'This is real': Past glory collides with future dreams as Bears100 Celebration Weekend begins

Where do you start? Where do you start when 99 years of football history comes flooding down the orange carpet? Bob Wetoska followed by Otis Wilson, Charles Tillman followed by Khalil Mack.

Where do you start when a century’s worth of prestige — 28 Pro Football Hall of Famers, eight NFL championships, that iconic run of the ’85 Bears — collides with a current team and an upcoming season that has its own realistic Super Bowl dreams attached?


Where should you start at the Bears100 Celebration Weekend, the three-day gala that began Friday night at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center?

Perhaps it’s best to collect all the memories, all the stories and all the feelings they still elicit. That’s why Friday’s opening ceremony in Rosemont packed the perfect nostalgic punch. “I’m glad I lived this long and made it here to be a part of this,” said Mike Ditka, a legendary tight end with the Bears for six seasons and later a fiery head coach for 11.


And with more than 200 former and current players from the last eight decades in attendance, Ditka wasn’t alone. The euphoria and appreciation the former Bears were feeling? They were shared by the fans on hand.

Maybe you were there when a deafening roar greeted William Perry, now 56 and rolling into the spotlight in a wheelchair, showered with the same love and adulation as if he had just steamrolled Packers linebacker George Cumby into the end zone yesterday.

Maybe you felt that intense adrenaline surge and a tingle of goosebumps when the first beats of Soulja Boy came over the sound system and Devin Hester danced his way to the main stage catwalk, reminding so many fans what it used to feel like — and how deafening it could become — when the Bears were readying to return a kickoff.

And maybe you acknowledged how special this entire gathering truly is when a half-dozen members of the Bears Hall of Fame fraternity gathered together under the bright lights, all in their gold jackets, all iconic in their own way. Dick Butkus and Richard Dent. Dan Hampton and Gale Sayers. Mike Singletary and Mike Ditka.

“It’s very humbling,” Singletary said. “When I think about wearing this gold jacket, all of the guys who don’t have one of these jackets, they had something to do with the reason I’m wearing this one. It does take a team to wear this jacket.”

Undeniably there was an odd blend of happiness and heartbreak to have Sayers present Friday. He’s 76 and has dementia. He is so much more frail than ever before. And it was clear he was in a state of discomfort during his brief appearance on stage in his wheelchair. Yet those old, grainy, black and white highlights of the Kansas Comet twisting opposing defenses into pretzels and lighting the Wrigley Field grass on fire still can make jaws drop and former teammates gush with respect.

Ditka, for example, found himself back in Sayers’ six-touchdown game against the 49ers in 1965.

“He looked like he was gliding,” Ditka said. “The field was muddy, fellas. Everybody was slipping and sliding except him. It was the most unbelievable exhibition I’ve ever seen in the history of the game.”


Johnny Morris played with Sayers for three seasons in the mid-’60s and still marvels at how easily his breath could be taken away.

“If I wanted one (running back) for a season, I’d take Walter Payton,” Morris said. “But if I wanted a player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers above every running back I’ve seen — whether it be Jim Brown or O.J. Simpson or anybody. He had a knack of being in the air and he’d swing his leg over and come down in a different direction. That’s the best way I can put it.”

There are so many people and games and moments to reminisce about this weekend as the Bears charge into their 100th season.

Doug Plank chimed in with fitting praise for Buddy Ryan, the bold but respected defensive coordinator who helped build one of the greatest defenses in the game’s history, the engine that eventually helped drive the Bears to their only Super Bowl victory.

“I thought he was a flaming lunatic,” Plank quipped. “And he used technology and words that were never used before in the sport or coaching. And some of them weren’t very complimentary. You never were a name. You were a number or you were an adjective. Fortunately, I was a number.

“But I will say this about Buddy: He was the first coach I ever had who ever gave the players the ability to go ahead and make decisions on (the defensive calls) on the field.”


One of Ryan’s most reliable linemen, Steve McMichael, expressed his gratitude Friday night for recently being named as the No. 19 Bear of all time on the organization’s top-100 list, produced by esteemed writers Don Pierson and Dan Pompei, both of whom worked for the Tribune.

Said McMichael: “That’s unbound in history, isn’t it? Everybody wants their name to be spoken through eternity, right? What you do in life speaks eternal, baby. And I am so glad to be a Chicago Bear and part of this history.”

And Butkus and former safety Gary Fencik? They started by expressing their disbelief in Friday’s turnout, a mob scene Fencik first noticed as he pulled up to the convention center in the early evening with three blocks full of passionate fans waiting for the doors to open.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of people trying to get in here,” Butkus added. “It’s six deep and it goes all around this building. … It signifies how people in Chicago feel about the Bears.”

Butkus smiled.

“It’s a hell of an organization,” he said. “I get a kick out of all these players who say how great the fans are in Tampa Bay or Seattle. I’m like, ‘Give me a break, man!’ They must not have been here in Chicago.”


Added Fencik: “This is real. It’s the appreciation and understanding that you are a part of a context of something much bigger. It’s really 100 years of a special organization and a celebration of a great sport.”

Of course, the positive energy this weekend is heightened because of what fans believe is in store for 2019, with last year’s NFC North champs looking to chase the league’s most coveted prize. There’s only one Lombardi Trophy at Halas Hall. But coach Matt Nagy and a team led by Trubisky and Mack will try to add to that collection with a unified hunger and an understanding of their privilege to be a part of all this.

A year ago at this time Nagy was just a relatively unknown rookie head coach trying to revive a franchise that had spent four consecutive seasons in last place. Now? He’s the reigning NFL Coach of the Year, a division champion and a charismatic rising star in a football-crazed city that believes he’s positioned to take the Bears back to glory.

Nagy was reminded of how all of that will change the expectations and the pressure from fans this year.

“You know what they want,” he acknowledged. “You think there’s pressure? Of course there is. But we like pressure. Let’s go get this thing.”

Again, the convention center erupted.


Even with 99 seasons full of grand memories, Nagy knows the next chapter belongs to him and his troops. For now, the current Bears will immerse themselves in this weekend’s one-of-a-kind history lesson.

Twitter @danwiederer

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