By Dr. Ken 


When I became aware of the existence of professional football, I became aware of the existence of the Chicago Bears. As one of the founding franchises of the league, and with George Halas as their head coach and owner, the Bears rough and tough play earned them their moniker of Monsters Of The Midway. They even looked tough in their dark navy blue jerseys and helmets that just as often appeared to be black, even after adding the white “C” to the sides of the helmet for the 1962 season.


Bears QB Rudy Bukich shows off dark navy blue helmet and jersey that made Bears look ominous


They were ominous and it was evident in many games that they tried to live up to both their “Monsters” nickname and reputation as ruffians. Of course this is exactly what Halas wanted and expected and he did little to dispel the notion that his Chicago Bears were anything less than the NFL’s most dangerous team. Even in years when they were far from the best in the league, their “best foot forward” still meant hard, and often harsh physical play. I of course, quickly became familiar with the key players and looked forward to searching out articles and photos of Doug Atkins, Bill George, Stan Jones, and Rick Casares. My introduction to professional football just missed out on the 1956 season when the Bears faced off against the New York Giants for the National Football League Championship. The humiliating loss the Bears suffered did not diminish their standing in my eyes and their duplicate 8 – 4 records in 1958 and ’59 kept them towards the top of the league.


It was however, their 1961 NFL Rookie Of The Year winner Mike Ditka that really caught my eye. In truth, I was a fan when he was an All American at the University Of Pittsburgh where he established himself as one of the “toughest of the tough guys” in what was then, typical Pitt fashion. One of my uncles though from the New York City area, had come to live in Pittsburgh for a number of years following his discharge from the United States Army following World War II. He thought that despite the fact that day often looked like night due to the belching steel mill furnaces that ran twenty-four hours non-stop, 365 days per year, Pittsburgh was absolutely the greatest city in the world. As a cook, and eventually a chef, he worked in some of the better Pittsburgh restaurants and took to the place as if he were a native son of The Steel City. As a compulsive gambler, he was as one would expect, a huge sports fan and surprisingly, his team of choice was neither the Pirates nor Steelers but rather, the football team at the University Of Pittsburgh. Thus, with my family deciding that I needed a trade, and one that I could train for at an early age, I was “assigned” what was in that era, to Marmiton or literal “pot and bottle washing” duties while eventually working my way up to Plongeur and finally apprenticing under the kitchen’s Garde Manger. While stripped naked to the waist and elbow deep in a backyard swimming pool sized bowl of what would eventually be coleslaw, I was regaled with stories about Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi, Nick Bolkovac, Joe Schmidt, and the other great Pitt players of the late 1940’s through early ‘50’s. My uncle, who like my father had a grade school education, was impressed by anyone that attended college and especially the football players who perhaps more frequently than in this modern era, attended college and actually graduated. One of the little known facts, it seemed, was that even into the early 1960’s, Pitt could boast that not only did their football squad own a relatively high graduation rate, but that the majority of players were pre-dental, pre-medical, and pre-law majors. This especially made an impression on my uncle and brought my attention to Pitt as one of the teams I needed to follow. Of course, one of those student athletes of the late 1950’s was Mike Ditka.


My uncle had married into our family of blacksmiths and iron workers, but was just as fiercely proud of his immigrant status and Polish heritage as the rest of the crew. This was yet one more reason that he was attracted to Pitt, with its majority of players coming from ethnic, Eastern European backgrounds in Western Pennsylvania steel and mill towns. In this period of time, Western Pennsylvania had the same bragging rights as Texas and Ohio relative to having what was perhaps the best high school football in the nation. For my uncle, it was in part that players with surnames like Salvaterra, Toncic, Guzik, and Wisniewski usually led the Pitt charge. Among the best was of course, Ditka, whose original family name before being Americanized, was Dyczko.  


