Mike Ditka, Chicago Bear '61-'66; '82-'92
by Roy Taylor © 2007
Tough. Hard-nosed. No-nonsense. Disciplinarian. Inflexible.
Legendary. Heroic to the Bears. A sell-out. Polarizing.
Many a cliché can be used to describe Mike Ditka. Born to a
railroad union leader in a small working-class, steel driven Pittsburgh suburb,
Ditka would use the humble sights he saw growing up as a motivating factor to
one day become not only a Bears legend, but an icon of America.
Michael Keller Ditka was born on October 18, 1939 in
Aliquippa, PA. Later his brother Ashton was born, and his mother Charlotte
raised the sons while their father Mike Sr. fought in the Pacific during World
War II with the United States Marines.
Mike Jr. grew up playing every sport he could, excelling in
all of them. All but high school football, up to the 10th grade. That's when
according to Armen Keteyian, author of Monster of the Midway, Aliquippa
High coach "King" Carl Acshman saw a "wimpy 10th grader with chicken legs" in
Ditka. But that "wimpy 10th grader would work so hard he would cry. If you beat
him to the ground, he would bite you, kick you. He was going to be a
ballplayer. He was going to be a ballplayer if it killed him."
So Aschman "knew the kid was special, but he never let on,"
according to Keteyian. Aschman told Ditka's mom to get the kid to eat and drink
some milk, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ditka orally committed to Penn State, then was almost literally shanghaied from
State by the University of Pittsburgh. Keteyian called it "a slice of
recruiting espionage straight out of Bear Bryant's book."
In 1961, after an All-American career at Pitt, George
Halas of the Chicago Bears made Ditka their first-round draft pick. Ditka
credits Halas to this day with making the decision to revolutionize the
position of tight end and play the rookie there, instead of making him a
linebacker, which many teams may have done with him. Ditka responded with a
Rookie of the Year season, catching 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12
touchdowns, the latter two still remaining Bears records for a tight end. Ditka
followed that up in the 1962 season by catching 58 for 906 and five touchdowns,
still very respectable numbers for the position.
By 1963, the Bears had assembled a team worthy of a world
championship, and without Ditka may not have made it there in that legendary
season for the team. On November 24, two days after the assassination of
President John F. Kennedy, the Bears found themselves trailing the Steelers in
Pittsburgh by the score of 17-14. It was late in the game and Chicago was deep
in their own territory, facing a third down and 33 yards to go. Quarterback
Bill Wade dropped back under pressure and dumped the ball to Ditka in the flat,
just looking to get a few yards out of the play. In what NFL legend George
Allen called "a superhuman effort", Ditka shedded at least five would-be
tacklers on his way to a 63-yard rumble. The Bears would kick a field goal and
salvage a tie, saving their season in the process, as they held a slim lead
over the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Western Division standings.
Famously, the 1963 Bears went on to win the NFL Championship
over the New York Giants in frigid Wrigley Field, thanks in part to Ditka, who
led the team with 59 receptions for 794 yards and 8 touchdowns.
In 1964, however, the Bears began a long and steady decline
that would end up lasting until the early 1980's, when they would look for a
savior to lead them from the long abyss. During that season's training camp,
popular players Willie Galimore and John "Bo" Farrington were killed in a car
crash. Many players were injured as well, and the Bears fell to 5-9, and
second-to-last place in the division standings. The Bears rebounded with a
dominant offense in 1965, led by coaches Jim Dooley and Chuck Mather, but
Ditka's numbers continued to drop.
During the 1965 and '66 seasons, Ditka punched his ticket out
of Chicago in a disgraceful exit for a legendary player. By 1965, Ditka began
suffering through painful knee and foot injuries and his numbers showed the
effects. In '65, Ditka and Bear receiver Johnny Morris spoke at a banquet
attended by the media, and publicly sided with backup quarterback Rudy Bukich
over the starter Wade. Halas became furious, and ordered Morris and Ditka to
apologize to the team. Morris relented, but Ditka did not. In '66, Ditka was
sick of his $25,000 salary and stated his first legendary line in Chicago:
"Halas throws nickels around like manhole covers." In April of 1967, several
days before he was eligible to become a free agent, Halas traded Ditka to the
Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for quarterback Jack Concannon. Thus a new,
darker chapter of Ditka's life opened.
In a 2004 interview on WTTW Chicago, Ditka called his
years in Philadelphia "purgatory." The Eagles and the city were bad, and the
NFL viewed Ditka the player as being washed up. He lasted just two seasons in
Philadelphia, before Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry decided to take a flyer on
the veteran. Playing under the old-school coach motivated Ditka, much as
playing for his high school coach Acshman did, and the tight end had a revival.
He played four more seasons for the Cowboys, even catching a touchdown pass in
Dallas' Super Bowl VI victory over the Miami Dolphins.
When his playing career ended following the 1972 season with
the Cowboys, Ditka signed on as tight ends and special teams coach under
Landry. He would coach nine seasons with the Cowboys as an assistant, but the
whole time he knew Dallas wasn't where his heart truly was.
After Ditka departed Chicago, the Bears entered what would be
a fifteen-year funk, lasting to 1981. Halas turned over the reigns to Dooley in
1968, who after four disappointing seasons, including a franchise-worst 1-13
record in 1969, gave way to the colorful Abe Gibron. Gibron lasted just three
years, when the Halas family decided to hire a professional General Manager,
Jim Finks, to run the show. Finks hired Jack Pardee in 1975, and after Pardee's
resignation Neill Armstrong in 1979. Finks, Pardee and Armstrong landed the
Bears in the playoffs twice, but twice they had early exits. By 1981, the Bears
were again on a downturn, and Halas took back the reigns from Finks after a
Several years prior to 1981, Ditka had written a letter to
Halas, telling his former nemesis that if there ever were an opportunity, he
would love to coach the Bears. In fact, it would be his life's goal. So in
January of 1982, tired of the lapses in discipline the team had suffered under
Armstrong, Halas fired the incumbent and shocked players and the media by
hiring Ditka as Chicago's new head man.
