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DITKA : The Mentor of the Midway Has Mellowed Some, but Inside He’s Still Aliquippa Steel

Times Staff Writer

In Lake Forest, Ill., no longer the city of ordinary people, the ice and snow have turned the streets into toboggan runs, the salt and slush have stained the paint of the cars, and one of the most appropriately named movies ever to hit town, “White Nights,” is playing at the Deerpath Cinema. The weather is not fit for man nor bear.

A commuter train slows and stops, but there is no one at the depot to get on board. There is not much traffic stopped by the crossing gates, either. Very few cars have pulled into the Lake Forest business district this day. Few drivers have passed the Burma Shave-style signposts that line the road leading into town, the warnings from Students Against Drunk Drivers that read: (First sign) The Drink (second sign) You Leave Alone (third sign) May Save a Life: (last sign) Your Own.

Mike Ditka, who learned a tough and unfortunately timed lesson about drunken driving only a few weeks before, is one of the few Lake Foresters on the move on Christmas morning. He goes to the Chicago Bear training camp, near the grounds of Lake Forest College, to put himself through a workout that keeps his 46-year-old body hard. Then he drops by his desk at Halas Hall and spends a couple of hours pushing papers.

“So, what did you get for Christmas?” a guest in his office asks.

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Ditka leans back and begins to slide his fat National Football League championship ring on and off of its finger, a nervous tic that he cannot seem to control.

“Uh, my Christmas gift is on layaway,” Ditka says. “Hopefully, it’s coming.”

“What, you ordered something and it hasn’t come yet?”

“No,” Ditka says. “We just want to get it in New Orleans Jan. 26.”

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Ditka, being both naughty and nice, does not know if he will get what he wants. He does know that no other gift but another gaudy ring will do. Not a cassette of the “Super Bowl Shuffle” musical rap recorded by 10 of his players. Not one of the 57 varieties of William Perry-inspired “Refrigerator” trinkets and shirts that Chicago’s stores have been peddling. Not even the gold blazer buttons that Diana Ditka bought her husband to be attached to his sportcoats, the ones that say “Go Bears.”

“I don’t need anything,” the Bear coach says. “I’ve had Christmas every day this season.”

This is the new, improved, mellow Mike Ditka, the nice Mike, mentor of the Midway, NFL coach of the year for 1985, the guy who has enjoyed 15 wins in 16 games without punching lockers or flinging clipboards like Frisbees. The late George Halas, who was his first NFL head coach and later gave him his first job as an NFL head coach, rarely experienced such a season. In fact, the 1963 title that Ditka and his teammates won for Halas was the only one the Bears have won in the last 40 years.

Ditka wishes this team could do more than just wear the old man’s initials on their sleeves. “I wish he was here. I wish he could see this,” he says. “It’s been a very rewarding season, not just for me personally, but for the city of Chicago and the organization. A lot of good things have happened, especially for the organization, because, well, you know, the Bears have kind of been maligned and the city has kind of been maligned, and it’s nice to give people something to cheer about, see them smiling, get the mail you get, make them proud to be Bear fans again.

“It’s really amazing, I’ll tell you. We get mail from Europe, from every state, from everywhere. I saw the same sort of thing happen when I worked in Dallas. You can’t believe the number of people behind the Bears now. Three years ago, we go into a hotel and the doorman won’t even open the door for us. Now, we get mobbed. It’s like, well, it’s like the Cowboys going someplace.”

Or even the Cubs, for that matter. The big difference is, the Cubs have always had a reputation as lovable losers, as cuddly little Gummy Bears, whereas the football team in Chicago has usually presented an image of being mean, dirty, grisly Bears.

“I think that’s the way Mr. Halas always wanted it. He wanted to have a ballclub with a certain personality, a team made up of, you know, rough, tough guys, a team that didn’t take any crap from anybody and could dish it out.”

Halas coached at least one such player. Tight end Mike Ditka was the guy who, having been rookie of the year and having made the Pro Bowl five times in his first six seasons, went to the old man for more money, failed to get it, then went public with a Bartlett’s-worthy remark that Papa Bear Halas was the sort of person who “throws nickels around like manhole covers.” It was at this point that Ditka tried to jump to the Houston Oilers of the American Football League, who had battled the Bears for custody when he was leaving the University of Pittsburgh in 1961. Halas took legal action to block this maneuver, and took his vengeance by trading Ditka to the Philadelphia Eagles.

