Waiting for Ditka

Thirty years after he saved Chicago, the fabled Bears coach is everywhere—and nowhere.

Here’s Mike Ditka. He’s a young man, big in the shoulders, solid, on a field west of the Alleghenies. His face could be the face of a miner, or a steelworker, or a welder like his dad. Here he is in college, a captain of the offense at Pitt. His hair is crew-cut, his jersey covered in mud. Cotton wads shoved up his nose keep blood from trickling into his mouth. He’s taken in the first round by the Chicago Bears, coached by the owner, George Halas, the old man, a founder of the NFL. Here’s Ditka in his rookie season, in the rumbling dark of the team plane, returning from a humiliating loss in Minnesota. Halas comes on the P.A., voice crackling: “You’re all a bunch of little cunts.” That’s how Ditka learned to be Ditka.

I love Mike Ditka. I dream about him. I dreamed about him last night. I was driving down the expressway and I saw him in the next car, signaling me to pull over. We stood on the shoulder, him yelling, telling me what I had to do: “It’s going to hurt like hell, but you’re going to learn to win.”

He’d taught me this before, in real life—taught my whole city, in fact. In 1982, he returned to Chicago, where he’d been an All-Pro tight end, to take over as coach. This followed years of misery—of Jimmy Carter and Mayor Jane Byrne; of Vince Evans, the ineffectual quarterback of my youth, and Steve Swisher, the weak-hitting catcher for the Cubs. Ditka looked at his team on that first day and said, in essence, “I’m going to the Super Bowl. Who’s coming with me?” It sounds corny, but he changed the mood in Chicago. He made you feel like good things were still possible after years when it seemed like everything would just get worse and worse until a last big wind blew the husk of the city across the plains. Within a few dog years, the Bears were dominating their division. In January 1986, they beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, 46–10.

And now, after all that and more—winning and losing, run-ins, rants, firing and hiring, and Halas dead, and the steel mills gone, and the fields west of the Alleghenies filled with soccer players—Ditka’s retired from the sidelines, but he remains a commanding presence: restaurateur, resort owner, venison eater, coach for life. Playing himself in 2005’s Kicking & Screaming, he says, “I couldn’t really hear ya—my Super Bowl ring was making too much noise.” For a nominal amount of money—the price of a short flight, a rental car, a steak, or a room—you can bathe yourself in Ditka-ness, the accumulated life and wisdom of the man. So I did.

I first returned to Chicago, to visit Ditka’s, the steak house he opened on East Chestnut Street several years after the ’86 Super Bowl. He’s opened other locations since, but this is the mother ship. I was told that the great man himself takes many of his meals there, and I hoped I might see him. When I’d called on Monday and asked if the coach would be there, the hostess told me he usually comes in at the end of the week. When I called back on Friday, I was told my best bet was a Monday or Tuesday. In an establishment like Ditka’s, the namesake is Jehovah: always looked for, seldom found.

My wife and I sat in the main dining room (Ditka’s has several), on a riser from which we could see what seemed like dozens of flat-screen TVs, thousands of pennants, millions of trophies, billions of pictures: Ditka fresh out of Pitt, huge in a white jersey; Ditka in the wild Texas years, the North Dallas Forty years. I was transfixed by a painted scene of that Super Bowl year: Ditka on the sidelines; Jim McMahon, the punky QB, in signature headband; members of Buddy Ryan’s devastating 46 defense standing together like friends on a street corner. Other, earlier gods were pictured too: Red Grange and Bronco Nagurski in leather helmets, faces as chiseled as factory machinery.

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