The following is the final of four excerpts from the Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook, which is authored by Hall of Fame writers Dan Pompei and Don Pierson. This passage focuses on Hall of Fame tight end and head coach Mike Ditka.
Of the thousands of men who have shaped and defined the Chicago Bears over a century, there is George Halas, there is Mike Ditka, and then there is everyone else.
Aside from the team’s founder, owner and head coach for the better part of five decades, it was Ditka who best embodied the spirit of being a Bear. Even when he was a Dallas Cowboy, his coach Tom Landry said, “He’s a Bear.”
Ditka also was an Eagle and a Saint for short periods. But it never felt right. “The Bears were my whole life,” Ditka said in 2018. “They were the only team I ever wanted to play for. I’m a Bear, and I’ll always be a Bear.”
It was Halas who made Ditka a Bear in so many ways. On the advice of George Allen, Halas chose Ditka with the fifth overall pick of the 1961 draft. The Houston Oilers of the rival AFL chose him with the eighth pick and offered more money, but Ditka was called to be a Bear.
He was a Bear very much like Halas was a Bear. They even played the same position, though when Halas was a player, it was called end instead of tight end. They both chomped gum and lost their cool on the sidelines. To calm himself, Ditka took to wearing a tie for games—Halas was the first to wear a tie while coaching.
“Halas was a no-nonsense guy as a coach,” Ditka said. “What you saw is what you got. I tried to be that way.”
Ditka, like Halas, was hyper-competitive and hyper-intense. In Ditka’s first NFL game, he started a fight with teammate Ted Karras because he thought Karras wasn’t giving his all. “Move your fat ---,” Karras said Ditka told him, according to a story in the Gary (Indiana) Post-Tribune. Ditka kept talking, and eventually the two had a sideline brawl. They eventually became good friends.
“You have to challenge your opponent in anything you do,” Ditka said. “I challenged my opponents. Those 60 minutes when I played, those were special. I enjoyed the heck out of that. Wrigley Field, I enjoyed the mud, the slop, 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.”
At the University of Pittsburgh, Ditka played tight end, linebacker and punted. As a senior, he caught only 11 passes. Other NFL teams were interested in him as a linebacker, but Halas had ideas about Ditka playing offense. At the time, a tight end was considered an extension of the offensive line, maybe 90 percent blocker, 10 percent pass catcher. In 1961, Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to winning Rookie of the Year and being voted to the Pro Bowl.
The combination of Halas’ ingenuity and Ditka’s ability overwhelmed NFL defenses. “Nobody knew what the hell a tight end was,” Ditka said. “Halas and (assistant coach) Luke Johnsos were designing a lot of plays for me. They had a great concept.”
At the time, Bears great Bill George said, “He is the best rookie I have ever seen. Ten more like him and there would be no room for me on the team.”
Ditka played for Halas for six seasons. He was traded to the Eagles after Ditka said Halas, “Threw nickels around like manhole covers.” Sixteen years later, Ditka wrote Halas a letter. He was the special teams coach for Landry’s Cowboys, but Ditka wanted to let Halas know his dream was to coach the Bears.
Halas could have hired an established head coach like George Allen. Instead he stunned the NFL by taking a risk on the former player who was mostly known for being a hot head.
Not everyone was stunned. Although Virginia McCaskey was not told by her dad of his plans before he announced them, she said: “It was completely understandable to me. You have to understand how similar George Halas and Mike Ditka were ... They were both very stubborn and strong, and it was all to the good.”
Ditka was introduced as Halas’ coach on January 20, 1982 at the Bears office at 55 East Jackson in Chicago. “I believe that Bears football is Halas football, the way he taught us to play,” Ditka said that day.
Before Halas passed away in October 1983, he gave Ditka a bottle of Dom Perignon with a note. “Don’t open until we win the Super Bowl,” it read.
Ditka became the only man other than Halas to significantly impact the team both as a player and head coach. The Bears won two championships in the 55 years to 2019, and they probably wouldn’t have won either without Ditka.
For Ditka as a player, there was the Kennedy assassination game in 1963. As a coach, there was Super Bowl XX.
Two days after President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, the Bears were in Pittsburgh. They were in first place, but the Packers were only a half-game behind them in the standings.
The Bears trailed 17-14 with five minutes left and faced a second-and-36 after a tackle for a loss and a penalty. In the huddle, quarterback Bill Wade told Ditka to run a corner route. Ditka, out of gas from the stress of the day and from catching six prior passes, begged off, telling Wade he would run a hook. Wade threw a short pass to Ditka. Steeler John Reger dove and missed. Then Myron Pottios, Glenn Glass and Clendon Thomas hit all at once. Only Ditka emerged from the pile. He ran another 30 yards, where Thomas caught up with him. Ditka dragged Thomas another five yards to the 15-yard line.
At the end of the 63-yard gain, Ditka lay on the field for several seconds face up and spread eagle. “Greatest run I ever saw,” Ditka’s late teammate, Rick Casares, once said.
Three plays later, Roger Leclerc’s field goal tied the score, and the game ended 17-17. If not for Ditka’s run, the Bears would have likely lost and finished the regular season a half-game behind the Packers and out of the playoffs. A little more than one month later, Ditka and the Bears beat the Giants 14-10 to win the NFL Championship.
