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Bears in The Hall

Mike Ditka

Veteran observers agreed that Mike Ditka might have been outstanding as a linebacker, or as a defensive end or a fullback or perhaps even on the offensive line in pro football. But the Chicago Bears, who drafted the Pittsburgh all-American No. 1 in 1961, opted to use him as a tight end, a relatively new position that called for a talent big enough and tough enough to block the most ferocious defenders but someone who possessed the good hands and speed to be a contributor to the forward passing attack.

Ditka excelled at the job for a dozen years from 1961 through 1972. After six superb seasons with the Bears, he moved to Philadelphia for the 1967 and 1968 seasons and then finished his career with the Dallas Cowboys from 1969 through 1972. In 1988, he became the first player who performed exclusively at tight end to be elected to the Pro football Hall of Fame.

On July 30, 1988, Mike and three other members of the 1988 class-Fred Bilentikoff, Jack Ham and Alan Page-were formally enshrined in impressive rites on the front steps of the Hall. Mike was also drafted by the Houston Oilers of the rival American Football League. The Oilers offered more money but he opted for the Bears because he wanted to play with the best, which the NFL was considered to be at that time.

Almost from the moment he joined the Bears, Ditka established himself as someone who could compete with the absolute best. He impressed both Chicago coaches and players with his intense desire and considerable ability. The Bears were noted for their physical approach to the game and Ditka, at 6-3 and 230 pounds, was a bull-necked, broad-shouldered, hard-nosed competitor who fit it perfectly.

During his first six seasons, Ditka was one of the most feared individuals in the NFL. Nobody blocked better. Few receivers caught as many passes. Once he got the ball, he could go places with it. He had a fantastic straight-arm move that fended off would be tacklers. He worked every second he was on the field, knocked down defenders and outran the best and speediest secondary men Sunday after Sunday.

Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Bill George remarked: "He is the best rookie I have ever seen. Ten more like him and there would be no room for me on the team."

To be sure, Mike's rookie season was something special. Up to 1961, the prototype tight end in the NFL played close to the tackle, blocked most of the time and occasionally would catch a pass for ten yards or so. But Ditka changed all of that almost immediately. He still blocked but he showed something else. In his first exhibition game, he caught a button-hook pass for 12 yards. In the huddle, quarterback Billy Wade instructed him: "Fake the hook now and take off when the safety man crowds you." The result was a 70-yard catch and a run for a touchdown.

"That play," Mike remembers, "gave me confidence to be a pro. I knew it wasn't impossible for me to outrun those guys."

Ditka startled opponents with 56 catches for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns and sent defensive coaches scurrying to devise new methods of combating this new offensive terror. In the Associated Press Rookie of the Year balloting, Ditka received 18 votes to six for runner-up Fran Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings. He was named all-league and invited to the Pro Bowl.

All of this came about in spite of a knee injury suffered in the 11th game that would have sidelined most athletes. But Mike never missed a start and was ready for the Pro Bowl. "Three out of four men require surgery for an injury like this," a surgeon told Mike, "but you are the exception."

Ditka was named all-NFL again in 1962, 1963, and 1964 and was picked for the next four Pro Bowls as he continued to ravage enemy defenses with catching, running and straight-arm tactics, plus savage blocking when the Bears ran the ball.

He had 58 catches in his second season and 59 in 1963, when the Bears edged out the Green Bay Packers by the narrowest margins for their first NFL championship in 17 years. There are few who would argue with the premise that Chicago could not have won without Ditka, who almost single-handedly destroyed the opposition in at least five games. Included was his 12-yard reception in heavy traffic to the 1-yard line that assured the winning score in the 14-10 title victory over the New York Giants.

Earlier in the season, he caught four touchdown passes against the rams and contributed a sensational 22-yard scoring catch that clinched a win over the Detroit Lions in the season finale. His crushing block cleared out the final defender as Ron Bull raced to the only touchdown in a 10-3 win over the Baltimore Colts. Against Pittsburgh, he fought off half a dozen tacklers after catching a short pass and raced 63 yards to set up a tying field goal.

Although he suffered a severe shoulder injury in the pre-season win over the College All-Stars and was forced to wear a protective harness throughout the 1964 season, Ditka has his best year ever with 75 receptions and a second-place finish behind teammate Johnny Morris in the NFL pass-catching derby.

