- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Away from photographers, they hugged. And in front of the cameras, they posed together, Mike Ditka's arm around Buddy Ryan, Ditka asking for copies of the pictures, Ryan smiling broadly.
Just another couple of old pals who don't get to see each other much these days.
The exception was Friday's reunion, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. While not exactly on a par with Oprah and Letterman, the meeting marked a notable thawing in the relationship of two well-known adversaries.
"What I learned a long time ago is that wisdom isn't wasted on the young," said Ditka, a force behind Friday night's All-State Glory Days Chicago Reunion, a storytelling session with coaches and players from the '85 champs. "It took me a long time to get smarter and understand things. You're headstrong when you're young and maybe I was, but I'll tell you what, I certainly have grown to understand and appreciate what these guys meant and what this coach meant because his players related to him on defense like I've never seen before or since."
The 71-year-old Ditka, the head coach, and 79-year-old Ryan, the defensive coordinator, had what they called "creative differences." Ryan went so far as to say their well-documented rivalry as "fiction. I never knew it existed."
But Ryan still flashed his caustic side when asked what he admired about Ditka.
"I thought he made a great speech, which I didn't do," Ryan said to big laughs. "I went to some affairs when he first got here, and he spoke and he did a hell of a job. And it's still going on with TV. His Viagra commercials are great."
But Ryan, the architect of the 46 defense now retired after 30 years coaching in the NFL and living in Kentucky, gave plenty of credit to his former players.
"I had great people around me everywhere I went," he said. "I didn't realize it at the time, I thought it was all me. We had a lot of leaders on that team, and I got credit for a lot of things Dan Hampton and those guys did."
Did they know then that the team was special?
"Hell yes, we knew," Ryan responded. "In '84 we knew we were great. That '84 defense might have been better than the '85 Bears."
"We knew they were special to us," Ditka said. "To understand they would be special to this city 25 years after the fact, no, nobody ever thought that. The reason they are is probably because the Bears haven't won since. And if they had won, I still doubt it would have taken any luster off that group of guys because they had personalities and the city related to them. They were tough guys, this is a tough city and it worked."
Ryan said he still watches the Bears and singled out Julius Peppers as a player he admired.
"He could have played for us," Ryan said.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.