On Monday evening, before a national TV audience, the Chicago Bears football club will finally retire the uniform number (#89) of Hall of Famer Mike Ditka – “merely” 41 years after his playing career ended and 21 years after he last coached the Bears. Not only was Ditka one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history (it could be argued he ‘invented’ the modern-day version of the position by turning it into an effective offensive weapon), but he also attained everlasting fame as the coach of the most colorful and memorable football team in memory – the Super Bowl-winning Bears of 1985.
"Mike Ditka embodies the spirit of everything the Bears are about," said Bears chairman George H. McCaskey. "He's an icon. The last time we won a championship Mike Ditka was our coach and the last time we won before that [in 1963] Mike Ditka was a player. The organization knew [retiring his number] was the right thing to do." What McCaskey left out was that this retirement ceremony was likely delayed by decades due to Ditka’s lingering bitterness over his firing more than two decades ago by Michael McCaskey, George’s brother and Ditka’s sworn enemy.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere at frozen Soldier’s Field on Monday evening should provide some unforgettable images and memories. Let me admit that, as far as I am concerned, Mike Ditka is the most compelling, appealing and charismatic American sports figure of my lifetime – yes, more than Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath or LeBron James. My admiration or Ditka goes far beyond his exploits on the gridiron.
When I was a boy, I had a romantic view of the United States and the American people, which was largely fed by Hollywood movies. To me, American men were invariably tall, strong, powerful, masculine and virtuous, like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Joe DiMaggio. They could solve any problem, defeat any enemy and do so with a stoic grace and aplomb. Of course, after I arrived in the U.S., I realized that image was an unrealistic fantasy. Nonetheless, as an adult, I still (perhaps foolishly) cling to the belief that this country was built by tough, no-nonsense he-men who believed in hard work, family, faith and patriotism. Scoff if you will, but Mike Ditka is such a man.
Now 74 years old, Iron Mike has parlayed his playing and coaching career into a lucrative lifestyle as a TV personality, commercial pitchman, author, chef and restaurant owner. Jim Belushi, the film actor and Chicago native once made an interesting comment about his friend Ditka – he said that, on a global basis, Michael Jordan is a clearly much bigger star; but in Chicago itself, Ditka is the number one sports figure, even more popular than Jordan. (This is probably the sports equivalent of John Lennon claiming that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”)
But think about that for a moment – Ditka has not played for the Bears since the time Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House; and he is the biggest sports star in town. Chicago has given us not only Jordan, but such prominent athletes as Scottie Pippen, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Sammy Sosa, Ferguson Jenkins, Luis Aparicio, Frank Thomas, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Walter Payton, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita – and Ditka crushes them all.
Ditka, born to a Ukrainian immigrant father in a factory (steel) town near Pittsburgh, has risen to the very zenith of American pop culture. His emergence is almost Horatio Alger-like in its trajectory. Ditka is the ultimate throwback -- a 1950s-bred American for whom the 1960s cultural revolution never really happened. With his thick moustache, gruff manner, growling voice and Old World mannerisms, Ditka is seemingly from another world and another era. This is precisely what makes Iron Mike such an attractive figure.
However, I am well aware that many people (even in Chicago) dislike Ditka -- they feel he is vulgar, greedy, overbearing, reactionary, phony, self-promoting and self-serving. But, in his defense, keep in mind that when Ditka played in the NFL (basically the 1960s), football players were lucky to take home $10,000 per year (Peyton Manning now makes than every time he blinks). Do you really blame Ditka for “cashing in” in his later years when he sees so many mediocre NFL players earning millions of dollars a year?
As far as Ditka’s ubiquitous presence on television and commercials, I can only respond that casting directors would not use his services if he wasn’t so popular and could ‘move product.’ Ditka didn’t create the modern mass media celebrity hype machine – and one can hardly hold him responsible for exploiting the system.
And for those who criticize Ditka as serving as a corporate shill, I have two words for you: Michael Jordan. How much money has “Air Jordan” made (and will continue to make ad infinitum) by selling ridiculously overpriced shoes that no one really needs? At least Ditka sells goods that are practical. More importantly, Ditka is highly entertaining, witty, charming and funny, unlike the human robot that is Jordan.
Moreover, what exactly has Jordan done for his fellow man? Ditka has raised millions of dollars for charities, visited sick children in hospitals as well as wounded veterans. If Jordan has done anything similar, it has been kept a state secret. Keep in mind, that Ditka is nine years past retirement age, owes nobody anything, and still commits himself to such selfless acts.
At his core, Ditka, I believe, is genuine and authentic -- a proud working-class boy who never forgot his hardscrabble roots. Of course, others hate Ditka for his conservative political stances – among other ‘transgressions,’ he campaigned with Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential elections; and (gasp!) he doesn’t like Barack Obama. In fact, several years ago, Ditka was recruited by the Illinois Republican Party to run for U.S. Senate against a young Democratic upstart named Obama. Ditka eventually decided against running and thereby perhaps inadvertently allowed Obama’s subsequent meteoric political career to occur.
Recently, Ditka characterized his decision not to run for Senate as his “biggest regret” and even asserted that he might have won. Predictably, this bombastic claim triggered widespread derision from Obama-supporters and other liberals who derided Ditka as a delusionary blowhard. Fair enough, Ditka likely overestimated his political prowess and electoral appeal – but a Ditka in the Senate would have been a dream come true for those of us who love the man. For those who find the idea of Ditka in the halls so government an absurd idea – let me remind you that such sports-world ‘luminaries’ as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, Steve Largent. Dave Bing and many others have run for high political office (and won).
In addition, Ditka presents an interesting contrast to Obama. Ditka grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania in an environment that could be charitably described as Dickensian, among immigrants from central and Eastern Europe desperate to survive in a foreboding new country. All these hardships clearly shaped Ditka’s values and left an everlasting imprint of just how hard life is for the working classes. Despite gaining great wealth and fame, Ditka never lost the common man’s touch, never sold out, never forgot where he came from or who he is.
As for Obama? He represents the polar opposite of a man like Ditka – Obama is effete, emasculated, weak, pretentious, coddled, spoiled, an egghead, and is practically androgynous. I know want kind of man I would prefer to see more of in this country.
I watched with a morbid fascination earlier this year when the '85 Bears were honored at the White House (the original ceremony at the Rose Garden was cancelled back in 1986 due to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster). Ditka looked resplendent -- still magnificent, broad-shouldered and handsome in his old age. He clearly dislikes Obama, but exhibited extraordinary charm and grace during his visit. Seeing Obama and Ditka side by side made me mourn -- I saw what American used to be (Ditka) and what America has become (Obama).
Despite his detractors, Ditka is a living legend and, sadly, the kind if old-fashioned American man who are vanishing from the landscape. Here’s to you, Iron Mike, and congratulations for a long overdue honor.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.