"Mike Ditka?," Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary
recalled in a 2006 interview with NFL Network. "This guy's crazy...he
spits, cusses, throws clipboards. This guy's crazy-we don't want this guy!"
This was the initial reaction Singletary remembers the team having. But,
according to Singletary, Ditka's first speech to the team was "Give me three
years, and if you walk with me, we'll get to the dance." "That," Singletary
said, "was when we knew this was the guy we needed."
Aside from yelling at his players and breaking his hand after
punching a locker in anger in 1983, Ditka's volatile personality kept a fairly
low profile his first few years. Ditka's team finished 3-6 in the
strike-shortened 1982 season, then 8-8 in 1983, when they assembled their first
lights-out draft class. In 1984 Chicago lost the NFC Championship game at San
Francisco, then in 1985 put together the best team in NFL History according to
an Espn.com poll, and the second-best Super Bowl team in history
according to NFL Network's 2006 America's Game epic series.
By the spring of 1986, Mike Ditka and his Bears were on top of
the world. Not just the football world, not just the American world of
entertainment, but the entire world. The team traveled to England, Germany and
Sweden for preseason games in 1986, 1988, and 1991, and were received as
royalty. But during that time, the Chicago Bears the football team were again
starting to slip.
It's been well documented that the Bears' popularity, along
with injuries to quarterback Jim McMahon, polarized the team and prevented them
from winning another Super Bowl when that seemed a foregone conclusion.
The first brick to fall was the immediate departure of
defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, following Super Bowl 20. Ditka and Ryan,
never friends from the get-go, seemed to need each other to win, and in fact
became the only Super Bowl-winning team to carry two coaches off the field.
Another developing problem was team President Michael McCaskey, who had taken
over for Halas when his Grandfather died in 1983. McCaskey became more and more
involved, first in business affairs then football affairs, and he fired General
Manager Jerry Vainisi following the 1986 season.
At this same time, players commented that Ditka was urging
them to pay attention to football and not take so many endorsements, while the
coach himself was cornering the market. From 1985-1992, Ditka would write two
books, own a downtown restaurant and suburban hot dog chain, along with a
Limousine company. He endorsed products from cars to antifreeze to
antihistamines and even cut a music video called "The Grabowski Shuffle".
The Bears' record remained steady during these years, and in
fact the team set an NFL mark by winning 52 games in four years (1985-1988)
which still stands. Ditka suffered a heart attack during the 1988 season, and
promised to return as a more "Mellow Mike" in the future. Then in 1989, while
Ditka did publicly look more mellow, his team dropped to 6-10, due to injuries
and the aging of the team. His calm lasted through the 1990 season, when the
team rebounded with its sixth NFC Central championship in seven years, and a
trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Then came the 1991 draft. Ditka wanted to choose defensive
lineman Chris Zorich, a local product, Bear fan, and 1990 Lombardi Award winner
with Chicago's 22nd pick in the first round. According to Ditka, McCaskey (now
evidently working in the Bear draft room) insisted the team needed an offensive
tackle. Calling Texas' Stan Thomas the "last of the big men", McCaskey, backed
by personnel VP Bill Tobin, decided to choose Thomas. Ditka was vehemently
opposed to Thomas' character, but was slightly placated when Zorich was still
around when the Bears chose in the second-round.
Ditka's 1991 Bears defied their critics, pulling off several
amazing wins in the last second, but following a 52-14 thumping at San
Francisco in the final week, lost the division crown to resurgent Detroit. The
Bears then were defeated 17-13 by the resurgent Dallas Cowboys at home in the
playoffs. After the loss, Ditka made public comments that he could only coach
the talent he was given, angering some players.
During the 1992 preseason, a television commentator quoted
Ditka as saying he felt as good about his '92 talent as he did in 1985. The
Bears did start the season 4-3, after which the bottom fell out with three
straight heart-wrenching losses. And on October 4th, an enraged Ditka launched
a tirade on quarterback Jim Harbaugh after his interception turned the tide in
a game Chicago was leading 20-0 in the third quarter. Ditka later explained
that Harbaugh was under orders not to audible under any conditions in the noisy
Metrodome, an order Harbaugh ignored. The damage was done, and the Ditka scene
would be replayed countless times throughout the season.
Did the 1992 Bears truly not have the talent to win, or did
they quit on their flatlining-coach? On December 13, the 4-9 Bears rocked the
Steelers 30-6 in Singletary's final home game. The Steelers would go on to the
AFC Championship, so it could be argued the team decided to give up the fight
for their legendary coach.
After his team finished 5-11, just the third Bears losing
season in Ditka's 11, McCaskey took a ski vacation and 15 days to decide he
would fire Ditka, a very improper way to treat a legend in the city. A tearful
Ditka bid farewell to his dream job on that day in January 1993, leaving behind
a team and a city that would never be the same. At the press conference,
McCaskey announced that he was paying Ditka to remain a consultant to him to
help forge the future direction of the team. This must have only amounted to
hush money, as Ditka didn't truly comment on the situation until a 2005
interview with Fox Sports Network.
"I was fired out of jealousy, plain and simple," Ditka said
for the Beyond the Glory special. "I had become the Bears. The greatest
moment of my life is when George Halas hired me. The lowest moment of my life
was when a guy that shouldn't have been there fired me."
Hard to argue with that.