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George Halas could play hardball and football at the same time. If ever there lived a man who could appreciate that approach to sports, it was Ditka. Even as a kid, he had that sort of manner about him. He threw tantrums. He bullied people. He picked fights. He was a perfectionist. Nobody messed with Mike Ditka, even when he was 8.

He grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., not far from Pittsburgh, in a steel-mill village that has since been pounded by economic depression. The people there are “proud and stubborn and tough,” Ditka says, and he still goes back there whenever he can, not just to visit his parents, but to remind himself not to stray. “A person should never forget where he comes from,” Ditka says. “Those people in that town are me, and I’m them.”

Two generations before him, there were three Ukrainian immigrants named Dyzcko who came to America to seek freedom and fortune. They settled in Carnegie, Pa., and went to work in the mills. Before long, all three Dyzcko brothers grew weary of hearing the pronunciation of their name mangled by the tongue-tied locals. They decided to make it easier on everyone. So, two of the brothers changed the spelling of their surname to Disco. The third brother picked a name with a harder sound to it; if he hadn’t, the Chicago Bears would be coached right now by Mike Disco.

The toughness of the new family name filtered down to Dyzcko’s grandson. At the age of 4 he was given a complete football outfit by his mother, Charlotte Ditka, and immediately became the toughest little monster of Aliquippa’s midway. Later came baseball and Mike Ditka, Little League terror. One day, Mike was catching and his brother Ashton was pitching. Ashton walked a couple of batters, so Mike made him switch positions with him. Then the shortstop made an error, making Mike angry again, so he walked out to shortstop and changed positions again. At bat, his father exaggerated, Mike usually wound up with a 20-mile home run or a strikeout and a busted bat.

Everyone seems to have a story about Mt. Ditka erupting. There was the time his college football team was playing at Michigan State and Pitt teammate Chuck Reinhold missed a tackle that permitted Herb Adderley to score. At halftime, Reinhold made the mistake, in Ditka’s eyes, of mentioning that “we’re only down 7-0,” so Ditka pressed him up against a locker and explained to him the reason they were only down 7-0.

Former Bear guard Ted Karras could have told you about the rookie tight end who told him to get the lead out in the middle of a game. Denver Broncos Coach Dan Reeves could have told you about the friendly card game where Ditka lost a hand, picked up his chair and flung it against the wall. Dallas Cowboy Coach Tom Landry loves to tell you about the afternoons he spent playing tennis with his young assistant coach, which were pretty good times, Landry said, “as long as his racket lasted.”

There is a theory in Chicago, not disputed by Ditka, that when Halas first appointed him coach of the Bears, in 1982, he at first tried to be true to himself, howling and growling and showing no mercy on inanimate objects. When the team didn’t respond, Ditka tried to model himself after Landry, acting composed to the point of stoicism. “He finally found a middle ground,” defensive back Gary Fencik says. “I don’t know if it was deliberate, but now he’s not angry all the time, he’s not in control all the time and he’s not happy-go-lucky all the time. He just does what the situation calls for. He just is .”

The Bears seem to enjoy playing for him. “I believe Mike Ditka represents us, in more ways than one,” linebacker Mike Singletary says. “He’s part cool and part ferocious. We don’t go out on the field saying, ‘Let’s win one for Coach,’ but we do feel he’s one of us. We know he’s not coaching the Chicago Bears because he needed a job. The Bears mean something to Mike Ditka. The team is part of him.”

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Sitting in his office at Halas Hall, with the wind whipping the snow past the windows, Ditka can wax nostalgic about the old days of Chicago football, about practice sessions on icy fields along the lakefront before which “they’d scrape the place the best they could so we could run.” There was also the “Muddy Day” game plan that Halas would have his team work on, just in case the Midwestern weather on Sunday morning was wet instead of cold, forcing the Bears to play in 100 yards of goo.

Ditka’s worry this Christmas was where to spend New Year’s. He needed a practice site for the team for their opening National Football Conference playoff game against the New York Giants. Once upon a time, in ’63, say, the Bears would have hibernated at home instead of migrating to warmer climes. “Uh, the economics of the situation were not feasible at the time,” Ditka says, with eyes fairly twinkling, so that his guest will know we are talking about manhole covers here.

