By Rich Cohen
December 7, 2013
Chicago Bears' coach Mike Ditka watches his team play during the last home game of the regular season on Dec. 27, 1985.
TOMORROW, the Chicago Bears will retire 89, the number worn by Mike Ditka, Da Face of Da Bears, the great tight end and eccentric head coach.
The Mike Ditka we know today — the screamer, the gum and tantrum thrower, the analyst behind an ESPN desk every Sunday, the product pitchman (Ditka Chicken Sausage, Ditka’s Kick Ass Red wine), the fantasy object of superfans, the red-faced 74-year-old precariously perched on artificial hips — is a far cry from the player who first hit the field for Chicago in 1961.
That man was recruited and molded by George Halas, a legendary Chicago coach who had himself once stripped a football from Jim Thorpe and founded the National Football League. That’s how close we are to the beginning. The lifetimes of two players, and we’re back at the dawn of pro football time.
Mr. Ditka’s career straddles two worlds: He was a stalwart of the N.F.L. of our grandfathers and a creator of the spectacle that’s become the national game. If you want to understand the sport and its current problems, you can get out film and history books, or you can study Iron Mike.
He grew up in Aliquippa, in hardscrabble Western Pennsylvania, where pro football began in factory leagues, bosses fielding teams, then cheating with paid ringers. Aliquippa was booming, the furnaces of J & L Steel, where Mr. Ditka’s father worked, filling the sky with chemical smoke.
He led his high school team to excellence, then attended the University of Pittsburgh — instead of Penn State, because Pitt had a better pre-med program. Mike Ditka planned to be a dentist after football. Can you imagine those fingers rooting around your mouth?
He played on offense and defense, and was among the best college athletes in America. He expected to be drafted as a defensive player. But Mr. Halas, who ran the Bears as Richard J. Daley ran Chicago, saw something others had missed.
Mr. Ditka had terrific hands — an unusual characteristic for such a big man. When he caught a pass, he was almost impossible to bring down.
Mr. Halas took Mr. Ditka in the first round, then put him on the offensive line. He caught 56 passes his rookie year, which was unprecedented for his position. Mike Ditka became the first modern tight end.
He was All-Pro his first five seasons. He won a title with the Bears in 1963, but later left the team, thanks to a never-ending feud with Mr. Halas.
Mr. Ditka was traded to the Eagles, where he looked to end in ignominy, but was given another chance by Tom Landry, the Cowboys coach. Mr. Ditka caught a Super Bowltouchdown in Dallas and grew the famous mustache. He retired and took a job coaching special teams for Mr. Landry.
If he’d ended there, his life would’ve been a perfect expression of the old N.F.L., another bust in the Hall of Fame, a memory from a time when the game was modest.
One day, he found himself coaching against Chicago. The Cowboys won, but Mr. Ditka felt like he was on the wrong sideline. When he heard that Mr. Halas, who had quit the sideline for the owner’s box, might fire the team’s coach, he wrote the old man, saying: “I would like to be considered for the opportunity to fulfill my dream of bringing the Bears back to the days of glory when you were the coach and I was a player.”
Mr. Halas asked him to describe his coaching philosophy. Mr. Ditka replied: “My coaching philosophy is the same as yours: I want to win.’”
Mike Ditka returned to Chicago. Using the traditional methods — run, punish, don’t let ’em rest, don’t let ’em drink water — he constructed the first N.F.L. team to become pop stars, bigger than the game.
They were the ’85 Bears, the greatest team ever for a single season; they went 18 and 1, destroying the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. But they were more than that: the Super Bowl Shuffle, Sweetness, the Fridge — it pointed the way to everything.
The team drew the largest TV audiences in N.F.L. history; it was the hyperviolent way the defense played, but also how that style meshed with the personalities on the roster, four future Hall of Famers among them. Atop it all was Mike Ditka, Don Corleone, patriarch of a family that had already begun to leave him behind.
When Mr. Ditka played, the game’s brutality was an expression of the lives of its fans: not a relief from that life, but its realities turned into spectacle. It was the world known by the people in Aliquippa.
But by his last years on the sideline — Mr. Ditka ended his coaching career in New Orleans, like a spruce tree planted on a tropical beach — the game had outgrown its origins.
The success of the N.F.L. — the value of the franchises, the TV money, the player contracts — had alienated it from its beginnings, rendering its violence strange.
Today the league is under attack. There’s the concussion stuff; the hazing thing; there was even a recent news article saying that the noise in the stadiums is a danger to fans. Of course, the game is nothing but noise. Violence. Blood. Increasing numbers of people don’t understand it because they don’t know where it came from.
Not long ago, I met Mr. Ditka at his restaurant in Chicago. He’s old but remains a bear. I was there to talk about the ’85 Bears, but he wanted to discuss his own championship team from ’63.
When I asked why neither team repeated its championship run the next year, his answer seemed to suggest the predicament of the modern N.F.L.
“Well, you see, right there, you’ve put your finger on the big question,” he told me. “Maybe winning is the greatest thing that can happen to a team and also the biggest disaster. It’s never the same after you win.”