Mike Ditka
Mike Ditka Reuters

Mike Ditka, the NFL Hall of Fame tight end and Chicago Bears coaching legend, attended the grand opening of a new oilfield service company last week in, of all places, the tiny hamlet of Watford City in northwestern North Dakota. The Forum News Service of the Upper Midwest reported that “Iron Mike” (who won an NFL championship for Chicago as a player in 1963 and an unforgettable Super Bowl as a coach in 1986) had “no clue” why Canary LLC invited him to speak at its function, but he came away highly impressed with the huge oil boom in the state.

“I have no idea. My secretary sets everything up,” Ditka said of his unexpected trip to a remote outpost about 1,100 miles northwest of Chicago. However, the highly popular ESPN analyst enjoyed speaking to a crowd of about 100 people at the grand opening. “What I’m seeing here is America at its best,” Ditka said. “People who have an idea, a dream, and then they make it work. They have ambition, they have intestinal fortitude and they go get it. That’s what impresses me.”

Ditka gushed over North Dakota’s energy program which has generated enormous wealth to the area. “It’s a boom for this state and for the country … of course, if the politicians don’t screw it up somehow,” he said.

Ditka signed autographs and posed for photographs for fans. During his 30-minute speech, he discussed his life and career, characterizing himself as “the luckiest guy in the world." “If somebody would have told me 40 years ago they’d pay you to be on TV, I would have said ‘You’re crazy,’” he said. “They pay me to be on TV and talk about something I like to talk about, football. That’s almost insane. Sometimes the guys on TV are insane, by the way.”

Canary, which was formerly known as Frontier Energy Group, opened a new 45,000-square-foot facility in Watford City, the largest such operation of its kind in the region. “We wanted to make one heck of a splash here,” said Don Pfister, chief operating officer of Denver-based Canary. “This is the birthplace for us. We’re very dedicated and plan on continuing to stay and work in the Bakken [formation].”

Ditka also talked about his conservative political views and how he regretted his aborted plan to run for Senate in Illinois several, years ago (where he would have challenged a fellow named Barack Obama). “That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” Coach Ditka said. “Not that I would have won, but I probably would have and he [Obama] wouldn’t be in the White House.”

Ditka also spoke of the values he gained growing up in Aliquippa, a small town outside Pittsburgh, and his personal heroes, Stan Musial, Abraham Lincoln and George Halas. Fans were just thrilled to meet Ditka. “It’s awesome,” said Gary Schwartzenberger, a youth football coach in Watford City, of seeing Ditka. “He’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.”

North Dakota, a state with about 700,000 people (about one-fourth of the population of Chicago), is in the middle of a huge energy boom, producing in excess of 800,000 barrels of oil per day in June, or about 10 percent of the country's overall daily production. In fact, North Dakota has surpassed Alaska and California in terms of oil production – it is now second only to Texas.

The National Journal reported that oil production has surged in western North Dakota and eastern Montana as oil companies aggressively drill into the oil-shale formations called the “Bakken” and “Three Forks.” Largely due to jobs provided by its flourishing sector energy North Dakota boasts the nation’s lower unemployment rate, only about 3 percent.

However, there are some concerns related to North Dakota’s gushing wells. The Journal noted that environmentalists are unhappy with the hydraulic fracturing that has made drilling oil in the region economical. In addition, small cities like Williston, Watford City, and Dickinson do not yet have sufficient infrastructure to cope with the sudden influx of people seeking jobs in the region.