In 1982, Ditka predicted the Bears would win the Super Bowl in three years. They did it with a team in his image—bold, uninhibited and rugged. Ditka allowed his players to do the “Super Bowl Shuffle”. He permitted his quarterback to make crazy statements with headbands. And he put a 300-pound defensive tackle—William “Refrigerator” Perry—in the backfield.
When the Bears beat the Patriots 46-10 in the New Orleans Super Dome, it was the largest margin of victory in any Super Bowl up to that point. Afterwards, Perry and Steve McMichael carried Ditka off the field.
“It’s always special when you win as a player,” Ditka said. “But then when you do it as a coach, like in ‘85, it surpasses everything because it is an organizational thing. Everybody is involved—scouts, coaches, management, players. That’s what I enjoyed about it.”
As a player, Ditka was hard on his quarterbacks. As a coach, Ditka was hard on his quarterbacks.
At a banquet in 1965, Ditka and wide receiver Johnny Morris advocated starting backup quarterback Rudy Bukich ahead of Bill Wade. Halas was furious and demanded apologies. Morris acquiesced, but Ditka did not. Bukich eventually replaced Wade, but damage had been done.
Two decades later, Ditka and Jim McMahon clashed frequently over McMahon’s availability, or the lack thereof. Ditka led the charge to trade for Doug Flutie, whom McMahon perceived as a threat.
In 1992, Ditka told Jim Harbaugh he was not allowed to audible in a game against the Vikings because of crowd noise in the Minneapolis Metrodome. Harbaugh audibled anyway, and Neal Anderson didn’t hear the new play call. The result was an interception by Vikings safety Todd Scott and a spectacular fit by Ditka on the sideline. After the 21-20 Vikings’ victory, Ditka threatened to bench Harbaugh.
As a player, Ditka decked a fan who ran onto the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As a coach, he threw a wad of chewing gum at a heckling fan in the stands at Candlestick Park.
As a player, he didn’t like the Packers. As a coach, he didn’t like the Packers.
In 1963, Ditka let his dislike be known with a blindside block on Packers middle linebacker Ray Nitschke that knocked Nitschke out of the game. It was a retaliatory gesture after Nitschke had knocked Ditka out cold in a preseason game. “It was a sideline play,” Bears offensive lineman Bob Wetoska said. “Ditka peeled back on him and hit him low on a block and wiped him out. Those battles between Ditka and Nitschke were epic.”
Said Ditka, “It didn’t bother me one bit that he got hurt.”
Years later as a coach, Ditka had a similar square-off with Packers head coach Forrest Gregg. Except this was on the sidelines during a preseason game at the Milwaukee County Stadium. Because of the way the field was configured, the teams shared a sideline. When Gregg called a timeout before the half when the Bears were trying to run out the clock, Ditka didn’t like it and he let Gregg know about it. They yelled at each other all the way to their locker rooms, where Gregg told the Packers, “You take care of the Bears and I’ll take care of Ditka.”
Later, Ditka said the Packers were “dirtier than dirt.” He mockingly referred to them as the Red Bay Packers. “They don’t like us and we don’t like them,” he once said. “That’s the way football is supposed to be played. I didn’t know it was supposed to be buddy-buddy.”
As a player, he wore a crewcut. As a coach he wore a perm.
Ditka had a way of reaching his team. Mike Singletary never will forget Ditka’s first speech as head coach of the Bears in 1982.
“I want you to know I looked at the film and we’re going to go to the Super Bowl in three years,” Singletary remembers Ditka saying. “A lot of you won’t be a part of that. I’m going to get the right people in this room. We’re going to play Bear football.”
Singletary said the culture change was immediate. “He set a vision in place,” Singletary said. “It’s the truest form of a vision I’ve ever witnessed. It gave meaning to the word ‘vision’ to me. And everything he said, that’s what happened.”
Former Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong recalled one pregame speech the Sunday after Ditka’s high school coach passed away: “Guys, I know I’ve been distant. I lost somebody that was really important to me and I struggled with it. Part of what makes it so tough is this was the first person in my life who told me they believed in me. Every time after that when I played in college or the NFL, I knew he was watching me, and it made me play better because I didn’t want to let him down. I know everyone in this room has had someone like that in your life. I just ask you play today like they are watching every play.”
Silence, goosebumps. Said Armstrong, “I forget who we played, but we kicked the hell out of them.”
Players bought what Ditka was selling. So did Bears fans. And did he ever sell. Among the items that have been available for purchase were Ditka Polish sausage, Ditka Cabernet Sauvignon, Ditka cigars, Ditka flags, Ditka pens and pencils, Ditka lapel pins and Ditka bobbleheads.
Whether he was Iron Mike or Da Coach, Ditka was a cultural phenomenon. Decades after
his retirement, three restaurants in Chicago bore his name. And more than 10,000 runners took to the pavement each year in a 5K race called the Ditka Dash. Participants each received stick-on moustaches and Ditka-Style aviator glasses.
“He has represented the game as a player, as a coach and as a celebrity,” said Morris, who 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.”
When some people look at that bear-head logo, they see Ditka’s face. The only coach in team history with more coaching wins (168) or a better win percentage (.631) than Ditka is Halas. Ditka even had a presence in the Bears’ 99th season.”
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who was born more than a year after Ditka was fired, paid tribute to the legendary coach by showing up at Soldier Field for an October game dressed like Da Coach.