In the early 1960s, Mike Ditka tore up the field for the Chicago Bears as the most potent offensive tight end the game had seen and returned in the 1980s to guide the team to its only Super Bowl victory as its irascible coach. A product of Western Pennsylvania, Ditka earned All-America honors at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted by the Bears in 1961. He helped Chicago win the 1963 NFL Championship and was selected to the Pro Bowl several times while with the Bears. He wrapped his career with the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he won his first Super Bowl in 1971, and then spent a decade as an assistant to Cowboys legend Tom Landry before the Bears called Ditka back to be their head coach. By the 1985 season, he had built one of the most formidable teams in football history as the Bears stormed to a win in Super Bowl XX. But ensuing campaigns proved disappointing, and Ditka, though ensconced as a Chicago icon, was fired after the 1992 season. He returned to coaching in 1997 with the New Orleans Saints, but it proved a disastrous stint. In 2000, Ditka bowed out again for a high-profile broadcasting career with CBS and ESPN. One of two NFL luminaries to win a NFL title as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Ditka achieved a cult-figure status as the smack-talking, gum-chomping "Guy's Guy," revered in not only Chicago, but around the country as well.
Ditka was born Michael Keller Dyczko in Carnegie, PA on Oct. 18, 1939, the first of four children of Charlotte and Mike Dyczko. The family changed their Ukrainian surname to the more-easily-pronounced "Ditka" and in 1941, moved to the nearby steel town of Aliquippa, where Mike Sr., after a World War II hitch with the U.S. Marines, worked as a boxcar welder. Mike Jr. and his siblings grew up deferential to their father's strict military discipline, and what emotions he needed to keep bottled up at home, he let fly as a ferocious competitor at Aliquippa High School. Shooting up over six feet, he played football, baseball and basketball, the latter for Coach Press Maravich, whose wunderkind son would grow up to be NBA scoring machine Pistol Pete. Mike earned attention for his intensity during one football game when, after one of his teammates suffered a broken leg, he walked over to the opposing team's huddle and threatened kill all of them. Determined to escape the generational cycle of mill work, by the end of his high school days, Ditka had decided he was going to be wealthy, however he had to make it happen, and, upon landing a scholarship from University of Pittsburgh, initially mulled a career in dentistry.
He took on punting duties for Pittsburgh but really distinguished himself playing tight end. He was named consensus All-American in 1960 and was drafted fifth overall by the NFL's Chicago Bears in 1961. That year, he married Marge Dougherty. Playing for the Bears legendary coach George Halas, Ditka soon rewrote the NFL standard of a tight end, a position to that point relegated to blocking and being an occasional short-pass outlet. While an impressive blocker, Ditka established himself in his first season as a formidable offensive weapon, the favorite target of quarterback Billy Wade and a punishing runner difficult to bring down after the catch. He caught 56 passes in the season for 1,076 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. At season's end, he was rewarded with the NFL Rookie of the Year award and a selection to the Pro Bowl. Ditka would go back to post-season all-star contest for the next five. In 1963, the addition of receiver Johnny Morris bolstered the Bears receiving corps, but Ditka still caught 59 passes on the team's road to the NFL Championship. Ditka hauled in a stunning 75 receptions in 1964, but his offensive output dipped - along with the Bears' fortunes - in ensuing seasons, and, in 1967, the team traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles. Struggling with injuries, he would never be the same offensive threat for his new team.
Traded to the Dallas Cowboys in 1969, Ditka would help the Tom Landry-coached team rise as an AFL/NFL power, particularly in the 1971 season. He snared 30 passes amid a Dallas receiving corps packed with playmakers, and the team went on to Super Bowl VI in 1972 in New Orleans, LA, where they trounced the Miami Dolphins 24-3. The final score of the game came on a 7-yard Roger Staubach pass to Ditka. After a final season with the Cowboys, Ditka hung up his cleats. Landry hired him as an assistant coach, and Ditka would remain on the team's sideline through its glory days of the 1970s as the Cowboys went back to the playoffs eight more times, played in three more Super Bowls, and won the their second in 1977. Ditka divorced Marge in 1973. The union had produced four children, but they reportedly grew up with little knowledge of their father as Ditka, emulating his father's distant, authoritarian manner, remained emotionally unavailable. He married Diana Trantham in 1977. In 1982, Halas, now the Bears' president, brought him to Chicago as the team's head coach with the hopes Ditka would bring the fiery spirit of the glory days with him.
