All Mike Ditka did as a player was redefine a position, earn five Pro Bowl berths and play on two championship teams. Then, as a head coach, he presided over one of the most dominant teams in history. In the broadcasting world, he became an A-list talent who moves the needle.
And yet there is something more that makes his shadow so imposing, his reach so distant. How can we explain that though he is 14 years removed from an active role in the NFL, a Ditka Fathead is in the works? Or that the 74-year old is earning seven figures in endorsement income? Or that you can purchase Ditka Polish sausage, Ditka Cabernet Sauvignon, Ditka cigars, Ditka flags, Ditka pens and pencils, Ditka lapel pins and Ditka bobbleheads? Or that you can eat at one of three restaurants bearing his name? Or that last week 10,500 runners took to the pavement in a 5K race called the Ditka Dash? Participants each received stick on moustaches and Ditka-style aviator glasses, and dressed up as Ditka.
At the Gold Jacket Dinner preceding the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction last August, more than 100 Hall of Famers were introduced, one king after another. John Elway, Mean Joe Greene, Jerry Rice, Jim Otto, John Madden, Roger Staubach, Joe Namath, Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown. The loudest ovation went to 82-year old Don Shula, the NFL's all-time winningest coach who was helped out of his wheelchair by three men. The second loudest ovation was for Ditka.
The ovation will be louder Monday night at Soldier Field when Ditka's No. 89 is retired by the Bears. This night has been a long time coming, and it would have happened years ago if not for the acrimonious falling out he had with the organization after he was fired as coach in 1993. Ditka is the second most significant man in the history of the team after founder George Halas. The Bears have won two championships in the past 66 years, and they would have won neither without him.
When some people stare at that bear-head logo, they see his face. He represents more than a team, though. Ditka represents the game, or what we want the game to be.
See, it really isn't about what Ditka has done. It's about who he is.
Ditka takes us back to a better time, before there were substance abuse suspensions, concussion lawsuits, free agent mercenaries, indoor games or Jaguars. With a crewcut and a single-bar facemask, he played when men were men, when Colts were from Baltimore, and when training camp practices were more taxing than Fred Astaire ballroom dancing classes.
His intensity would have stood out in any era. "He was one of the first offensive intimidators," said Johnny Morris, Ditka's teammate for six years. "He would go after people like Ray Nitschke. He was the aggressor. There were so many times I'd see him throw a block, then immediately roll over and go for a second block. Most players, even great ones, are satisfied after they do their job. Not him. He was never satisfied."
You talk about love of the game? He might have invented it. "Those 60 minutes when I played, man those were special," Ditka said, his eyes still glinting after all these years. "I enjoyed the heck out of that. Wrigley Field, I enjoyed the mud, the slop, whatever, even people throwing beer on us when we lost going into the locker room. It was all good stuff. You turn around, give them a piece of your mind."
When he was at Pitt, Ditka thought he was a better linebacker than tight end. But as a tight end, he was something the NFL had never seen before. His defining play came during the 1963 season against the Steelers. He took a short pass from Bill Wade. John Reger dove and missed. Then Myron Pottios, Glenn Glass and Clendon Thomas hit him at once. Only Ditka emerged from the pile. He ran another 30 yards where Thomas finally caught up with him. Ditka dragged him another five yards for a 63-yard gain that set up the game-winning field goal in a victory that enabled the Bears to play in the championship game.
"Greatest run I ever saw," Ditka's late teammate Rick Casares once said.
And so the legend of Iron Mike took root. "You have to challenge your opponent in anything you do," Ditka says. "I challenged my opponents."
When he was a head coach, he challenged his players. "If we didn't do well, Mondays were a lot harder than Sundays," former Bears center Jay Hilgenberg said. "He demanded a lot. And we wouldn't have achieved what we did if he hadn't."
Somewhere along the way, he became, "Da Coach." In a postgame tirade after an overtime loss, he punched a locker at Memorial Stadium, breaking his right hand. The next week, he implored his team to "Win one for lefty." Ditka was so tough, 11 days after a heart attack he took to the sidelines to coach his team -- against doctor's orders.
Hilgenberg and his teammates wanted badly to please him. "I tried to do something every day in practice that would make him say, 'Good job, Jay,'" he said.
Being touched by Ditka has been a goal of many. There was the dying Navy Seal who asked Ditka to autograph his cap. A short time later, he would wear that cap in his casket.
John Vincent, who sings at Ditka's Restaurant in Chicago and considers Ditka his second father, recently was driving with Ditka when they came upon a homeless man asking for money on the side of the road. Ditka, who sometimes draws a line of homeless people outside of his restaurant because of his generosity, instructed Vincent to give the man some money. The man was pleased to see the cash. But he was beyond elated moments later to see the coach.
He will sign hundreds of autographs in a night, even when he is asked as he is putting fork to mouth. He recognizes the collectors who come back time and again, with dollar signs in their eyes. He signs for them too.
