They say it's going to be a clear day Sunday at Soldier Field, which makes people happy here, because that means George Halas should have a good view of his Bears.

It's a funny thing about this city and its football team. They've waited so long to win again, to watch a team built on defense and a running game -- the bread-and-butter of a Midwestern football feast -- finally succeed in these ultra-modern times.

It's been 22 years. Their beloved Papa Bear can't miss it.

Halas died two years ago at the age of 88. But now that the latter-day Bears (15-1) are three games from a world championship, their first since 1963, it's as if they are playing as much to please their dear, departed founder and warm some old Bears hearts as they are for themselves.

"The ex-players really identify with this team," said Dick Butkus, their Hall of Fame middle linebacker. "The way the Bears played in the past is the way the Bears play now. It's simple. Rock-'em, sock-'em football."

But, as so many of the old Bears point out, there is one big difference between this team and so many others.

The Bears are winning now. With each Refrigerator raid that thuds into the end zone, the painful memory of a 1-13 or 4-10 season fades farther away.

By proxy, they have become winners, no matter what happens Sunday against the New York Giants.

Gale Sayers proved in just seven seasons that he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, but only twice did his team finish over .500. He wears no championship ring. The only time he ever won any kind of team title was as a senior in high school.

"There is a certain amount of pride that comes from watching this team," Sayers, 42, said today. "We've been losers for so long."

The Bears arguably are to the NFL what the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics and the Montreal Canadiens are to their leagues. All have been around a long time, all have produced lineups full of legends, all have changed the course of their sport.

It's hard to imagine an NFL without Halas and the Bears, considering Halas started the league in 1920. They have won seven NFL championships.

Their 1932 championship game, played indoors on a makeshift 80-yard field because of 30-below weather, brought about the creation of hashmarks. (The concrete stands were too close to allow the ball to be placed where it was downed.)

They also played in the first playoff game with rules allowing for sudden-death overtime.

The stories are similar for the Yankees, Celtics and Canadiens. Yet, unlike the Bears, those teams have won relatively recently, and, as has become custom, their old heroes have been dusted off and brought out to be cheered again.

Yo, Bears.

Today, at least three reporters found 77-year-old Bronko Nagurski at home in International Falls, Minn. The wind chill was 30-below and Nagurski's arthritis was acting up.

But, sure, he had a few minutes to discuss the Bears.

"This was one of the big teams from Day One," said Nagurski, a Hall of Fame fullback who played in the '30s. "Back from the days when we barnstormed all over the country, we were a pretty good team. Even today, we've got a lot of friends all over the country."

As bad as the Bears were until feisty Mike Ditka, himself one of the ex-Bears, became head coach four years ago, they never strayed far from the national consciousness.

There were Sayers and Butkus; there was the tragedy of Brian Piccolo and the weepy, acclaimed "Brian's Song"; there was (and is) Walter Payton.

"People who are scattered around the country know the Bears," said Butkus, who lives in Malibu, Calif., but works the Chicago games on radio. "I think they enjoy watching them come back."

Ronnie Bull was Sayers' blocking back in the '60s. When Sayers injured his knee in 1968, Bull and Piccolo shared the backfield; the Bears went 7-7, just missing the playoffs.

Bull now helps run a memorial golf tournament in Piccolo's name that has raised more than $1 million for cancer research.

"It's easy to be a Bear fan," Bull said. "They're having fun, and that's fun to watch. They still are the Monsters of the Midway. They don't want to be America's Team. They just want to be tough guys."

Bull was part of that 1963 team that beat the Giants, 14-10, to win the NFL title at Wrigley Field, where the Bears used to play. It was the last home playoff game the Bears played.

Washington Redskins assistant head coach/defense Richie Petitbon intercepted New York quarterback Y.A. Tittle in the end zone to clinch the victory that day. Ditka, a tight end, caught three passes. Bill Wade, the Bears' quarterback, ran for both touchdowns.

"This week brings back a lot of memories," said Wade, 55, a bank officer in Nashville. "We weren't as exciting as this Chicago team. We didn't have the Refrigerator. We didn't have Walter Payton."

The Bears might as well be History's Team, what with all this attention to a championship that occurred when William Perry was 1. Some of these old-time players show up with present Bears for speaking engagements or autograph sessions.

In fact, about the only thing they haven't done for old time's sake was retire Butkus' number 51. Instead, they gave it to a 23-year-old rookie linebacker from Michigan State named Jim Morrissey.

Butkus says he doesn't care.

The Bears say they were running out of numbers, they've retired so many.

Butkus says to that: "They have 99 numbers and use only 45."

When you ask some of the old players why it's taken so long for this team to regain its glory, they talk about management problems and coaching changes and poor quarterbacks.

At quarterback since the mid-'60s, there was Jack Concannon, Bobby Douglass, Gary Huff, Virgil Carter, Mike Phipps, Bob Avellini and Vince Evans, among others, going through town like those sitting ducks passing through the carnival arcade.

What's more, Halas was stingy.

"George Halas throws nickels around like manhole covers," Ditka said during a contract dispute in 1967. He soon was traded to Philadelphia.

"Maybe the times passed up the Halas regime," Butkus said. "Here's the great tradition, the great owner . . . you'd think the team would be a step above everybody else, but it never happened when I was there."

Like so many dynasties, they tried to hang on by their fingernails, then slowly slipped away in the mid-'60s.

"Year by year, the Bears just ran out of players," said Bill Gleason, a Chicago sportswriter for the past 45 years.

The coaches were no gems, either. After Halas retired to the front office in 1967 with a .694 winning percentage, these fellows followed: Jim Dooley (.399), Abe Gibron (.300), Jack Pardee (.484) and Neill Armstrong (.444).

Ditka is .592 in four seasons.

Although Halas made his share of personnel mistakes, his decision to bring back Ditka (and new president and Halas grandson Michael McCaskey's decision to keep him after a stormy beginning) are the reason the Bears are back, the ex-Bears say.

"Ditka's been knocked around and he's knocked people around," said Wade. "He's perfect for this team."

"He set the standard," said end Ed O'Bradovich, another member of that '63 team and a good friend of Ditka's. "He told the players when he got here to play his way or get the hell out of town."

The way they all see it, Ditka is the bridge between their team and this one.

"Mike Ditka brought back the old-time philosophy of the Bears," said Sayers, who was not on the '63 team. "He has his offensive players playing like defensive players. It's the way it used to be."

Old Bears like that.

An advertisement in today's papers here pictures a Bears helmet with one of those massive face guards sitting next to a hat. It's Halas' trademark hat, with soft folds on top and a band around the bottom.

"Somewhere, he's smiling," the ad says.

It continues: "Your boys have done just fine this year, Papa.

"You'd be proud."