"Pain never really bothered me."
"If you’re not in the parade, you watch the parade. That’s life."
--Mike Ditka, the first tight-end ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Mike Ditka came into this world on October 18, 1939. He was born in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, but grew up in the town of Aliquippa, where his father worked on the railroad. Ditka took to sports like a fish to water, excelling in basketball, baseball, and football at Aliquippa High School. It was football that would determine the course of Ditka’s life; in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, he was an all-American. Ditka played defensive end, linebacker, tight end, and held a high ranking in the nation for punting, averaging 40 yards in his final three seasons.
Right out of college, Ditka was a first-round draft pick for the Chicago Bears in 1961 (he played tight end), and that same year was voted NFL rookie of the year. He continued with the Bears until being traded off to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967, and wound up playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 1969. In 1972, after four seasons with the Cowboys, Ditka retired as a player.
Ditka entered a new phase of life when, immediately after his retirement as a player, he was hired as an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys. During his nine seasons in this position, the Cowboys made the playoffs eight times, and won six division titles and three NFC Championships. But it is his time as head coach of the Chicago Bears for which he is best remembered. When he took up the job in 1982, the Bears had a mere two winning seasons to their name out of the previous nineteen. However, during Ditka’s tenure (which lasted ten years), the Bears earned six NFC Central titles and made it to the NFC Championship three times. In recognition of these accomplishments, Sporting News and the Associated Press awarded Ditka with Coach of the Year honors in 1985 and 1988.
Mike Ditka’s shining moment as coach is widely perceived to be in 1986: Super Bowl XX. Football commentators generally regard the Bears’ 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots as being one of the best-mounted defenses of all time.
Upon leaving the Bears in 1992, Ditka served as an NFL analyst on NBC-TV's Sunday NFL news and highlight show, NFL Live, until January 1997, when he became the coach for the New Orleans Saints. He refers now to his time with the Saints as the “three worst years” of his life. He then returned to NBC as an analyst for NFL Live before moving to The NFL Today, CBS’s NFL pre-game studio show.
These days, Ditka enjoys a life of broadcasting as well as entrepreneurship, as the owner of a chain of restaurants. He and his wife Diana have four alliterative children, Mike, Mark, Megan, and Matthew.
A bit of potential excitement fell into Mike Ditka’s lap back in July 2004, in the midst of the Jack Ryan Senate scandal. Ryan, running for an open Illinois Senate seat against wonderboy Barack Obama, was forced to drop out of the race in the midst of a sex scandal involving estranged wife Jeri Ryan. Ditka, a life-long Republican and a beloved Illinois icon, was considered as a feasible replacement in blue-state Illinois. There was even a “Draft Ditka” movement akin to that of Wesley Clark in the 2004 Presidential Primaries. Ditka, however, declined the offer, citing personal and business reasons, and unsurprisingly, Alan Keyes eventually filled the void.
Ditka the Philosopher
Ditka was known as "Iron Mike" due to his gruffness and his antics on the sidelines (apparently he drop-kicked a fan once during his time as a player). While he was coaching for New Orleans, one of the Saints was quoted as saying (of Ditka), "He's ignorant. He's egotistical. Quite literally, he's not a human being."
While definitely not the #1 most quoted American sports icon (that honor falls upon Yogi Berra), Ditka’s unique wordsmithing has won the hearts of many. I leave you with some choice quotes:
"If God had wanted man to play soccer, He wouldn't have given us arms."
"You're the luckiest son of a bitch I've ever met" (apparently Ditka said this to a cancer patient after losing several rounds of gin rummy to him).
"I'm not so sure that public hangings don't have a place in society" (This one could have made for an interesting Senate debate).