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Ditka Puts a Hit on Williams

Never mind Ricky Williams’ desire to travel the globe, hang out with rock stars or spend his days smoking marijuana. Those aren’t the real reasons he quit football and walked out on the Miami Dolphins just before training camp opened.

He just doesn’t want to get hit.

That’s the conclusion of Mike Ditka, the former New Orleans coach who traded just about everything to move up to the fifth spot in the 1999 NFL draft and select Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back. Once, Ditka was among Williams’ most adamant defenders. Not anymore.

“I don’t respect him for what he did,” Ditka said this week in an interview over lunch in Los Angeles. “And I had a lot of respect for Ricky as a person. But I think what he did, when you leave your teammates down like that, when you leave the organization down, when the ownership has put a lot of money into him, I think you’re saying, ‘Hey, I don’t give a ... about you. I worry about Ricky Williams.’ And I don’t like that.

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“If I was the Dolphins’ owner, I’d go after him and get the money back. I think the other reason is I don’t think Ricky likes contact -- and I hope he reads this -- I don’t think he likes to get hit anymore. That’s the biggest reason. Forget about smoking dope and hanging out with Lenny Kravitz. He doesn’t like to get hit anymore. He’s not willing to stick it in there like he used to.”

Not true, argued agent Leigh Steinberg, pointing out Williams led the league with 392 carries last season and hard-running Earl Campbell is his football idol.

“Ricky’s incredibly tough,” Steinberg said. “He doesn’t run out of bounds. He runs in between the tackles, and he always will.”

Williams is considering an NFL comeback. He sent a letter to the league last Friday asking for a clarification of his playing status. An arbitrator recently ordered Williams to repay $8.6 million in salary to the Dolphins for violating the terms of his contract. The Dolphins hold his rights through the 2006 season.

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Ditka, on tour promoting the erectile-dysfunction drug Levitra, spoke candidly about players he respects and those he doesn’t, and about the advantage teams with good owners have over teams with bad ones.

When asked if that’s the most damning thing a coach can say about a running back -- that he doesn’t want to get hit -- Ditka took it a step further, saying, “It’s the worst thing you can say about anybody.”

But Williams’ wasn’t the only target of Ditka’s scorn. The legendary coach also ripped Bear owner Michael McCaskey for making the decision to exclude Ditka’s likeness from the 26 1/2 -foot sculpture at Soldier Field honoring George Halas, founder of the franchise, and eight of the Hall of Famers who either played for him or were part of the Halas legacy. Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange and Sid Luckman are there. So are Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Bill George and Mike Singletary. And of course there’s Dick Butkus.

As for Ditka? Bupkis.

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“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Ditka said of McCaskey, who was team president in 1992 when he fired Ditka after the coach’s second losing season in nine years. McCaskey is the grandson of Halas.

The Bears have won two NFL championships in the past 50 years; Ditka played on one of those teams and coached the other, winning a Super Bowl in 1985.

“They don’t care about that,” he said, referring to the McCaskey family. “It’s petty jealousy, but that’s OK. Even [McCaskey’s] brother says it’s hard to understand.” Bear spokesman Scott Hagel pointed out the sculpture features Halas surrounded by the great running backs and middle linebackers in team history. Luckman was a quarterback, but he was the first to run Halas’ famed T-formation offense. Ditka was a tight end.

Asked if the monument discounts Ditka’s contribution, Hagel said: “Absolutely not. This hurts us because of how he is revered, not only within the building but in our city. Mike Ditka means the world to our organization and our fans.”

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Still, Ditka said he considers himself a “Halas Bear,” as opposed to a McCaskey Bear.

“George Halas hired me, and he didn’t live long enough to see us win the Super Bowl,” he said. “But my relationship is with George Halas, not the McCaskeys.

“When it came time that I became vulnerable, they got rid of me.... So I don’t apologize to anybody in that family. Anybody.”

The New England Patriots have a good owner in Robert Kraft, Ditka said, and that’s part of the reason they have been so successful, winning two of three Super Bowls and running their winning streak to a record-tying 18 games.

