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Orange crush: Bears greats gather to celebrate 100th season

Mike Ditka wore a gold jacket, one of a staggering six men to tout their Pro Football Hall of Fame status, at opening night of the Bears 100 Celebration Weekend.

Bears legend Mike Ditka walks the Orange Carpet during the team convention at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center on Friday.
Mark Black

The first person to trudge through the glass doors and walk down the Bears’ glitzy orange carpet Friday clutched a stogie in his left hand.

He walked with purpose, though maybe a bit slower than before. He wore a gold jacket, one of a staggering six men to tout their Pro Football Hall of Fame status on opening night of the Bears 100 Celebration Weekend.

The franchise embarking on its 100th season never found someone to inherit the all-encompassing aura of George S. Halas. What team could? But the first man down the carpet came pretty close, as a Hall of Fame player and the coach of the Bears’ only Super Bowl champions.

The fans standing in a line that wound for blocks outside the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont came to see him — and Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, Jim McMahon, Devin Hester and so many others. They came to relive the 1985 team and the Bears’ only Super Bowl trophy and to dream about more.

The convention hadn’t even started, but the buzz was building when Mike Ditka walked down the carpet.

‘‘Well,’’ Ditka barked, the way he does. ‘‘It wasn’t like when you hit the beach at Normandy, but it’s pretty good.’’

Halas hired him twice, he said with an air of pride.

‘‘It was the greatest time of my life,’’ Ditka said.

For a weekend, he can relive those days. And the fans can live through them.

‘‘It kind of is a family reunion, I guess, when you think about it,’’ said Singletary, the former linebacker great. ‘‘It’s guys that you love, guys that you played in the trenches with, and now you have a chance to see them in a different light.

‘‘We don’t have to go to practice, so that’s pretty cool.’’

• • •

Bears chairman George McCaskey’s car crept along South River Road toward the convention center Friday. Minutes felt like hours.

When he got close, McCaskey looked out his window and saw the line — several hundred people, if not more than a thousand — waiting to get into the convention center.

‘‘The line is, like, six deep, and it goes all the way around this building,’’ said Butkus, one of the NFL’s great linebackers. ‘‘I don’t know where in the heck they’re gonna put them or when they’re gonna get in here.

‘‘It signifies what people in Chicago feel about the Bears. It’s been 100 years. It’s a hell of an organization. I get a kick out of all these players that talk about how great the fans are in Tampa Bay or Seattle. Give me a break, man.

‘‘They must not have been to Chicago.’’

Safety Gary Fencik became a fan the second his 12-year Bears career ended in 1987. He wrote a season-ticket clause into his playing contract: If the Bears got a new stadium, he’d be given the right to buy four tickets between the 40-yard lines in the middle of the first section. Fencik picked seats at the 42. He traveled to Green Bay last season and giddily recalled how their fans booed the Packers at halftime. He declared that former Bears coach John Fox ‘‘didn’t treat the fans with respect — and I’m a fan.’’

He understands, then, why fans flocked. So does Butkus, who played high school, college and pro football in Illinois.

‘‘I’m very proud of this city, to come from this city,’’ Butkus said. ‘‘It kind of exemplified the trademark of people in Chicago that work hard. I’m proud and humbled to really be a part of this. . . .

‘‘It’s a tribute to the people, also, for coming here and showing up to see us old guys.’’

Former quarterback Jim McMahon lived in Chicago for 28 years. All his children were born here. But he said the fans are the reason he keeps coming back.

‘‘This is a Bears town,’’ he said. ‘‘This is always going to be a Bears town, and they support it whether they’re having good years or bad. And it’s great to see them on the upswing now.’’

• • •

The Bears carefully planned the reunion for years. They’ve put on alumni events, but nothing like this.

‘‘I think an event like this is terrific,’’ McCaskey said. ‘‘If we left it to them, quite frankly, they wouldn’t get together.’’

Some former players limped into the convention center. Some needed even more help.

Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers is suffering from severe dementia. He attended in a wheelchair.

William ‘‘Refrigerator’’ Perry rode in a wheelchair. With his trademark smile, he said his health was fine but for a problem with his left leg.

‘‘It’s wonderful, coming back, seeing the guys, doing a little bit of talking,’’ he said.

McMahon said he’s due for another trip to New York, where doctors adjust his spinal cord to regulate the flow of spinal fluid. He thinks the fluid buildup harms his brain.

‘‘Hopefully I have enough left to get me through the drooling years,’’ he said.

Former linebacker Brian Urlacher, the Bears’ newest Hall of Famer, tweeted he came down with food poisoning Friday and didn’t fly to Chicago.

Ditka, who will turn 80 in October, has grown to appreciate his health after having a heart attack last year.

‘‘I’ve had a great life,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve had a couple of setbacks lately, but I’ve had a great life. I’m fortunate to be here. You don’t take anything for granted.

‘‘Health and happiness come together. So far I’m relatively healthy, but I’m really happy — and happy to be a part of this. This means a lot to me.’’

• • •

Ditka wears his Super Bowl ring often.

‘‘The more I think about it, I think I’m going to wear it all the time now,’’ he said. ‘‘Why wouldn’t I? It’s the thing I’m most proud of, that I was with those guys, all those football players. And we came together that one year and made something special happen.’’

McMahon called the 1985 Bears ‘‘the team that had the most fun and won.’’ The Bears of that era still think they should have won more than one title.

‘‘It’s unfortunate that we only won one Super Bowl,’’ McMahon said. ‘‘But people still talk about it.’’

They will this weekend. The players will reminisce, too.

‘‘That’s what it’s all about,’’ Hall of Fame defensive lineman Richard Dent said. ‘‘I don’t miss the game; I miss the guys that you played the game with.

‘‘When you know that you have guys that are competing and having a lot of fun, that’s what it’s all about. The enjoyment with one another, it’s very [rare] that you get the chance to have a group like that and get to be the best at something.’’

Contributing: Jason Lieser and Madeline Kenney