Even Papa Bear George Halas, the founding father of the NFL’s charter franchise and one of the men most responsible for the league's existence, might have been inspired by the convergence of legends and tradition on display in one room Friday night in Rosemont to kick off the weekend celebrating his Chicago Bears centennial season.
At one point inside the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center conference room for Bears100, legends of three title teams — the 1963 and 1985 World Champions and the 2006 NFC Champions — held court within minutes of each other: Franchise receiving leader Johnny Morris, Franchise sack leader and Hall of Famer Richard Dent and the greatest returner in NFL history, Devin Hester.
They were preceded and followed on the orange carpet by more Hall of Famers, Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. After all, no NFL franchise has more — 28 — six of whom were in attendance: Ditka, Butkus, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary and Gale Sayers. (The team's most recent inductee, Brian Urlacher, bowed out Friday afternoon with a stomach bug.)
“The Bears are like the foundation of the NFL,” said Ditka, the leading receiver on the ’63 team and the head coach of the ’85 Bears. “It’s pretty special. I don’t know what they feel. All I feel is pride.”
For Morris, beyond feeling indebted to the organization that gave him his NFL start, the opportunity to reunite with Sayers for the first time in 10-15 years was a key reason for his attendance. Sayers, the youngest inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, suffers from severe dementia and is now only a shadow physically of one of the more breathtaking football players ever.
“I played with Gale, covered Payton and I’ve covered a lot of guys over the years,” Morris said. “If I wanted one player for a season, I’d take Walter Payton. If I wanted a football player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers above every running back I’ve seen.”
Rolled by wheelchair to the stage when the Hall of Famers were announced, Sayers mostly remained expressionless while wearing his No. 40 hat and Hall of Fame jacket. But his was among the most emotional introductions of the evening.
“I happen to be playing in a football game at Wrigley Field,” Ditka recalled of Sayers’ record 6-TD performance vs. the 49ers as a rookie in 1963. “The field was muddy and I watched a guy play the greatest football game I’ve ever seen.”
Dent recalled watching one of Sayers teammates when he was a kid and first dreamt of playing in the NFL.
“Sitting here a minute ago with Dick Butkus, someone that you watched play at 10, 11, 12 years old, and then you get a chance to be in that circle, it’s really something special,” he said.
Added Hester, whose entrances to the opening ceremony was among the night's most energetic: “I’m just walking among the living legends. It’s a great honor to be a part of this organization. I’m so happy that they drafted me and I just want to be a part of it.”
Bears chairman George McCaskey said reuniting so many of the Bears alum from so many different decades was the driving force behind the event.
“To me, that’s the most exciting part about this weekend, is providing a vehicle for these guys to renew acquaintances, stories, and just to get to know each other again,” McCaskey said.
George said mother Virginia, or “Mama Bear,” shares his excitement and anxiously awaits soaking in as much of the weekend's festivities as possible.
“She’s doing a couple of television interviews tomorrow and she was giving me the business because she doesn’t want to take time away from a panel discussion to do the interviews. She wants to listen to the linebackers, she wants to listen to the quarterbacks, listen to the coordinators and take in as much of the weekend as she can.”
Of course, for all their incredible history, it’s been quite a while since a current team has generated legitimate Super Bowl buzz the way the current reigning division champions have.
And there was plenty of discussion regarding the season ahead. Dent broke down the next step in Khalil Mack’s evolution. Mike Singletary said the talent and personnel is in place, that the maturation process will determine how far the Bears go. Their fellow ’85 Bear Jay Hilgenberg said at least in one way he can relate to the current group.
“When I came to the Bears, all we heard about were the ’63 Bears — and we wanted to erase that,” Hilgenberg said. “These guys are more than capable. They have a great coaching staff. They’re fun to watch and they’re having fun on the field. And they have the personality. In the ‘80s I think we had some personalities too. It’d be fun to see these guys go on the type of roll we went on. The city wants it. The ex-players really want it, also.”
There was also plenty of talk regarding the Bears fans, who lined up for blocks on River Road waiting for admission, and their thirst for another championship. The Bears have been around for 100 years, but one might argue there hasn’t been a team this equipped to win a Lombardi since 2006, if not 1985.
“It’s just very gratifying and humbling and we’re just so appreciative of the great support of Bears fans, and now we need to reward that support with some hardware,” George McCaskey said.
But perhaps it was Ditka who said it best, paying homage to Halas and sharing what felt like so many of his fellow franchise legends' sentiments.
"I’m happy to be a part of this. This means a lot for me. I played for the man — [Halas] hired me twice — who started this whole league. He was the guy who made it happen. Pretty special."