NFL 100 – Mike Ditka

29 Oct

For one of this week’s NFL 100 features, we’ll look at a character who left a long and lasting legacy in the league as a player, coach and studio analyst, Mike Ditka. When he joined the Chicago Bears as a rookie tight end in 1961, he proceeded to redefine the position from what was always a blocker, almost an extra lineman next to the tackle, to a legitimate receiving threat. In that rookie year, he caught 58 passes and scored 12 touchdowns, a Bears’ rookie record, and was named NFL Rookie of The Year. He played 5 total seasons with Chicago and was a Pro Bowler in all of them. His rugged style of play earned him the nickname “Iron Mike”, as he not only changed the tight end position with his receiving ability but also was known for his yardage gained after the catch, regularly trucking defensive backs and linebackers on his way to picking up extra yards. A contract dispute with owner George Halas got Ditka traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967. He played there for 2 years and then was traded to Dallas where he played his final 4 seasons. The highlight of his Cowboy days came in 1971 in Super Bowl VI when he scored a touchdown to help the team defeat the Miami Dolphins 24-3 to give legendary coach Tom Landry his first championship.



Mike Ditka, All Pro Bears’ tight end

Ditka retired in 1972 and was immediately hired to join Landry’s coaching staff in Dallas. He spent 9 years there, learning from the best. The Cowboys made the playoffs in 8 of those seasons and won the Super Bowl again in 1977. While serving as an assistant on Landry’s staff, Ditka wrote a letter to Halas, who he had a strained relationship with, saying he would like to return to Chicago as the Bears’ head coach when he was ready. Halas took him up on that request in 1982 when he went out on a limb and hired his old tight end to lead the Bears. Ditka held a team meeting upon taking the job and promised the players that if they stuck with him he would have them “in the dance” within 3 years. By 1985 he delivered. His ’85 Bears club reached “the dance”, the Super Bowl, and demolished the New England Patriots 46-10 in the game. Although it was the only title Ditka would win in Chicago, that ’85 Bears team is considered one of the greatest of all time, especially the defense. They had swagger, led by coach Ditka, his flamboyant quarterback, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton and William “The Refrigerator” Perry and even put together a video, the “Super Bowl Shuffle”, before they had qualified to play in the game. They were a confident bunch.


Tom Landry, Ditka’s coaching mentor

During the 1988 season Ditka suffered a heart attack and was expected to not be available for most of the season. However, he was back on the sideline as an advisor the next game and returned to his full time duties as head coach the following week. A couple of losing seasons in the early 1990s led to his firing in Chicago in 1992. He went on to coach the New Orleans Saints for 3 years, beginning in 1997, but that stint was largely forgettable and was “highlighted” by an ill-fated move in which Ditka traded his entire stock of draft picks to Washington for the rights to running back Rickey Williams, who never panned out in the Crescent City. Overall, it’s hard to think of the NFL’s 100 year history without mentioning Ditka. He and Tom Flores are the only 2 people who won championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach in league history, and Ditka was the first to achieve this. Today he is an icon in Chicago. He owns a chain of restaurants and regularly is on sports talk radio shows in the Windy City. He was a regular football studio analyst on ESPN for years before being dropped for voicing political opinions. Saturday Night Live had a running skit for years featuring Bill Swerski’s Superfans, a group of mythical Bears fans, including George Wendt, who worshipped “Coach Dikka”. Ditka, in 1988, was honored to be the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.


Coach Ditka Halloween costumes were once popular in Chicago


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