No. 89 is No. 1 epitomizing Chicago and the Bears

When team retires Ditka's number Monday night, it will be honoring legend in his own time

For his first official picture in a Bears uniform in the spring of 1961, Mike Ditka eagerly showed up at Soldier Field ready to do exactly what he was told during the team's photo shoot.

That included putting on whatever jersey the Bears issued their rookie tight end.

"It's ironic but my first number in Chicago actually was 82,'' Ditka said in an interview. "There's a picture somewhere of me at old Soldier Field on the lakefront with it on. Somebody else had No. 89 when they drafted me.''

Ditka looks as odd with No. 82 across his chest as Walter Payton did years later wearing No. 21, his original number before 34. Before the mustache, No. 89 was what made Ditka most recognizable in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

But, indeed, when the Bears selected Ditka with the fifth overall selection of the 1961 NFL draft — held Dec. 27, 1960, nine days after the regular season ended — it belonged to kicker John Aveni. Aveni would kick the '61 season for the Redskins and eventually become the Bears' answer to a trivia question: Who wore Ditka's number before the Hall of Fame tight end made it famous?

"They released him by the time I went to camp so I was able to get 89, which I wore in college (at Pittsburgh),'' Ditka said. "I really was proud of the number. I liked it a lot. It didn't matter what number I had in the pros, I guess, but it was kind of nice when I could wear it again.''

It was even nicer when the McCaskeys decided last spring that no Bears player ever will wear it again, a gesture that will be formalized Monday night when the team retires Ditka's jersey at halftime against the Cowboys. Finally. As a tight end, Ditka was Gronk before Gronk, the model for the Dave Caspers and Kellen Winslows who would follow. This jersey retirement should have happened years ago but, like a good downfield block, better late than never.

"This is special because my loyalties go to these two organizations more than anybody else … but mostly to the Bears because I'm a Bear,'' Ditka said.

Few Bears ever made the franchise prouder than Ditka.

Since Ditka played his last of 85 career games with the Bears on Dec. 18, 1966, the team assigned 13 players the number who mostly reminded people why it should be retired. Terry Stoepel. Bob Wallace. Mel Tom. James Scott. Ken Margerum. Mitch Krenk. Keith Ortego. Will Johnson. Brent Novoselsky. James Coley. Ryan Wetnight. Dustin Lyman. Matt Spaeth.

Every Sunday another nondescript Bears player put on the laundry of a legend, it also served as a reminder of the frosty relationship between the Super Bowl-winning coach and the Bears organization since he was fired in 1993. That lasted as long as Michael McCaskey was in charge at Halas Hall. But chairman George McCaskey initiated a thaw not long after replacing his brother in 2011and, gradually, Da Bears warmly welcomed Da Coach back into the fold such as when coach Marc Trestman had Ditka address the team in preseason.

"I'm really honored that George would do this,'' Ditka said. "It's a great honor and I can't tell you how proud I am to have been a Bear. All those great years playing and coaching, we had some great times. But it wouldn't have changed my life if this never happened. I am who I am.''

He is the most identifiable resident of the city, a guy whose face says Chicago as much as 312. He is the player who gave everything he had on the field and the philanthropist who keeps giving to worthy causes from Misericordia to retired NFL players. He owns restaurants and sells his image on everything from sausage to cigars to Sauvignon Blanc because we cannot get enough of Da Coach. He is a throwback thriving in contemporary times by staying original. He is the standard by which Chicagoans measure toughness, an indefatigable example of diligence for the City That Works.

To longtime former equipment manager Bill Martell, Ditka always will be the former fiery team leader with a high threshold for pain.

"Dr. (Ted) Fox put Mike's injured foot in cast at training camp but he continued to practice to maintain his weight and timing,'' Martell recalled. "Then he dislocated his shoulder one game and a couple of guys put his arm up, yanked it back, and he went right back in. That was Mike.''

That was the kid from Aliquippa, Pa., who never changed, according to lifelong friend Frank Marocco.

"I remember Mike was a sophomore in high school (wearing jersey No. 80) when I was a senior, so he wasn't playing yet but at halftime you could hear him sitting there as the coach talked, grunting because he was so intense,'' said Marocco, 77. "He cared so much about everything. He's just a tough guy with a big heart. I know he's very sentimental about this big moment.''

That it comes against the Cowboys will test Ditka's ability to maintain his rugged exterior because his thoughts will drift to the two most influential men in his football life: George Halas and Tom Landry. After Ditka finished his career playing four seasons with the Cowboys, Landry invited him to join the coaching staff as an assistant in 1973. In the decade Ditka learned under Landry, he wrote Halas a letter expressing hope to one day coach the Bears. One day after the 1981 season, Landry called Ditka into his office.

"I think that Coach Halas wants to hire you,'' Landry told Ditka.

The news floored Ditka.

"My first reaction was, 'Wow,''' Ditka said. "Then I asked Landry, 'Coach, am I ready?' He said, 'You're ready — but do it your way.'''

As the Bears coach or a player, the man who immortalized No. 89 in navy never knew any other.

DHaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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