Asked about the defense that carried the Bears to the 1963 NFL championship, Mike Ditka knew he had to tread lightly.
‘‘I can’t win in this,’’ Ditka said in a panel discussion of that team Saturday with receiver Johnny Morris and offensive tackle Bob Wetoska at the Bears 100 Celebration Weekend in Rosemont. ‘‘I think it was the best. They only gave up 10 points [a game].
‘‘Hello? Our defense was unbelievable. People don’t remember. I can remember [linebackers] Joe Fortunato, Bill George and those guys. [Cornerback] J.C. Caroline, I can go on and on. [Safety] Rosie Taylor. They were great football players. They didn’t get the acclaim they would get today.’’
The issue of which Bears defense is the best is debatable, but Ditka is right on about one thing: People don’t remember. As time passes, the ’63 championship team is fading into history. A relic of the pre-Super Bowl era, the ’63 Bears rest in the shadows of the ’85 Bears — without the irrepressible personality, Super Bowl victory, ‘‘Super Bowl Shuffle’’ or modern media machine that gave the ’85 Bears immortality.
Asked by panel host and Bears radio play-by-play man Jeff Joniak to compare the ’63 defense to the ’85 defense, Ditka backed off a bit.
‘‘That would be unfair to both,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m just glad I was part of the ’63 team because those guys were good. Richie Petitbon, he was bigger than me [6-3, 205], and he played safety. And then we had — who was that little pain-in-the-ass cornerback? — [Dave] Whitsell. He was good.’’
The Bears’ ’63 NFL championship team was special in its own right. It was the Bears’ first title team since 1946 and came in the middle of the Packers’ dynasty under Vince Lombardi. But the seasonlong suspension of Packers running back Paul Hornung for gambling on NFL games can’t be ignored as a factor in the Bears (11-1-2) sweeping the two-time defending champion Packers (11-2-1) to edge them out for the Western Division title that season.
The ’63 Bears defense, which was coordinated by eventual Hall of Fame coach George Allen, doesn’t have the enduring reputation of the ’85 Bears defense, but it has some pretty impressive credentials. It led the NFL in 19 categories and allowed only 137 points in 14 games — and 28 of those were scored after the Bears built leads of 35-0 against the Lions and 26-0 against the Packers at Wrigley Field. The defense also scored 30 points on four pick-sixes (Taylor, Petitbon, Whitsell and cornerback Bennie McRae) and a safety. Defensive end Doug Atkins, George, Fortunato, Petitbon and Taylor were named to the All-Pro team. Atkins and George are in the Hall of Fame.
The championship season was marked by several memorable moments. The Bears beat the Packers 10-3 at Lambeau Field in the opener and 26-7 at Wrigley Field. After the assassination of President Kennedy, they rallied to tie the Steelers in an eerie environment at Forbes Field, thanks to an unforgettable tackle-breaking romp by Ditka. And they beat the Giants 14-10 in the championship game in 11-degree weather at Wrigley Field. Typifying the season, interceptions by Larry Morris (61 yards to the 5-yard line) and Ed O’Bradovich (10 yards to the 14) set up quarterback sneaks by Bill Wade that won the title.
‘‘They said it was cold, but I had short sleeves; it didn’t bother me,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘I just remember looking up at the end of the game and seeing the scoreboard, and we won. That was what I remember most.’’