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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 2)

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."


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