Ditka ceremony warms up the night
Frozen 89s filled icy Soldier Field.
Before kickoff between the Bears and Cowboys, the game clock read "89:00," while stadium personnel sported navy "89" T-shirts over winter jackets. And -- seriously -- the game-time temperature was reported at 8 degrees with a minus-9 wind chill.
And then there stood "the" No. 89, Mike Ditka. While waiting to address the fans at halftime on the night the Bears finally retired his jersey number, the hatless hall-of-famer raised the lapel on his trench coat to shield his face from the frigid wind.
Then, finally inside, he addressed reporters -- and the game conditions, which went beyond "Bear weather."
"This is unbearable," said Da Coach, seemingly unaware, or maybe not, of his pun. "I played in cold weather. But I'm telling you, this is cold. These guys (players) are warriors for doing what they're doing right now."
It takes one to know one. On this night, however, Mike Ditka wanted to melt, overwhelmed by the gratitude showed by the McCaskey family and what he called the game's greatest fans.
"You don't play the game or coach the game with this in mind," Ditka said. "But it's such a great honor. ... It's kind of the icing on the cake. It's the final candle. Whatever you want to call it. It's been a helluva run. It's been fun."
Rest assured, the man who brought him to Chicago, drafting him in the first round in 1961 out of the University of Pittsburgh, would be sharing a wide smile with him if he were alive.
"I think Mr. Halas would approve," Ditka said with a proud grin.
He doesn't live in the past, as Bears fans know. But Ditka appreciates his 74 years on this planet and looks forward to many more.
"I read something a long time ago that said, 'Yesterday is history, tomorrow's a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present,' " Ditka said. "I want to stick around in the present for awhile and try to figure out what the heck's going on. I got a pretty good grip on it and I like it. Whatever the future brings, I hope I can accept."
He remains a Chicago icon, Da Coach and embraces what he calls an obligation to the fans, even if trips through airports can get interesting.
He understands his image is helped by his popular restaurant and that he remains on TV, doing analysis and commercials.
"I think when you don't have time for people, you've got a problem," Ditka said.
Where have the 50-some years gone?
"I was a 22-year-old kid when I came to Chicago, met Mr. Halas, and I was dazzled by that $12,000-a-year contract," Ditka said, smiling. "I had it going. I got a $6,000 signing bonus. I went out and bought me a '62 Olds Starfire convertible. That was a cat, man."
He's still Da Coach. Funny. Engaging. And embracing his blessed life.
"I'm just having fun with it," he said. "Probably the best thing is when you stop taking yourself so (darn) serious. And I quit. I don't take myself so serious."
Heck, he appreciates even his old news conferences, some of which became legendary, whether he was confronting a feisty reporter or drunk fan.
"I think anybody that covered those news conferences, whether they liked me or didn't like me, (would say) they were pretty fun," he said. "They could write any kind of article they wanted."
And then he added, barking, with one final laugh: "I got your IQ!"