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“They are a great team,” he said. “They are a great organization top to bottom -- ownership, management, coaching, players. They may be the prototype to what you’re looking for in pro football today.”

But Ditka wasn’t so kind when discussing the ownership of the Bears and Saints, both teams he coached, or the San Francisco 49ers, whom Eddie DeBartolo turned over to his sister, Denise, and her husband, John York, in the late 1990s.

“You look at a team that was a great organization and a great team like the 49ers, and look what they’ve done with ownership and management,” Ditka said. “They’ve destroyed that organization. When Eddie D. had it, they were the best. You know why? The most important thing to Eddie was treating the players like family. Now, this guy [York] ....Knows nothing about football. Knows nothing about management, either. But he married Eddie’s sister.”

Said 49er spokesman Kirk Reynolds: “Obviously, Mike Ditka knows a lot about football, but his personal attack on John York is stunning and completely uncalled for. Mike Ditka doesn’t even know John York. To make a personal assault on a man he doesn’t even know is highly incredible.”

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Ditka did praise several players as “class acts,” among them Priest Holmes, Tiki Barber and Brett Favre. And he talked about his disdain for players who try to draw attention to themselves with over-the-top celebrations, making specific mention of Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in the end zone and signing a ball with a pen pulled from his sock. But he saved the most vitriol for Williams, his former star running back.

In three years as coach of the Saints, Ditka had a 15-33 record. He was fired in January 2000 by owner Tom Benson, who cleaned house three days after a 3-13 season.

“I liked the people in New Orleans,” Ditka said. “I’m not real fond of the owner, but he’s probably not real fond of me. So we’re even there. I like the coach [Jim Haslett] a lot. They used to say there’s a curse on them. I’d say, ‘That’s impossible. I don’t believe in curses or voodoo.’ But, boy, I don’t know.”

It was when he was coaching the Saints that Ditka traded every draft pick in 1999, along with first- and third-round picks in 2000, to move up to the fifth spot and select Williams, the Heisman Trophy winning running back from Texas. Understandably, he was an adamant defender of Williams, and not just because the two posed as husband and wife -- Williams wore the wedding dress -- on the cover of a national magazine.

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Five years later, Ditka says he’s done with the rigors of coaching. Unlike Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Dick Vermeil, he’s no longer interested in walking the sidelines and adding to -- or detracting from -- his legacy.

“No, no, no, I’m done,” he said. “I’ve been to the top of the mountain and I’ve seen it. And I’ve been to the bottom of the mountain and I’ve seen that too. I don’t want to get anywhere between them anymore.”

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One guy who’s certainly not afraid of absorbing a hit is Favre.

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In his soon-to-be-released autobiography “Favre,” the Green Bay quarterback discusses his streak of consecutive starts, now at an NFL-record 193, and his determination to keep it going.

“We all can be lulled to sleep sometimes by being able to play every week and overcoming injuries,” he wrote. “There have been times where, for just a brief second, I felt almost invincible.”

That was evident last Sunday. In the 14-7 loss to the New York Giants, Favre suffered a concussion early in the third quarter. Doug Pederson replaced him for two plays, but, on fourth-and-five from New York’s 28, Favre ran back onto the field without medical clearance and threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker.

After that, though, team doctors refused to let Favre back into the game. Why? Because he was groggy on the sideline and had trouble remembering the play on which he got hurt. Not surprisingly, he intends to keep his streak alive Monday when the Packers play host to Tennessee.

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How long does Owens hold a grudge? Not too long, apparently.

The Philadelphia receiver stopped by 49er practice Thursday to visit some of his old friends on the team, a team that he badmouthed the entire off-season. He hung out for a half-hour and chatted with cornerback Jimmy Williams, running back Jamal Robertson and linebacker Jamie Wilborn, among others.

Asked if Owens harbors bad feelings about the 49ers, who finally traded him to Philadelphia after failing to send him to Baltimore, Wilborn said: “He didn’t have any hard feelings toward us. We’re still his homeboys.”

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