Buddy Ryan and his players fought for each other

Ron Rivera: Buddy Ryan strived to make everyone better (3:18)

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera joins NFL Live to share what it was like to play for Buddy Ryan and the impact he had on Rivera's coaching career. (3:18)

It was Mike Ditka who made it happen, who put aside the wisecracks and snide cracks and thawed a feud with Buddy Ryan that Ryan said he never knew existed.

But it was Ryan who allowed it to happen, who returned Ditka's bear hug when the coaches and players got together on the occasion of the 1985 Super Bowl champions' 25th anniversary in 2010.

They were both in their 70s by then, Ryan nearly 80, and the creative, and ... OK, personal ... differences that were revealed most graphically when the '85 Bears defense carried Ryan off the field following their Super Bowl XX rout, just didn't seem worth it anymore.

"It took me a long time to get smarter and understand things," Ditka said that day the two reunited to promote the reunion, a glorified storytelling session for fans. "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."

They did love Ryan, who died Tuesday.

Bears Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton told the story Tuesday of Ryan, who in 1993 as the defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, punched the team's offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sideline during a game.

"Everyone goes 'Buddy's crazy taking a swing at one of his own coaches,' and no one knew what it was about, and it was so indicative of him as a leader," Hampton said.

"The Oilers were playing the Jets in their 16th game of the season, a meaningless game, where the whole point was to get the damn game over and run the ball," Hampton said. "But Gilbride kept calling a bunch of pass plays and Buddy was like, 'Are you nuts?' He had a bunch of guys who were beat up and he kept sending them back out onto the field and he couldn't take it.

"That's why players loved Buddy. That's why his players loved him. That's why so many times in so many ways, it would manifest itself in a way that we knew Buddy loved us and would go to war for us."

So loyal were they to their old defensive coordinator that years later, when Dave Duerson accused Ryan of using a racial epithet toward him during his playing career, every defensive player, black and white, said it simply never happened.

Mike Singletary, one of Duerson's closest friends on the team, said everyone had to learn how to handle Ryan's trials in their own way.

"Buddy didn't like any rookies that came in, but Dave had to lick his wounds," Singletary said following Duerson's suicide in 2011. Duerson was diagnosed with CTE. "He took it a little more personal than most of us, but I really think Buddy was just trying to help Dave be the best he could be, and there was nothing personal by it."

Both Duerson and Ryan said when they saw each other in later years, there was always a handshake and often a hug.

"Most rookies thought I didn't like them because I was on them all the time to hurry their progress," Ryan said. "But we got along. He was a normal rookie that way. And I was proud he made the Pro Bowl. That was great."

Of course, it wasn't as if Ryan ever mellowed completely.

Trying to be nice when talking about Ditka at the reunion, he still couldn't resist getting in a few digs.

"I thought he made a great speech, which I didn't do," Ryan said of his first impressions of Ditka, drawing laughter. "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 he was always humble when it came to his players. And Ditka remembered a loyalty Ryan demonstrated that he said was incomparable.

"Buddy stayed the course," Ditka said in 2014. "He knew what he wanted to do and he did it and he wouldn't let anyone deter him from what he thought was right for the Bears or for his players; me, ownership anybody. And he stuck up for his players better than anybody around. Sometimes maybe I had a little shortcoming in that area but he never ever failed to stick up for his players on the defensive side of the ball. They were No. 1 and they should have been. "

"I had great people around me everywhere I went," Ryan said. "I didn't realize it at the time, I thought it was all me. We had a lot of leaders on that ['85] team and I got credit for a lot of things Dan Hampton and those guys did."

For the past 10 years, Hampton has gone to visit Ryan at his Kentucky farm with former teammate Gary Fencik. In late May, they visited with another teammate, Lenny Walterscheid.

"There is great resolution with a lot of things," Hampton said. "You don't know how you're going to feel until something like this happens, but I know he's in a better place. We walked out of Buddy's house knowing we probably wouldn't see him again but it was such a joyous time. He couldn't talk, but you could tell how happy he was that we were there. There was a peace and contentment."

Fencik brought the '81 letter the Bear defense wrote to owner George Halas all but demanding that Ryan be retained after then-coach Neill Armstrong was fired.

"He read it and he told Buddy 'We bailed your ass out,' and he was laughing, joyous," Hampton recalled. "I can't tell you how happy I was that we were able to see him again and give him a final farewell."