It was the kind of day that a younger Mike Ditka would have relished: swirling snow, bitter cold temperatures and a breathtaking wind beating down on the huddled masses inside Soldier Field. The 74-year-old Ditka, whose jersey was retired during halftime Monday night, wasn’t sold on the meteorological conditions for the ceremony.
“I’ve never been so cold in my life,” Ditka said in his press conference immediately following his exit from the field. “Maybe it was just my age. I’m no spring chicken right now. Nope. It was just [bleeping] cold out there.”
It wasn’t just Ditka who braved the -9 wind chill. Soldier Field was nearly filled to capacity with diehard Bears fans who relished the opportunity to thank Da Coach one last time. The Fields family from Michigan City, Indiana admitted to spending half an hour in the stadium-warming area before Ditka was scheduled to appear.
“No way I’d miss this night,” Jerry Fields said. “I’ve been a fan of Ditka’s since he first lined up for this team. It’s my away of saying thank you to him. He deserves every honor that is given to him.”
Ditka, the pride of Aliquippa, PA, had a long and storied career with the Bears. Named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1961 after 56 receptions for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns, he finished his career with the Bears with a total of 316 receptions for 4,503 yards and 34 touchdowns. He is the only player in NFL’s modern age to win a title with the same team as both a player and a head coach after winning the NFL Championship in 1963 and the Super Bowl in 1985.
As a coach, Ditka guided the Bears to 112 wins, seven winning seasons, six NFC Central titles, three NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl victory. But to Ditka, the most important factors in his success were the players and the fans.
“Look up some of the guys I had on the roster as a coach,” Ditka said. “How could you not win with those guys? And the fans? I always felt they were behind us 100 percent every step of the way. It was the situation where you wanted to succeed because they counted on you, the fans believed in you.”
These days, Ditka is remembered in Chicago as much for his oversized persona as his on-the-field success. He admitted that his overwhelming popularity sometimes made ordinary day-to-day activities somewhat challenging.
“I get a lot of attention in airports,” Ditka laughed. “I’m a big guy and people tend to spot me easily. But that’s fine. It’s more than I could ask for at this point in life, really. To think that they still appreciate what I did years ago really is amazing. I never take it for granted. Just look at the people who came here tonight. I can’t tell you how meaningful that is.”
Ditka gave credit to the McCaskey family, who reached out to him to make the retirement ceremony possible.
“I heard from George, I heard from Virginia,” Ditka said. “They very much wanted this to happen. When we spoke it was almost as if no time had passed since I was last on the sidelines here. We got together and then they made this happen. They chose the Dallas game because I had a history with that team as well. Tom Landry would count as one of the major influences in my life. It made everything seem exactly right to do this tonight at this particular game. My only regret was that Papa Bear himself, George Halas, wasn't here. I've never forgotten that he was the man who made all this possible.”
Was this a new softer, more sentimental Ditka? Not quite yet. When asked about the weather conditions when he was a player and a coach Ditka was quick to reply.
“If I saw those [bleeping] players hanging around heaters when the temperature dropped a little, I never hesitated to tell them to get the [bleep] back on the field. I’d say exactly the same thing to them today. Football isn’t a game for sissies.”
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.