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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 7)

Around Ditka are murals of some of his personal heroes and legends of the Chicago sports scene--Stan Musial, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Ernie Banks. "They put a picture of me up, too," Ditka says, almost apologetically. "Which they shouldn't have done." There are old Packers and a new one--Brett Favre--and baseball players, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Enos Slaughter.

To fire up another Dunhill he pulls out a lighter that is is essentially a damned torch with a flame long and blue enough to weld pieces of alloyed steel. "I can light it under any conditions," he explains. "I play golf; you can light it in rain, snow, wind." And no doubt in a twister. "These Dunhills are great. It's probably the most consistent cigar you're going to get, in and out. The thing about cigars is, there's no bad cigars, unless you get one that offends you. That means immediately when you light it up you get that aftertaste--a sulfuric or acidic taste."

Ditka's cigar talk will be getting more authoritative.

In October he bought into the Little Havana Cigar Factory. Each of the four factories--with locations in Chicago at the Hyatt Hotel, The Navy Pier, 6 West Maple and 140 South Dearborn--will feature cigars made from long-leaf Dominican tobacco, rolled right out front on the premises. "There will be a Mike Ditka Signature line of cigars," says part-owner Richard Simon (the other owners are Ditka and Jim Limparis and the cigarmaker is Julio Ramirez). "Each shop will have six rollers," Limparis adds.

Hall of Fame tight end and coach of the 1986 championship Bears, restaurateur and cigar devotee, hard knocks philosopher and current coach of the latter day Saints, Mike Ditka is a larger than life personality in a game that desperately needs all the personalities it can get. Network cameras follow him, hoping he'll blow his stack at an assistant coach or player. It's a tried--if not true--television formula. Let's play "pigeonhole the personality." See Oprah as she brings her guests to tears, now watch Sally Jessy draw out the sleaze. "If you're going to put cameras on me, show the whole picture," he told ESPN in an "Up Close" interview. "When we were winning, [my actions] showed 'zest and fire and zeal,' when I did it when we were losing, you say 'he's being a bully.' I never understood that."

A fan comes over to Ditka's corner table to wish him well. "You're going to end up making me a Saints fan," the man says. "I've been a Bills fan all my life. But now I just got a feeling." Ditka thanks him. Best wishes notwithstanding, the Dictionary of Saints mentions none from New Orleans.

For most of their 31 years the New Orleans Saints have been--in the kindest of sports euphemisms--"rebuilding." This rebuilding has proceeded with all the speed of continental drift. A welcoming sign in the airport announces New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz. It has never been known as the birthplace of the gridiron. Since their arrival in 1967, the Saints have played a grand total of four playoff games and lost all four. In the past some of their fans referred to them as the New Orleans 'Aints and showed up at games with paper bags over their heads. The House of Blues was only rumored to be on Bourbon Street. It was really the Louisiana Superdome. The fleur-de-lis (flower of the lily) emblem on the Saints' helmets was apparently a big deal in the court of Louis XIV. But the difficult-to-pronounce flower hasn't exactly struck fear in the hearts of National Football League opponents. No wonder the front office sought a new coach to overhaul the team.

Ditka was one of 40 coaching candidates that Bill Kuharich, the Saints' chief operating officer, president and general manager, had researched. "I think the key to the whole thing was the winning factor," says Kuharich, explaining his choice of Ditka. "The fact that he's won as a player, won as an assistant coach, won as a head coach--that was really the deciding factor. To me the greatest indication of what someone might do is what they've done in the past."

That past includes 106 wins and 62 losses as a head coach. Before Ditka can repeat that success, however, a lot of ground work is necessary. Football is still a grind-it-out war, a game won by real talent chewing up real estate. The greatest players in football history ate up large chunks of it. Aside from his singular combination of speed and power, Jimmy Brown is the game's greatest back ever because he averaged 5.2 yards per run. Jerry Rice, the all-time leader with 154 touchdowns, has caught 1,050 balls for 16,377 yards--an average gain of 15.6 yards. Sid Luckman and Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Steve Young are in the pantheon of great quarterbacks because they could move the chains. Other teams--like the Packers and Steelers, Dolphins and Raiders, Redskins and Giants--won championships with defense, running and the occasional long ball.

On such talent victory depends. Right now none of the best offensive players in the game--Barry Sanders, Steve Young, Brett Favre and several others--wear Saints uniforms. Most of the league's 30 teams would be hard pressed to find one all-world talent on their rosters. Absent game-breaking talent, Ditka has tried to model a team in his own image. The word Ditka used for his type of player is a "Grabowski." What is a Grabowski exactly? Many analysts have taken a crack at it. Essentially it is a player like Ditka himself was--a guy with abundant professional skill coupled with undying will. In Ditka's words, it's a guy with a work ethic.

For Ditka, character counts. The temptation will be to evaluate his performance based on wins and losses. But this is too narrow and premature a barometer of success with a Saints team that went 3-13 in 1996. Ditka will earn the lion's share of his reported $7 million over three years by just finding the right mix of players and preparing them to win. If players don't want to be in New Orleans, he will oblige them. If they don't have the right attitude, he doesn't want them. He won't suffer fools gladly. He set the tone early, cutting quarterback Jim Everett ($3.2 million) and eight other starters from the 1996 squad well before the season began.

