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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 3)

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."

One year later, in 1969, Ditka got a call from Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys. "Landry said, 'We don't even know if you can play anymore, but we're going to bring you down and take a look at you and see if you can play a few more years.' I had wanted to retire," says Ditka. "I had no desire to play anymore. I had another year left on my contract with Philadelphia, but I made up my mind I was finished. I didn't know if I could even make the team, but I got in the best shape of my life down there. I really got into the weightlifting when I went to Dallas. I had played as high as 245; but I played 215 to 220 in Dallas and played well. Those were the best experiences I had. My Cowboys' experiences came at a time in my life when I needed it more than anything."

Ditka brought the same bloodlust to Dallas that he had when he began his career. He made headlines before the season began when he was involved in an early-morning traffic accident after a night on the town. Dallas running back Walt Garrison--who started calling Ditka "monk," short for "chipmunk" because of Ditka's jowls--recalls the aftermath of the accident in the book Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes: "Ditka got his teeth knocked out in the accident. He went through the windshield and broke his jaw. The dentist told Ditka, 'We can wire your teeth shut but you can't play tomorrow. Or we can pull them.' Ditka says, 'Pull the sonofabitches.' As it turned out they had to wire his jaw shut anyhow because it was broke. But he played all the same. You could hear him out on the field breathing through his teeth. 'Hiss-haw, hiss-haw, hiss-haw.' Sounded like a rabid hound. And you could hear that mad dog Ditka cussin' even with his mouth wired shut."

Ditka and his mates reached the Super Bowl in 1971, losing a sloppy, mistake-filled game to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13. But the following season was a year of redemption: Roger Staubach became the Cowboys' regular quarterback and they thumped the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. Ditka caught a seven-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter for Dallas's final score. Dallas completely dominated, winning 24-3.

After his 12th NFL season, Ditka retired in 1972. "I couldn't do it anymore," he recalls. "I was finished; all you had to do was look at the films and you knew I was done. I used to be physical, now I couldn't be physical. I lost a lot of weight and my back and my legs hurt. I had hurt my foot. That caused a lot of my problems. I used to be able to run decently. And I never said I was great running, but I could run, because a lot of guys couldn't catch me. But then I hurt my foot and changed the way I ran, and that's what caused my hips to go out and I had both hips replaced, so that was a mess. But no regrets."

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