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Mike Ditka, the caricature, was nowhere to be found Sunday afternoon. That's OK. It was better to meet Ditka, the man.
You know the caricature well, the gruff, no-nonsense coach, as burned in our memories from the great 1985 Chicago Bears and immortalized in the George Wendt-fueled classic "Saturday Night Live" "Da Bears" skit. You might have also seen the caricature in the cheesy Will Ferrell movie “Kicking and Screaming.” (“Now go get me a juice box!”)
Ditka, the man, came to Autumn Ridge Golf Club on Sunday, talking softly and carrying a big heart.
Ditka was invited to take part in the Craig Neal/Grant Delagrange Charity Golf event by Fort Wayne's Mike Thomas, whom he knows from golfing in Florida. The proceeds go to Special Olympics of Allen County.
“I can go somewhere almost every day,” Ditka said. “But he said it was the Special Olympics. …To raise money for that, I think it's special. It's never a problem and I'm never too busy to do good things. Sometimes I do stupid things, but I'm never too busy to do good things.”
So Ditka came to Fort Wayne on his own dime – no speaking or appearance fee or anything of the sort – and gave his time. He posed for pictures, talked and answered all the questions he's heard 100 times before.
He was more than a little self-deprecating for a Hall of Fame football legend and current sports television talking head.
“When you're young, you play,” Ditka said. “When you're older, you coach if you can. And when you get real old like me, you become an 'expert,' so you get in the media and you get to express your opinions about a lot of things.”
Ditka shared his opinions freely, but less boisterously than his caricature would. He often followed his thoughts with “that's just my opinion,” whether talking about NFL fines for hits (he thinks a recent one on Bears linebacker Jon Bostic was out of line), the Seattle Seahawks (he doesn't like their style) or the safety of football (“What is safe? Is driving a car safe?”).
He visited Bears camp last week and said the team looked “pretty daggone impressive," but everything rides on the offensive line. The same goes for the Indianapolis Colts, he said: “I don't know if anyone throws the ball better than Andrew Luck.”
But Ditka was most interesting when he addressed more personal issues. He lamented the fact that Jim McMahon, his “Punky QB” from the '85 Bears, is dealing with issues of dementia. He talked about the problem that avoiding head shots or helmet-to-helmet possibilities could end up with more tackles hitting the knees. He said as a player he'd have rather been hit in the head than the knees.
“Football is a rough sport,” Ditka said. “Guys are bigger, faster, stronger than they were 50 years ago. When you have collisions with people moving at that rate of speed, I don't care what your equipment is, you can have injuries.
“If you play long enough, there's a good chance you going to get hurt,” Ditka said. “I had four hip replacements, all the result of playing football. Do I regret it? No. Some of the guys who have dementia, head trauma, that's a little different situation.”
Ditka disagrees with some of the rule changes and particularly in fining players after the fact when no penalty was called, but he said he sees NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's perspective, too.
“I know what the league is trying to do, I applaud what they're trying to do and I understand it,” he said. “But you have to be careful. Football is football.”
Yet Ditka's love for the game remains. The people in the sport keep him interested, keep him involved.
He pointed to the Colts' rallying around coach Chuck Pagano last season as an inspiring situation.
“I don't know Pagano personally, but I know what he's going through and I really respect his courage and commitment, and the organization's courage and commitment to him,” Ditka said. “The great stories in sports are more than about scoring touchdowns and winning games. It's about people like Chuck. He's a great guy and you saw that in his football team and how they rallied around him. That's the stuff you make movies about.”
Ditka said he's ready to charge into this season, reeling off plenty of contenders for the best team in the NFL. “Everybody picked Denver in the preseason; they better get their defense fixed,” Ditka said. “You can't win with just the quarterback.”
Ditka expressed his gratitude for all that the game of football has done for him. It continues to be his livelihood today, if as an observer instead of a participant. He said he would encourage youngsters interested in playing football to know what they're getting into, but that if they work on being in the right condition and being physically ready, they can play a long time.
Few are going to be pros, Ditka said, but lessons can be learned.
“It's important to set goals for yourself in football, life or school,” Ditka said. “Understand who you want to be and pursue it with reckless abandon. There are no short cuts.”
You listen to Ditka, you believe the man. He's much more convincing than the caricature.