"I asked him, 'Do you think I'm ready?' and he said, 'Yes, I think you're ready.' An endorsement like that from Coach Landry was all I needed."
It was enough for Halas as well.
"Coach Halas reached out to me and took a lot of criticism from a lot of people," Ditka said. "But he said he wanted a Bear, someone with a history in the organization."
Ditka gave that to him and four winters later -- sadly, two years after Halas' death -- he led the franchise to their only Super Bowl title. He remains the only person in modern football history to win a championship as a player and head coach with the same team.
"Tom Landry is the reason I went into coaching and other than Coach Halas, is the reason I am where I am today, no question," Ditka said. "They were two of the most important people in my life. They both hired me twice and they really changed my life."
With a career that has spanned from coaching to superstar pitchman and entrepreneur, to broadcasting (including as an ESPN studio analyst), acting, Arena League team co-owner and philanthropist, Ditka has extended his celebrity well beyond the boundaries of Chicago.
In comparison, getting his number retired at age 74 seems almost inconsequential. For Ditka, that's not the point.
"The jersey retirement means a lot. Believe me, it's a great honor," he said. "But if it didn't happen, I'd still feel very good about my life as a football player and coach. It's been a hell of a run. The train is slowing down, but I'm glad to still be on it."