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The Mettle of Iron Mike

Mike Ditka is coaching again, but can the steel will that drove da Bears raise the saints to glory?
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 4)

Ditka, 33 when he retired, still vividly remembers some of the great defensive players of his era. "The guys that I had great respect for were Bill George [a multiposition defender who played 14 years for the Bears], Joe Schmidt [a Detroit linebacker], Ray Nitschke [Green Bay's legendary linebacker]--those are the guys I played against, those are the warriors. Willie Davis [defensive end from Green Bay], Gino Marchetti [defensive end and offensive tackle with Baltimore]--I had to block against these guys, you know. Deacon Jones [Los Angeles defensive end and all-time leader in quarterback sacks]--that was no fun.

"But that was to me the greatest challenge. You look at these guys and they're all in the Hall of Fame; I got to play against these guys! Now to me, that's pretty special. Not only are they in the Hall of Fame, but they really are the prototypes for those positions. Including Butkus; I played against him but I also played with Dick. Dick always took it easy on me; I think he liked me." Lucky for Ditka. This is the same Butkus whom Ahmad Rashad called "the meanest player I ever competed against." The same Butkus who, after seeing the Bette Davis movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, said, "I got a real charge when I saw that head come tumbling down the stairs."

After Dallas, Ditka tried a life outside football. "I loved to play golf and I got into a couple of restaurants down there [in Dallas], had a couple of failures, but it was a good experience. Everything was a good experience that l've had in my life. Even the bad ones were good because I learned from them." Then he got another call out of the blue from Tom Landry. "Have you ever thought about coaching?" Landry asked. "Do you want to take a shot at working with our receivers?" Ditka accepted.

"The Dallas thing was such an amazing thing when you think about it," Ditka recalls. "That was the furthest thing from my mind and yet I did it immediately. My salary dropped from $44,000 as a player to $22,000 as a coach, but it was the best opportunity I ever had. Because I knew that's what I was supposed to do. I did it and I learned; it took me a while, but I learned and I got discipline and I got order and I got to pay attention to things I never thought I would. Landry really taught me football as a coach, and as a player, making me understand the aspect of playing as a team.

"That truly was America's team at that time. We were going to Super Bowls. We weren't winning 'em all, but we were going to 'em all, a lot of 'em anyway. We got beat by Pittsburgh. The great success that Pittsburgh had--if we had won those two Super Bowls against Pittsburgh [in 1976 and 1979]--we would be the greatest team ever."

After being an assistant for nine years with Dallas, Ditka applied for the Bears' head coaching job, dropping a simple letter to owner George Halas in 1981. "I just want you to know if you ever make a change in the coaching end of the organization," Ditka wrote, "I just wish you would give me some consideration." He didn't hear from Halas until after the season, when "Papa Bear" told him to come to Chicago. They worked out a deal right at Halas's kitchen table, with Ditka signing for $100,000. "The salary was the lowest in the league," Ditka recalls. "But I didn't care. In the beginning the toughest thing was proving myself. I was young and I was uncool and this and that. I think that's the hardest thing. In the beginning it didn't work."

The Bears finished 3-6 in 1982 (the season was reduced to nine games by a players' strike for free agency). But things turned around. They finished 8-8 in 1983 and 10-6 in 1984. "We had missing ingredients and little by little we filled in those ingredients with [Jim] McMahon, [Jim] Covert, [Wilber] Marshall, [William "Refrigerator"] Perry. And even some of our other draft picks--we got [Dave] Duerson and [Richard] Dent--guys who became great players. It seems like there were a couple of pieces to the puzzle that we put in, and when we got those in we got a heck of a lot better in a hurry.

"Our defense in '85 was interesting to watch," Ditka says. "Even now when I look at films, I've never seen any team play like they played." The Bears sailed through the season with a 15-1 record, averaging 28.5 points a game on offense and allowing just 12.3 on defense. They beat the Rams and the Giants in the playoffs by a combined score of 45-0 and then crushed the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, played at the Louisiana Superdome, 46-10.

The Bayou blowout gave the Bears a combined 91-10 tally in the postseason. "You wanted it, you worked for it, you earned it and then you went out and took it," Ditka said to his players in the locker room after the game. "God bless every one of you, you're the greatest thing I've ever seen and I'm happy for every one of you."

Their utter dominance earned the 1985 Bears a place in football history. "I just had a lot of tough guys," Ditka recalls, amazed even now. "They just needed direction more than anything else. They just needed to believe they had a right to win. I think that was the biggest thing. Then they went after it with an intensity I've never seen.

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