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.
Mike Ditka is such a man.
Ditka, the NFL Hall of Famer, former Chicago Bears coach and current football analyst on ESPN, suffered a minor stroke over the weekend and is reportedly recovering in a Chicago-area hospital.
Now 73 years old, Iron Mike has parlayed his playing and coaching career into a lucrative lifestyle as a TV personality, author, chef and restaurant owner. He is, in fact, a bigger star in Chicago than even basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
Ditka, born to Ukrainian immigrants 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 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 appealing and compelling figure.
However, many people (even in Chicago) dislike Ditka -- they feel he is vulgar, greedy, overbearing, reactionary, phony and self-serving. I am very aware of this; however, as a mass media figure, Ditka needs to promote himself in order to remain marketable and relevant (this is simply the harsh realities of the modern celebrity machine).
At his core, however, Ditka, I believe, is genuine and authentic -- a proud working-class boy who never forgot his hardscrabble roots.
Ditka, the coach of the Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears of 1985-86 -- one of the most popular and unforgettable American sports clubs in history -- may have even influenced U.S. political history. Several years ago, Ditka -- a right-wing conservative -- was recruited by the Illinois Republican party to run for U.S. Senate against a young Democratic upstart named Barack Obama. Ditka eventually decided against running (but because of his immense popularity in Illinois, he may have won and perhaps derailed Obama’s subsequent meteoric political career).
Now, in the twilight of his long and hectic life, the cigar-chomping, heavy-gambling Ditka will gradually slip into obscurity and with him an American society that has long since vanished.