On the NFL
12:18 AM CDT, May 24, 2013
To one generation, he is a salesman of opinions and pork chops.
To a previous generation, he was the only coach for the Bears.
And to another generation, he was the NFL's first great tight end, a player defenses had no answer for.
To everyone who has called Bears football a significant part of his or her life, he is a treasure, the closest thing to founder-owner-coach George Halas still among us.
More than a coach, more than a player, Mike Ditka is the Bears. And if any number never should be worn on the team again, it is 89.
Since 1946, the Bears have won it all twice. The common denominator in the championships?
Neither championship would have happened without him.
He breathed passion. He defined toughness. He embraced tradition.
No one who has come since possibly could understand what it means to be a Bear like Ditka did.
"We played for the love of the game," he told me in the first booth across from the bar at Ditka's on Chestnut this week. "It wasn't a business. It was an opportunity to make some money because you could do some things with your body that other people couldn't do. You weren't going to get rich. You better have another job. It's what you would dream about as a kid. It was fun. Everything, the injury, arguing with Halas. It was part of growing up."
If every Bear approached his job like Ditka, there would have been more Super Bowls in team history.
Ditka might have been better than anyone at holding everyone accountable — Bears players, Bears ownership, opponents, media members, even fans.
"Here's your IQ, buddy!"
Forty-six seasons after he was traded to the Eagles, Ditka still owns the Bears' tight end records for catches and receiving yards. But what stood out to former teammate Ed O'Bradovich was the way he blocked.
"Mike Ditka put the fear of God in linebackers and defensive backs," O'Bradovich said. "He went after people."
Richie Petitbon played with Ditka for each of Ditka's six seasons in Chicago. He was an NFL player for 14 years and a coach for 16 and a member of four championship teams.
"The best player I've ever been around was Mike Ditka," Petitbon said. "If he wanted to play defense he would have been a fabulous linebacker. He was a great competitor."
That was evident from the beginning. In his 1961 rookie season, he caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the rest of the NFL had no idea how to defend against him.
"Nobody knew what the hell a tight end was," Ditka said. "Halas and (assistant coach) Luke Johnsos were designing a lot of plays for me. They had a great concept. In those days you were covered by a linebacker or safety, and they weren't cover guys. You could beat them."
And beat them he did. But he paid a price.
Ditka has had foot surgery, shoulder surgery, two knee surgeries and two hip surgeries. He also suffered a heart attack while he was a coach and a stroke more recently.
He wouldn't change any of it though.
"If you could have as much fun as I had playing football, and get complimented for it, that's pretty good," he said. "I watch some of these guys playing, and I know I had a lot more fun than they're having. And the game meant a lot more to me."
It meant a lot more to him than a lot of coaches too. How many of them could you imagine breaking their hand by punching a locker in a pregame speech?
Ditka won two NFL championships as a player, one as an assistant coach and one as a head coach. The most special was in 1985.
"When you do it as a head coach like in '85, it surpasses everything because it is an organizational thing," he said. "Everybody is involved — scouts, coaches, management, players. That's what I enjoyed about it."
Always, it was about the team with Ditka.
It probably was unintentional. Maybe it was our minds playing tricks on us, but when the team came out with that logo of a roaring bear's head in the 1980s, it appropriately looked a little like a man as well as an animal.
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