Ditka picks up his point about collisions. When Ditka emphasizes a point, his blue eyes widen and stare. He isn't going through the motions: he explains things with freshness, reaching deep as if making the point for the first time. "I know we're not supposed to say this in our society--you don't want to teach young kids wrong things; you want to teach them to play the game inside the rules, not outside the rules. But there's one thing that holds true. You hit the guy you're playing against harder than he hits you, more often than he hits you, you'll win every battle, and every battle has to be won before the war gets won. It's not a complicated thing and let's not make it out to be."

No, it isn't. Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones once said, "Hard hits will make cowards of us all." But the Saints must hear his talk and then walk the walk.

Five weeks into the season, Mike Ditka is pacing the sidelines at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. He bends, hands on knees, and peers at the action but pops up again before a play is run. He resumes pacing, applauds his players, pats their pads, reprimands them as they come off the field. Then he paces some more. He can't be busy enough. The time between plays seems too long. He goes to the Gatorade table, takes a sip and, like a guest in someone's dining room, puts the cup back down gently. Then he's back on the sidelines, pacing again. Maybe he wants to pop the enemy, bust them hard for short yardage as he did as a tight end in the '60s. He roams like a beat cop on caffeine overload.

Ultimately the Saints lose a close, "what if..." kind of game. Their record is 1-4. "We have to win some of these games," he mutters after the game, dressing quickly. He puts a handful of cigars in a gym bag and rushes to board the team bus.

Ditka and everyone in the New Orleans organization had to know it would be like this. Getting the Saints to march forward is a Sisyphean task. You roll the boulder up the hill and it rolls down even farther and you forget where the starting point was. Has progress been made? For a team that was 3-13 in 1996, what does progress even mean? Six wins and 10 losses? He won't accept it. Eight and eight? "That's mediocrity," he blares. The answer does not lie in any two numbers with a hyphen between them. "Fifty-three guys make up a team," he says. "One guy is not going to make the Saints win or lose. Many are."

Ditka coached the Bears for four years before they won the Super Bowl in 1986. The comparison is clear: if the Saints under Ditka are ever going to turn their luck around, they are going to turn it slowly. It's not terribly complicated.

Ditka doesn't overcomplicate very much in life. He was brought up in Pennsylvania in the 1940s and '50s, and life wasn't very complicated then, either. The oldest of four children, Ditka was born on Oct. 18, 1939, in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a housing project in Aliquippa. His father, Michael Sr., worked in the steel industry, which was booming at the time. "Without my father's main influence--which was creating the discipline and the order that had to happen--all the other stuff wouldn't have happened," Ditka recalls. "From him I learned a work ethic: you get out of life what you put into it. If you're willing to work, then you get something; if not, you probably won't get very much. Discipline. My dad was a great disciplinarian. There was only one way and that was the right way and there were no excuses and no getting out of it. If you did wrong you got your ass whipped, that was simple. In my family we never had anything but we never needed anything. We had clothes, we had meals and we went to good schools. What else did you need at that time? We didn't need anything. My father had a car; it wasn't a new car but he drove it. We had enough.

"Growing up I was very close to my mom, there's no question about it. Because my dad was tough; he was just tough. And then I think as we got older and we got out of college, we understood why he did what he did; he raised us tough because he didn't want us to go into the steel mill and work like he worked. So he did the things he thought he had to do. Our relationship became much greater and we sit around and talk now. From my mother [Charlotte] I got caring, love. I'm a very caring person, regardless of what people think--I don't care what people think, by the way. I went to church with her and she got me involved in the Catholic religion and that's the way I grew up and I'm very grateful for that. They've slowed down now; he's 79, Mom is 75. They're hanging in, they love to go to Vegas."

The youthful Ditka was a hypercompetitive kid who poured his energy into sports. "I played basketball and baseball in high school and college," he says. "My dad told me my opportunity was going to come through sports. He said I had to get good grades so I could get a scholarship for sports. One time he said, 'The mill is not for you. You don't want it.'

"I was a really good baseball player as a kid. I just wanted to be a football player and kind of grew into being a football player. I played whatever sport the season was. When people say 'Why didn't you run track?' 'Didn't you play golf?'--no, because there were only three seasons--football, baseball and basketball. It's all we knew; we were limited in what we knew. Stan Musial [the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinal outfielder] was my hero. He was Polish, from Donora, Pa. I thought he was the greatest baseball player that ever lived. I still do. No, I'm not going to argue; they can have their opinion. I loved Williams and DiMaggio and Mays and Mantle and Aaron, but if I had to pick one I'd want to get a hit, I'd pick Musial.

"College came down to the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Notre Dame. Notre Dame was the first school to contact me. I never went to visit until the summer, so I made up my mind I was going to go to Pitt or Penn State." Ditka's hatchet man basketball tactics at Pitt earned him the name "The Hammer" and later "Iron Mike." He laughs. "When I see Jerry West [the Hall of Fame guard from the Lakers who played college ball at West Virginia], I always remind him I was the guy who guarded him for six points and three fouls in a period of 51 seconds--his six points, my three fouls. He says, 'I thought you were going to kill me.' I say, 'I was trying but I couldn't get close enough.'