On Christmas Eve, Ditka and Singletary traveled nearly 200 miles to Champaign, Ill., to inspect the football practice complex of the University of Illinois. A new inflatable bubble there made it possible for workouts to be conducted indoors, but the thing had not been fully tested, so Ditka was reluctant to chance it. For that reason he chose to return to Suwanee, Ga., to the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp, which is where the Bears rehearsed for last season’s first NFC playoff game.

“My biggest concern isn’t weather, it’s security,” Ditka says. “We worked out in Georgia last year and hardly anyone bothered us, because we were just supposed to meet the Washington Redskins in the opener, get our asses handed to us and go home. Suwanee was no problem at all. It was Santa Rosa that was a problem.”

When the Bears moved on to meet the 49ers in the NFC title game, their headquarters were set up in Santa Rosa, where Bear fans and media arrived in a swarm. “That was the part that was new to us,” Ditka says. “We got bombarded in Santa Rosa. We didn’t know how to distribute our time. You just can’t sign 300 autographs every day and do 50 interviews and get your work done. You won’t see that happening again, I guarantee you, even if we have to short-change some people in the courtesy department.”

Distractions become the enemy. Ditka himself says he has to use the service elevators at hotels and order room service on Saturday nights at road games. On the other hand, he is concerned about people who are eager to accuse the Bears of succumbing to distractions. “The fans make you larger than life, and then worry about you becoming too big for your britches,” Ditka says.

He does not expect the Bears to lose in the playoffs, but if they do, he says, “Don’t you think the other team might have something to do with it?”

A concern exists that the Bears are may be celebrating too early. While McMahon, Singletary and other outstanding players may have done it for fun and good will, recording a song and video called the “Super Bowl Shuffle” is a dangerous notion for a franchise that has never played in any game called the Super Bowl.

“I understand what people might be thinking,” Ditka says. “That’s a no-no as far as sports are concerned. You don’t talk about the big one until you get to the big one. My understanding about the Shuffle was that it was for charity, and maybe we’ll make some money off it I’m sure, but at least charity would be served by it, and that’s never a bad idea.

“I just made everybody a deal. I told ‘em OK, we clinched early, we had a little time, I let you do your shuffling and dancing and your TV commercials, I let you make some money and I let you have some fun, and now that’s it, no more. No other obligations until this thing is over. I think they understand where I’m coming from now. I told ‘em you don’t shuffle to the Super Bowl, you work your ass off to get to the Super Bowl.”

Aliquippa being where Ditka is coming from, he knows the value of a buck. It is difficult for him to tell players not to fortify their bank accounts. Ditka made $12,000 his first season as an NFL player and $22,000 his first season on Landry’s coaching staff in Dallas. These days he has a lucrative contract, makes another hundred grand from television and radio appearances and is popular enough to make a lot more if he wanted to. The Chicago Sun-Times Sunday published a full-page color souvenir poster of the coach , which isn’t a sight you see every day.

Ditka’s popularity in town has bobbed. He was a hero, then an opponent. When he was rumored as a candidate for the Bear coaching job in 1982, one Chicago newspaper columnist’s opinion was headlined: “Hiring Ditka Would Be Madness.” Then the Bears won only three of nine games in his strike-shortened debut season, and busted his hand on a locker after one of those defeats.

Then came the big change. The Bears went 8-8 in 1983, 10-6 in 1984 and 15-1 in 1985. By midseason this year, Ditka was such a heroic figure that his arrest for driving under the influence, which happened on his way home from an upset victory over San Francisco, led to an angry response by callers who wondered how dare the police pull over the coach of the Bears. Ditka knew better. He was a private citizen who didn’t obey the rules, and he regrets it.

“Most people don’t have the discipline to do the things they should do, whether it’s eating or drinking or a football player running an extra sprint,” Ditka says. “You have to watch yourself every minute.” For the time being, Ditka’s vice is cigars, which is why his wife also gave him a humidor for Christmas. Temper, alcohol . . . those are vices that must be controlled. “I’m a coach, and coaches are supposed to look out for other people,” Ditka says. “Maybe somebody had better look out for the coach.”

He has the discipline, he says, to do whatever it takes to do his job, even if he has to do it on Christmas morning.

“You know what I think about?” Ditka asks. “I think there are a lot of coaches who don’t go in on Christmas, because they don’t have to.”

‘I think that’s the way Mr. Halas always wanted it. He wanted to have a ballclub with a certain personality, a team made up of, you know, rough, tough guys, a team that didn’t take any crap from anybody and could dish it out.'--MIKE DITKA


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