He played on or coached the Bears' last two championship teams. SportsIllustrated.com recently voted him the greatest No. 89 in NFL history. Forty-four years after playing his last game as a Bear, he still holds three team receiving records, but his legacy extends far beyond that.
With the exception of George Halas, his name and face best represent one of football's founding franchises, which begs the question: Why haven't the Bears retired Mike Ditka's number?
''Are you telling me they haven't done that already?'' ex-Packers great Paul Hornung said. ''If they retired [Dick] Butkus' and [Gale] Sayers', they have to retire Ditka's, for Christ's sake. It's ridiculous. It should have been done 40 years ago. He's one of the best players in the history of the Bears, and as a coach, he won the Super Bowl. He did everything. There wasn't a better player, period.''
The Bears have retired 13 numbers, more than any other franchise. Team executives worry about running out of numbers if they retire all the ones that deserve such recognition. Mike Singletary's No. 50 should be set aside, for example, as should Dan Hampton's No. 99. Twenty years from now, Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs might warrant consideration.
It's an interesting dilemma, to be sure, but given all he has meant to the franchise, if the Bears aren't going to retire Ditka's number, they should unretire them all. You can't retire the numbers of some worthy players but not other worthy Bears.
''You can't change the experience I had as a player and a coach,'' Ditka said. ''You can't erase it. It was there. They were all great experiences. Everything wasn't perfect, but they were pretty good experiences because I got to fulfill my dreams. I appreciate it, but [not having my number retired] doesn't bother me. It doesn't come into my mind. You can't change what I had.''
Hats off to Ditka for being at a stage in his life in which he doesn't need the recognition, but it's still the right thing to do, and the 25th anniversary of the Ditka-led 1985 Bears is the ideal time to do it. The league has even recently started allowing receivers to wear numbers in the teens, rendering the loss of No. 89 moot.
Good time to do it
Ditka isn't getting any younger, either. He's 71, and it would be a shame if the Bears wait until he's no longer around.
The stars are aligned to make this happen. The long-simmering feud between the McCaskeys and Ditka has ended, as evidenced by Brian McCaskey attending a recent golf outing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Super Bowl- winning team.
''I don't have any animosity,'' Ditka said. ''I probably did for a couple of years, but I don't anymore. I root for the Bears.''
Maybe the Bears are afraid to retire a number after what happened last time. When Butkus (No. 51) and Sayers (40) had their numbers retired in 1994, monsoon-like winds and rain set the stage for a horrific Monday night loss to the Packers. Brett Favre didn't complete a pass in the first half, and the Bears still trailed 14-0 en route to a humiliating 33-6 drubbing.
''Mike definitely deserves this honor when you consider his involvement in the Bears' last two championship seasons, not to mention the fact that he is one of only seven tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,'' said former Bears executive Ken Valdi- serri, who was directly involved with coordinating the retiring of Sayers' and Butkus' numbers.
Just as worthy
Butkus and Sayers are icons who richly deserved the honor, but no one can deny that Ditka was in their class as a player and is even more deserving because he resurrected the moribund franchise as a coach.
''There's no question they should retire his number,'' Sayers said. ''He was an outstanding football player, and he was in the Hall of Fame and became an outstanding coach. There's no question in my mind that it should be retired.''
The Bears would like to have a ring of honor at Soldier Field but aren't allowed because they don't own the stadium, and the Park District wants to maintain it as a multipurpose venue. Plans to erect a statue of Walter Payton outside Soldier Field are on hold over concerns that it will be viewed as desecrating a war memorial.
Retiring Ditka's number is something the Bears don't need permission or a permit to do. It's the right thing to do and the ideal time to do it.
It's time to give Da Coach his due.