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.

My wife ordered a glass of wine, Ditka’s own Kick Ass Red. Ditka appends the phrase kick ass to a lot of things. (His most recent autobiography is called In Life, First You Kick Ass.) There was a “Kick Ass” Kobe Burger on the menu, along with the Coach’s Meatloaf Stack, the “Fridge” Burger, and Da Pork Chop. I ordered the Kick Ass Paddle Steak—so named by Ditka because, according to restaurant lore, he took one look at it and said, “That thing looks like a paddle.” My wife ordered crab cakes as big as go-cart tires. The whole evening had an Alice in Wonderland quality: everything was too large for us; we were small people in a big man’s world. The steak was moist, bloody, and delicious, but far too rich for me. I felt sick for days.

By the gift stand, I spotted a waiter putting carryout tins in a bag—a steak, a salad, possibly soup. When I asked whom it was for, the hostess leaned close: “It’s being taken to the coach.” I flushed red. It was like glimpsing the golden cart that trundles royal truffles to the inner chamber of the Sun King.

A few weeks later, I caught a flight to Orlando to check out Ditka’s resort, the Runaway Beach Club. (There’s no beach, and no club.) The resort is set amid strip malls and chain restaurants: Ruby Tuesday, Ponderosa, Olive Garden. In one shot on the resort’s Web site, you see Ditka behind a line of kids, coaching them, getting them to do those last 50 push-ups that can mean the difference between winning and losing. But when I got to the resort, I found nothing but pastel villas and desolate walkways, pictures of Ditka hanging in rooms where people have no idea who Ditka is.

The head of guest services took me on a tour: two pools, an exercise room, a basketball court, a gift shop. As we stood beside the Ditka business center, she confessed she’d never heard of the coach before she took the job. Even later, when she watched Kicking & Screaming, she was well into the film before she realized this Ditka was the same as that Ditka. The desk staff, the cleaning ladies, the gardeners—all wear blue Ditka jerseys, No. 89, but there’s really no other sense of the man on these grounds. If the steak house on East Chestnut Street is the Temple Mount, then this is one of those satellite congregations out in the sticks, so far from the center that the liturgy has been lost.

I spent a long night in my villa, after eating dinner at a nearby Waffle House. (The Runaway Beach Club doesn’t serve food—very un-Ditka.) I won’t lie. On the way back to the airport, I felt let down, irritated, melancholy. Then I remembered an incident from my youth, back in 1987 or ’88, on a dark Sunday afternoon. The Washington Redskins had just defeated the Bears, eliminating them from the playoffs and leaving us with nothing to look forward to but months of foul-weather pain. Winter would close over Chicago like a lid. The sun would disappear forever. I walked out of Soldier Field amid a sea of silently depressed fans. It was brutal. Just then, as despair gave way to a still deeper despair, a big Polish cop, with a mustache not unlike that of the young Mike Ditka, said, “Get your heads up. Tomorrow’s another fucking day.”