Dallas Cowboys, the other team Ditka most prominently played for.
The team honored Ditka at halftime with a video montage that included well wishes and memories from his former teammates, many from the 1963 Bears NFL championship team, and the 1985 Bears, the Super Bowl champions. Ditka thanked the people of Chicago for being such a big part of his life and his dreams.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, and go Bears!" Ditka told the crowd.
Ditka hasn't played in decades, and his crowning achievement as coach happened 28 years ago. He's one of the franchise's most iconic figures, but it took until Monday night for the Bears to retire his number. One reason is the team had retired 13 numbers already, most in the NFL. They resisted retiring any more, but Ditka was such an enormous part of the organization's history, they made an exception to make his the last number retired by the team.
"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," Bears chairman George H. McCaskey told ChicagoBears.com. "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 12 seasons with the Bears, Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, Ditka caught 427 passes for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
Of course, Ditka also made his name as a coach — most prominently with the Bears, with whom he won a Super Bowl title in 1986, ensuring the man never will pay for a meal or a drink in this town again. In 14 seasons as a head coach, 11 with the Bears, Ditka compiled a regular-season record of 121-95.
Even after he was fired from the Bears in 1992, Ditka's fame only grew here, and nationally as a Chicago icon, as his popular restaurant, media career, endless string of TV and radio commercials and "Saturday Night Live" fame carried on to incredible levels. He famously said he wishes he ran as a Republican in the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois.
Ditka was the hot topic in the city all day and night, as he made the media rounds in the city, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declared it "Mike Ditka Day" in the state. Prior to the game Bears chairman George McCaskey helped get everyone in the spirit even more.
— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) December 10, 2013
This truly is Ditka's city. We're all just inhabiting it.
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