Butkus and Ditka both got over estrangement

In time, they still were devoted to Halas and extremely gratified over roles in Bears history

The Chicago Bears are planning on retiring Mike Ditka's jersey number "89" next season. The number will officially be retired during Chicago's game against Dallas in December.

When the Bears retire Mike Ditka's No. 89 jersey Dec. 9 at Soldier Field, a blinding snowstorm might provide the proper background.

After all, the last two Bears to have their numbers retired were Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers during a torrential downpour in 1994 at Soldier Field.

"It was perfect. Everybody remembers that night because of the weather," Butkus told me Friday from Los Angeles. "And the Bears were going to do more (during that ceremony) with fireworks and everything else, but they just couldn't do it.

He added sarcastically: "I almost lost my shoe (in the mud) because of that great field out there — Soldier Field."

In addition to being Pro Football Hall of Famers and former teammates, Ditka and Butkus shared the uncomfortable experience of being at odds with owner-coach George Halas for awhile after they left Bears.

Moreover, as coach of the Super Bowl XX champs and seven years thereafter, Ditka had a strained relationship with then-club president Michael McCaskey before McCaskey fired him.

Butkus wound up suing the Bears because they would not honor the remaining years on his contract after he severely injured his knee in 1973. Butkus, who retired as a player at 31, eventually received a $600,000 settlement in 1976.

Before Ditka was traded to the Eagles in 1967 basically because of a contract squabble, he famously said Halas "throws around nickels like manhole covers." Yet it was Halas who brought Ditka back into the Bears fold as coach.

"Everybody would talk about how cheap (Halas) was, but later on you would find out about all the people he would really help," Butkus once told me. "He never let it be known. He was great for the game, great for the league.

"And having been from Chicago myself and playing for the founder of (the NFL), it was neat. He was a no b.s. guy. That's the way I was brought up. And we hit it off great. One minute he would be yelling at you and the next minute he would be patting you on the back."

Butkus now feels extraordinary allegiance to the Bears organization and expects the now-retired Brian Urlacher to follow him and Ditka to the Hall of Fame.

"He played and represented the position very well," Butkus said. "He should go (in the Hall of Fame) absolutely. He played 13 years and I know what he was going through with the (knee) injury. People sometimes don't take (the injuries) into account. They say: 'Oh, he slowed down.' No bull! You get the bumps and bruises and each day they get worse."

Urlacher often was compared to Butkus.

"When I was playing, it was 'Bill George this and Bill George that.' People are always comparing," Butkus said of the Hall of Fame middle linebacker who preceded him.

Butkus and Ditka both appear to be at peace now with the way their relationship with the Bears. Butkus has enjoyed a successful acting career in Hollywood and as an NFL analyst. He even served as a Bears radio analyst on WGN in 1985.

"I hadn't been exposed to the business world that much," Butkus said. "Shortly thereafter I learned that (football) was a business. … I never would have been able to do radio if (the Bears) didn't agree to it. … So it was a business decision. What are you going to do? Get over it. Grow up."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter@kicker34

CHICAGO

More