For all of his celebrity and achievement, when Ditka looks in the mirror he sees just another guy. "I never want to assume I'm better than anyone," he said. "I'm never above the people. I am the people."
But Ditka does what some people could only dream of doing. He says and does whatever he wants, with no fear of repercussion. All of which makes him more endearing. Many Bears fans proudly identify themselves as "meatballs." To them, there never will be another who measures up to Ditka.
During his playing career, Ditka decked a drunk fan who danced across the field during a game. As a coach, he shot down a heckler during a press conference. "Here's your IQ buddy," he said, making a zero with his fingers. His sideline demeanor could be described as volcanic. He once took to wearing a tie to games in order to remind himself to maintain a sense of decorum. He fired a wad of chewing gum at a fan at Candlestick Park. A famous photo of him that often is sold by memorabilia stores captured him flipping off a photographer.
Ditka can talk the way he played, lowering his shoulder, extending a stiff arm and trampling the unsuspecting with his words. After the Dolphins' bullying controversy, Ditka on ESPN referred to Jonathan Martin as a "baby."
Asked if he took any flak as a result of the comments, he said, "I don't know and I don't care because he is a baby. That should have never happened. First of all let me say it would not be a media issue at all if both people were the same color. It's gone into a racial thing and it wasn't anything about race."
While giving a speech in North Dakota in October, Ditka said the biggest mistake he ever made was not running against Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. The reason, he said, is if he had run, he probably would have won and prevented Obama from becoming president.
If being a politician involved politicking, it is likely Ditka would not have been very good at it. Senator Ditka? "There wouldn't be this hanky panky crap that's going on now," he said. "Most politicians bother me. They forget why they are elected. They don't serve the people. It becomes about special interests, their own agenda."
Said his wife Diana, "He shoots straight from the hip. He doesn't hold back any feelings. People admire that. They don't like phonies, and he's definitely not a phony."
As a child, Ditka was bashful, he said. But he is not shy about a thing now. "I can see people get up and leave when I do speeches. I'm a very conservative person and I don't beat around the bush with what I believe. I tell them right out, if you are not conservative in your views, you probably won't like what I'm going to say."
Some may find Ditka's opinions grating. But few find them uninteresting. In the motion picture The Secret Lives of Dorks, released in September, Jim Belushi plays a coach obsessed with Ditka who watches a series of Ditka instructional videos. Ditka on Parenting. Ditka on Talking to Women. Ditka on Dating a Man Obsessed with Ditka.
In a recent insurance advertisement, George Wendt, in Super Fan garb, asks his smart phone, "What is the meaning of life?" The phone's answer: "Ditka."
His name also might be a good answer to the question, "Who personifies America?" Ditka grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., the son of a steel worker. Dad drove a Dodge and put the fear of God in his children. "He was proud to come home dirty, sooty with burned clothes," Ditka said. "And he did it every day. He brought home enough to put food on the table for four kids. It was working class American life, and it's what made this country great."
His ancestry is mostly Ukranian, with a little Irish, German and Polish. A couple of years ago Ditka caused a flap by referring to then-Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky a "Polack." But he meant it more as a compliment than insult. It was before a Bears-Rams playoff game in 1986 when Ditka famously said, "Some teams are fair-haired. Some aren't. Some teams are a Smith, some are a Grabowski... We're a Grabowski."
These days Ditka resides in a condo in Downtown Chicago, and he owns a second home in Naples, Fla. Sometimes between getting back and forth to broadcast obligations, speeches and appearances, he feels like he lives on an airplane.
Depending on the time commitment, Ditka usually commands between $30,000 and $75,000 per appearance, and his agent Steve Mandell says he could be booked every day if he wanted to be. His speeches mostly are about "A.C.E." -- Attitude, Character and Enthusiasm. He tailors each talk to his audience, and uses only note cards. Many of the C.E.O.s get the same kind of charge out of seeing him as that homeless man did.
As much as anyone, Ditka has cross-generational appeal. Old timers think of him as the player they wished they could be. To many of the baby boomers, he is the most memorable coach of their lives. Even kids who have no idea of his life story come up to him and tell him they loved him as Will Ferrell's costar in Kicking and Screaming. His wife has witnessed many people tell Ditka he reminds them of their own father.
"He has represented the game as a player, as a coach and as a celebrity," said Morris, who also hosted two weekly television shows with Ditka during the course of Ditka's 11 year-run as Bears coach. "A lot of guys are good players but not good coaches. A lot of guys are good coaches but weren't good players. A lot of guys aren't great communicators. He hit it on all three phases."
Vincent believes even if Ditka weren't a celebrity, people still would be drawn to him. "There is just something about him that people love," he said.
So when Michael Keller Ditka limps out to the 50-yard line at Soldier Field Monday night for a crowning achievement in his life, the ovation will be loud, long and real. It will be for all he has done, sure. But mostly, the applause will be for all that he is.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.