"I really wanted to be a dentist--that's why I went to Pitt, to get into dentistry." Fixing teeth would soon give way to bashing teeth, however. With his '50s burr cut and number 89, Ditka entered college a hale 6-foot-2, 215-pounder. "You played defense and offense then; we played 55 minutes a game," Ditka says proudly. "Those were the old days."

He didn't graduate, because he was missing a few credits in chemistry. "I played well enough that I made a lot of the All-American teams and I was drafted number one by the Chicago Bears [fifth overall in the first round in 1961]. Even then I wasn't sure [about it in the NFL].

Ditka found a substantial difference between college and pro players; being a college All-American didn't guarantee a successful pro career. "Pros were just better," he says. "I played against [Bob] Lilly and all the guys that were All-Pro in college and they were better in pro ball than they were in college ball. They had better coaching, they got bigger, they learned more, had better techniques."

The beginning of his pro career was also the beginning of his cigar smoking. "I smoked the Tiparillos, the

Roi-Tans, Phillies, White Owls," he says with a broad smile. "You get better and better and you change, you get more sophisticated. First of all, you smoke what you can afford to buy. In those days I was not making enough to smoke what I do now."

In 1961, he signed his first contract for $12,000 plus a $6,000 bonus. He asked his dad what he thought. "That's a lot of money," came his father's quick reply. "You work a long time to get that kind of money."

What made Ditka succeed is no secret to him. "I think a lot of it has to do with passion for the game, I really do. People approach it differently, you know. It was my goal [to succeed], that's all. I don't know how many people make it their goal. I worked my ass off; I became the toughest guy I could be on the field. A lot of people didn't like me playing the game but that's their problem. This wasn't a popularity contest."

The NFL was chock-full of stars when Ditka arrived. "I got to know people like Unitas and [Bart] Starr, who were truly great people as well as great quarterbacks. Gale [Sayers] came--I had already been with Chicago when he and Butkus came [in 1965]--and that was something to see, Gale's emergence. If he wouldn't have been hurt, I don't know that anybody would ever have been better. In his six-touchdown game in 1965, the ironic thing is the best catch I ever made in my life [a diving grab where he tipped the ball to himself] was in that game and nobody ever remembered, and they shouldn't because what he did was so much more spectacular. He was a thoroughbred and the best cutback runner of all time. Hugh McElhenny was good and I later played in Dallas when Duane Thomas was there, but nobody in my opinion could do what Gale did; he could start and stop on a dime."

The record shows Ditka was not intimidated by the galaxy of stars around him. In his rookie season he caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most surprising were the 19.2 yards per catch; rarely do tight ends average that many. In the early '60s the tight end position was viewed primarily as a blocking position. Ditka was one of the first tight ends to grab a large number of passes. Winning the Rookie of the Year Award and being selected All-Pro led to a raise. After much haggling with Bears owner George Halas, Ditka settled on $18,000 for 1962.

By 1964 Ditka had earned a permanent place in the annals of Total Football, grabbing 74 passes in 14 games--many of them while wearing a harness for a dislocated shoulder--a record for tight ends that lasted until 1980 and the onset of the 16-game season. He was All-Pro six consecutive years, from 1961 to 1966.

But his most memorable seasons were not those stocked with individual achievements. "Nineteen-sixty-three was great with the Bears, we won the championship. Whether we were the best team or not, we beat the Giants when we had to beat them. We beat them because we had a great defense." The game was played on a frozen Soldier Field in Chicago. A haunting black-and-white still of this titanic defensive struggle shows New York quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneeling, bloody and bruised after five interceptions. "That might have been the best defense," Ditka says. "Our 1985 defense was on a par with it, but those two defenses--and I know people will line up and say, 'What about Miami's?' 'What about Minnesota's?' 'What about L.A.'s?' 'What about Pittsburgh's?'--but those two in '63 and '85 were pretty good defenses."

In 1965, the Bears were knocking on the championship door again. They rode Sayers' 22 touchdowns and a stingy defense to a 9-5 record. "We should have won but we didn't," Ditka relates. "I thought we were a better team in '65 because we still had the guys from '63 plus we had Butkus and Sayers. But actually Baltimore [then in the Western Conference with the Bears and Green Bay] was better, a lot of teams were better, and that's why we didn't win. We were pretty darned good, but actually we lost a couple of people on defense and we weren't as strong on defense. And we really won in '63 because of our defense." Green Bay won the 1965 title game, beating Cleveland, 23-12.

The Bears won only five games in 1966, with Ditka catching just 32 passes. In 1967 he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Jack Concannon. The Eagles won six games in 1967 and better things were expected the following year. But they lost their first 11 games on the way to a 2-12 record. "The whole year was a low point for me. I was a bum, I didn't take care of myself, I did all the wrong things. It was the low point of my life." In his autobiography, Ditka, he writes, "I'm sure if there is such a thing as purgatory on earth, I was in it there. Not that they served it on me; I served it on myself. Almost killed myself drinking."


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