Though the Bears' offense revolved around all-time great tailback Walter Payton, the organization bolstered his supporting cast with a bruising offensive line, a top-notch receiver corps that included world-champion sprinter Willie Gault, and one of the most bruising defenses in the league. The latter was the province of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who, irked he had been passed over for the head job, would maintain a contentious relationship with the equally headstrong Ditka. By the 1984 season, Ditka had guided the team to a respectable 10-6 record, and they surprised the league in the post-season by making it to the NFC Championship game. They squared off against the San Francisco 49ers but were outmatched and lost 23-0 to the eventual Super Bowl champs. The Bears returned the next season transformed, however, with the offense in the hands of young hotshot quarterback Jim McMahon and Ryan's defense taking it to a new level. The defense stymied opponents, allowed a mere 12 points a game on average, and, in a Week 9 rematch with the 49ers, completely shut down the champs. In the wake of the game, Ditka was arrested for drunk-driving. He did not contest the charges and wound up with the conspicuously light sentence of a $300 fine and mandatory classes on alcohol abuse. The Bears went 15-1 on the '85 season. The only defeat came at the hands of the Miami Dolphins in a game where Ditka and Ryan reportedly tussled physically during halftime.
Bears linebacker Mike Singletary went on to the win the league's Defensive Player of the Year laurel; Payton, the NFC Offensive Player of the Year; and Ditka, Coach of the Year. In their first two post-season games, the Bears blanked the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams to earn a trip to the Super Bowl, where they summarily dismantled the New England Patriots in a 46-10 win. With bad blood simmering, Ryan bolted the team in the off-season for a head-coaching job in Philadelphia, and, though the Bears seemed to return to form with a 14-2 season in 1986, they found themselves knocked out in their first playoff game by the Washington Redskins. It became a pattern: impressive seasons followed by failure to win the big one, exacerbated in 1987 by the retirement of the player many considered the heart of the team, Payton. In 1988, Ditka became the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On the sideline, his intensity took a toll as he suffered a mid-season heart attack in the fall of that year. He returned only weeks later to resume the reins on the 12-4 season and took the Bears back to the NFC Championship game. They lost again to the Niners. Ditka garnered a second Coach of the Year laurel at season's end, but it would be the deepest he would take them into the playoffs again.
Through his Bears tenure, his prickly adversarial relationship with the media and periodic incidents with opposing fans helped build his legend as a demigod of Guy's Guy machismo among Bears diehards. The dynamic was brought to national consciousness by "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) sketches pegged to a group of Ditka-obsessed Bears fans dubbed the "Superfans." But after a succession of losing seasons and early-playoff exits, the Bears front-office gave him the axe in early 1993. Ditka retired to some entrepreneurial ventures, among them an eponymous restaurant chain, and signed on with NBC to do in-studio and some in-game analysis on its NFL broadcasts. In 1997 the dismal New Orleans Saints franchise lured him back into coaching. The Saints continued to struggle, however, and toward the end of a 3-13 1999 season, Ditka publicly declared doubts that he was up to the task. He and the Saints parted ways at year's end. In 2000, Ditka resumed his broadcasting career as an in-studio analyst for CBS' pre-, mid- and post-game NFL coverage, and in 2004 transferred those duties to ESPN for its "Sunday NFL Countdown" (1985- ) show and, starting in 2008, the network's "Monday Night Countdown" (2006- ) show. He also established a radio footprint breaking down the game for CBS Radio-Westwood One's "Monday Night Football" broadcasts and maintained a voice in the Chicago sports scene via the Chicago ESPN sports-talk radio station WMVP-AM 1000. Meanwhile, in light of growing evidence of long-term effects of concussions on players, Ditka publicly advocated for the league to do more about the problems of depression, dementia and other mental illness suffered by former NFL players over the course of their lives, particularly ones who had left the game long ago. He used his on-air position to speak out for better helmets and better long-term care. Following years of Ditka addressing the issue, concussions became a hot topic of conversation following the tragic suicide of San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau in 2012, who shot himself in the chest after suffering from years of depression.
By Matthew Grimm