Mike Ditka, Chicago Bear '61-'66; '82-'92
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 6-10 season.
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.
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