Although Mike played in 84 straight games with the Bears, the constant contact he both dished out and received began to take its toll by 1965. His catch totals fell off to 36 in 1965 and 32 in 1966. Perhaps more important, he became disenchanted with the Bears and, in particular, with owner-coach George Halas, whom Ditka claimed was "trying to pay players with salaries of the 1940's and 1950's."

Mike became a prized target of the AFL during its brief raiding period in the spring of 1966. He signed a contract that gave him a $50,000 bonus and called for him to play out his option and join the Houston Oilers in 1967. Before Ditka could fulfill his contract, the AFL-NFL merger was announced. The Oilers told Mike he could keep the bonus but they would not hold him to his contract to play in Houston the net year.

Two months before the merger, however, the Bears traded Ditka to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Jack Concannon and a draft choice. The Eagles enthusiastically viewed Mike as the perfect replacement for their retired tight end, Pete Retzlaff. Such was not to be, however.

Ditka underwent surgery in April 1966, to remove calcium deposits from his right instep. In training camp, Mike had trouble getting his legs in shape. A hamstring pull suffered in the second regular-season game ended his consecutive-game streak at 86. Six weeks later he tore ligaments in his right knee and missed four more games.

"I can't explain the frustration I had," Ditka related. "I wanted to help the ball club and I couldn't. I pressed like a rookie. Nothing came natural. For the first time, I worried about getting hurt. I played scared football."

Things got worse in 1968. He played on a bad hamstring all year, and set out three more games. The Eagles win only two of 14 games and Ditka and Head Coach Joe Kuharich grew disenchanted with each other.

Shortly after the season, Mike was traded to Dallas for a little-known wide receiver, Dave McDaniels. Ditka was ecstatic. "Coming to Dallas is like a breath of new life," he exclaimed.

Mike continued to have leg problems which reduced his value as a receiver. But he could still block with the best and his ever-present enthusiasm was an inspiration to the rest of the Cowboys.

In 1971, Ditka pared down from 235 to 210 and regained his quickness and much of his old form. He opened the year by scoring the Cowboys' first touchdown in pre-season and he wound up the campaign with a seven-yard reception of a Roger Stauback pass for the final touchdown in Super Bowl VI . Ditka had 30 regular-season receptions, his best total since 1966. But even more important to Mike was the championship the Cowboys won.

"I could care less about being all-pro," he said. "The Super Bowl victory and being a part of it is the big thing."

Mike's childhood name was Mike Dyzcko. His father was one of three brothers of a Ukrainian family in the coal mining and steel manufacturing area in Western Pennsylvania. The name Dyzcko was too much of a tongue-twister in Carnegie, PA., where Mike was born on October 18, 1939, so the family name was changed to Ditka.

Mike weighed only 130 pounds when he went out for football for the first time as a sophomore at Aliquippa, PA., High School. A heavy work schedule kept his father from watching him play but his mother, afraid he would get hurt, cautiously watched every practice. By the time Mike was a junior, he was much larger and was a regular both an end on offense and a corner linebacker on defense. Aliquippa did not lose a game. In his senior season, Ditka played fullback and attracted the attention of college scouts by the dozens. Mike seriously considered Penn State and Notre Dame but finally opted for Pittsburgh.

With the Panthers, Ditka had the opportunity to demonstrate his many athletic skills. Defensively, he was exceptional as both a defensive end and a linebacker. Offensively, he was a superior blocker and a fine receiver. Mike was one of the nation's leading punters with a three-year average of 40 yards per kick. He was also the Panthers' captain who demanded of his teammates the same thing he expected from himself-a maximum effort on every play.

"I thought I knew a lot of football at that time," Ditka recalls. "But once I got in the NFL, I found out I really didn't know very much at all. There are things you learn in the NFL such as how defenses operate, how an individual player reacts, where every man should be at a given time that you don't even think about in college."

For all his many accomplishments, Ditka's reputation as a fierce competitor may be the most remembered. "I just try to hit the other guy before he hits me and if I hit hard enough, maybe he won't want to hit me back," he explained.

Shortly after the 1972 season, Ditka retired to become an assistant coach with the Cowboys. He reiterated his playing philosophy that he intended to stress with his charges as a coach: "There's more to winning than just wanting to. You have to prove yourself every Sunday. Just throwing your helmet on the field doesn't scare anyone. There's no more empty feeling in the world than losing."