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Amusing anecdotes about Bears jersey numbers


With the Bears assigning jersey numbers to their draft picks Wednesday, here are three amusing anecdotes about past Bears numbers:

Yes sir, Mr. Butkus

After he was selected by the Bears in the 11th round of the 1985 NFL Draft, linebacker Jim Morrissey was assigned No. 51—the same number that Hall of Fame middle linebacker Dick Butkus had worn throughout his illustrious career in Chicago. (The number wasn't retired in Butkus' honor until 1994.)

Morrissey was worried about what Butkus—who was a Bears radio analyst at the time—would think. So when Butkus walked into the locker room before the preseason opener, Morrissey hesitantly approached the legend.

Morrissey gave me the details of the awkward encounter Wednesday:

"This is the first preseason game in St. Louis. I was fully dressed two hours before the game because our trainer, Fred Caito, said: 'All you rookies and especially you late picks and free agents, you better get in here and get dressed so you make room for the veterans when they come in.' So I'm fully dressed like 2-3 hours before the game, shoulder pads on, jersey on, everything. I'm sitting in my locker and all of a sudden the door opens and Dick Butkus walks in and looks right at my number—or his number I should say.

"I was like, 'oh my God.' I knew it was Dick Butkus. I knew it was his jersey. I didn't know what to do. Do I go hide? Do I go in the training room? I said, 'You know what, I'll go say him to him.' So I say, 'Hi, Mr. Butkus, my name is Jim Morrissey out of Michigan State. I hope you know I had nothing to do with wearing your jersey.'

"He said, 'I don't give a [expletive],' and started to walk away. But then he said, 'I was just kidding. But do me a favor, don't get the back of my jersey dirty.' It became a thing during the '85 season. When he'd come around and say hi to the linebackers, he'd always pretend that he was dusting off the back of my jersey and say, 'I told you to keep my jersey clean.' That was my big introduction to Dick Butkus."

The famed "25" defense?

Hard-hitting safety Doug Plank spent his entire NFL career with the Bears from 1975-82. He was not a member of the 1985 Super Bowl champions. But his presence was very much felt by that team and continues to live on today through the famed "46 defense," which defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan named for Plank's uniform number.

Interestingly, the "46 defense" could very easily been named the "25 defense," the number that Plank was originally issued as a rookie.

"The first couple weeks that I was here, I was wearing No. 25," Plank said. "We traded for an All-Pro receiver from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Shanklin. The first practice, he got out there he saw me in 25. He goes, 'Rookie, you've got my jersey on!' I'll never forget this, over there at Lake Forest College, taking the shirt off and throwing it at him and then going downstairs and asking the equipment [manager], 'What else do you have?' He said, 'How about 46?' And I said, 'Sounds good to me.'"

Plank recalled when Ryan first created the 46 defense.

"He never called anybody by their name. You were either a number or you were an adjective and it usually wasn't a complimentary adjective," Plank said. "So I was a number; I was very thankful. He drew all the numbers on there and he brought me down from the free safety position and put me right in that middle linebacker position and circled my number three times and said 'we're going to call this the 46 defense.'

"No one really thought it was unusual because probably half the people in that room had something named after them—a blitz, a coverage, something. It just grew. As the organization put better players, more gifted players into that scheme, it became unstoppable."

Payton initially wore No. 21

Legendary Bears running back Walter Payton remains synonymous with No. 34, the number he wore throughout his Hall of Fame career in Chicago. But after being selected by the Bears with the fourth pick in the 1975 draft, Payton was initially assigned No. 21. Sweetness didn't change to No. 34 until shortly before the start of the regular season.

Senior writer Larry Mayer ranks his 10 favorite Bears players who changed jersey numbers prior to the 2021 season.