I believe that Ditka was, while at Pitt, a better student, and better athlete than later thought of. Throughout his NFL career as a player and coach, he lived on his reputation as a super competitive and ultra tough individual but at Pitt, he was better known as a true student athlete, a pre-dental major and one accomplished in football, basketball, and baseball. As an All American and Pitt’s premiere player as a two-way end and punter, his enshrinement into the College Football Hall Of Fame should have sealed his reputation and legacy as one of the greatest collegiate two-way ends of all time, but few think of him as a Pitt great, accomplished on so many levels. It usually comes back to his reputation for toughness and as a fierce competitor in the pros. As an assistant coach at Dallas at the same time as Ditka, Dan Reeves recounted a story about the Mike Ditka most best remember. Describing Ditka’s response to losing a game of cards, Reeves noted that Ditka “…picked up a chair and threw it at the wall. All four legs stuck in the wall and I said, ‘My Lord, this man does not like to lose.’” With the rest of the Bears, Ditka not only played tough, he made the tight end position something it had never been before. From being what was little more than a glorified offensive tackle position, Ditka became the first of the pass catching tight ends, one who could traverse the length of the field as a dangerous receiver that had to be accounted for by the defense. He of course blocked and few ran better with the ball under their arm. As a first year player, Ditka earned his “Bears stripes” as a pile driving blocker but also caught fifty-six passes for 1076 yards and twelve touchdowns. When his twelve year playing career ended, he tallied 427 receptions for 5812 yards and forty-three touchdown receptions with a huge 13.6 yards per catch average and it was the danger of his dual duty abilities that made other coaches develop tight ends that caught passes all over the field as well as led sweeps and dives to their side of the offensive line. At 6’3” and a cut under 230 pounds, Ditka had great body control that allowed him to re-shape the tight end position as he did.


Ditka’s hallmark of course, was his toughness. His injuries often went unreported or unnoticed by the public but he rarely missed time despite bodily damage that even in that era of understated ruggedness would have sidelined most of his peers. Even as a rookie he suffered a significant knee injury and then hurt his shoulder. He played on a foot repaired by surgery when with the Eagles, even though the surgery was not successful and left him in pain. Another serious knee injury, and an altered gait due to his lingering foot problem led to the destruction of a hip, yet he played on. His toughness was on display in one of the most memorable runs in the history of the NFL and one recalled and clearly visualized by most Chicago fans. The play has been memorialized by NFL Films in so many of their presentations that most football fans of the ‘60’s are familiar with it.


Ditka on his famous catch and run versus the Steelers on November 24, 1963


The eleventh game of the season, on the Sunday following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, found the Bears facing off against a Steelers team every bit as tough and unforgiving as they were. The Bears needed a win to keep pace with the Packers yet found themselves behind 17 – 14 in the fourth quarter. After losing yardage due to a penalty and a successful Steelers blitz and pass rush, it was a desperate second and thirty-six to go. Ditka later remarked that he would have run a longer pattern but was very much washed out and let quarterback Billy Wade know it. Wade chose to hit Iron Mike with a short, quick pass and a bit of history was made. Pittsburgh linebacker John Reger dove for Ditka and missed. Myron Pottios, Glen Glass, and Clendon Thomas hit him simultaneously and what was described as “a twisting, Herculean effort of explosive strength” left all three players strewn about. “The Big Bear drove forward and broke clear” and Ditka ran another thirty-five yards as Thomas to his credit, came back for another try at a tackle, finally bringing Ditka down after a sixty-three yard effort. The catch and run led to the Roger LeClerc field goal that resulted in a 17 – 17 tie, and a game that ultimately helped to place the Bears into the NFL Championship game. If I had not already been a fan of Mike Ditka previous to this one play, it definitely would have won me over. As the first tight end elected to the Pro Football Hall Of Fame, he typically stated that he did not deserve the honor and that John Mackey, Ron Kramer, and Jackie Smith should have been voted in before he was.   


Perhaps the last two generations think of Mike Ditka as “the coach,” and a coach who won a Super Bowl with the 1985 Bears. Certainly he was an effective assistant under Tom Landry when with the Cowboys and as the Bears head coach. He was less successful with the Saints but was memorable for his daring, temper, and entertaining jousts with the media. As an analyst, few I think recall Ditka’s praiseworthy accomplishments as a collegiate or professional player but for many of us, this remains his signature on football greatness.