October 22, 2014

His Way

Mike Ditka is waiting for dinner, seated at a table near the front of his popular Naples restaurant. Stogie in hand, he nurses a beer as he talks about the Chicago Bears and the season they seemed invincible-1985. "When I look at the films, I've never seen any team play like that. What it was was the players. We had a collection of characters, some of the best-" He is stopped mid-sentence by a young woman who tentatively hands him a sheet of paper and asks if he will sign it. Ditka graciously complies. Four minutes later, he is talking about the march to the Super Bowl when an older couple asks to have their picture taken with him. "Of course," he says, and he gets up to pose with them. "Where was I?" he asks, returning to the table. Before he can remember, a middle-aged man wearing a Bulls T-shirt and a Dolphins cap hands him a football and magic marker. The pattern continues; and at one point his wife Diana, who is sitting quietly across the table, leans over and explains: "It's pretty much always like this. You get used to it."

Since losing his job with the New Orleans Saints two years ago, "Da Coach" has been spending more and more time in Naples, where he has a home in Village Walk on Vanderbilt Beach Road. In addition to the restaurant, he's a partner in two Naples golf courses-Olde Florida Golf Club and Club of the Everglades. "I have a lot invested in this town. It's a great place," says Ditka, who now spends about five months in Naples and the rest of the year in Chicago.

At Ditka's-which serves up hearty, all-American fare such as Kiss-Ass Paddle Steak, Da Pork Chop, Training Table Pot Roast and the "Kiss Yo Mama" Souper Bowl Soup of the day-his face is caricatured on the dinner plates and menus. But it's the real face that turns heads-a face people recognize from the nearly 40 years of Ditka's remarkable football career, both as a player and a coach. The memorabilia on the walls here only hints at that career-which began in 1961 when Ditka signed his first NFL contract for $12,000 to play tight end for the Chicago Bears. He caught 56 passes that season and was named Rookie of the Year, then went on to play 11 more years with Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas. He earned a Super Bowl ring with Dallas in 1972, catching a seven-yard touchdown pass for Dallas' final score in their 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

He retired after the 1972 season at age 33 (with 427 career receptions, for 5,812 yards) but was soon hired by Cowboys coach Tom Landry as an offensive assistant and special teams coach. In his nine seasons as assistant coach with Dallas, the Cowboys went to the playoffs eight times, won six divisional titles, three NFC championships and one Super Bowl. But Ditka's dream was to coach Chicago; and in 1981 he sent owner George Halas a note telling him that he was available. Halas asked him to come to Chicago, and they worked out a deal at Halas' kitchen table. Ditka's salary was reportedly the lowest in the league at first-but he quickly went to work building the great Bears team of the 1980s with players such as Jim McMahon, Wilber Marshall and William "Refrigerator" Perry. Within four years, the Bears were Super Bowl champions.

Ditka left the Bears after the 1992 season and worked as a broadcaster for several years before coming back to coach New Orleans. He led the Saints from 1997-99, but the team never got on track and he was fired.

One of only two athletes to win Super Bowl rings as head coach, assistant coach and player, Ditka was twice selected coach of the year-in 1985 and 1988, the year he suffered a mid-season heart attack.

Now 62, Ditka is a Naples resident who seems in some ways typically Neapolitan-a conservative Midwesterner who loves golf, has opinions, follows sports. He can sound bitter about how his coaching tenures ended in Chicago and New Orleans, but he doesn't dwell on it. There's a lot on his mind these days. In addition to his Naples ventures, he has restaurants in New Orleans and Chicago and is launching a line of hot sauces, steak sauces and pork chop sauces as well as his own cigar line. He also works for a number of charities, gives motivational speeches and is a regular commentator with CBS' "The NFL Today." "For a guy that's not busy," he says, "I keep pretty busy."

The interview was conducted at Ditka's, in between autograph and photo requests.

Gulfshore Life: In your motivational speeches, you say if you like what you're doing, you've got it made; if you don't like what you're doing, don't do it. What is it you like about what you're doing now, and how does it compare to football?

Ditka: I like anything that's a challenge. I don't compare it with football. I just look at each thing as a different challenge. This restaurant is a challenge. We lost money the first year, changing over from what it was, which was basically a sports bar. But this is a pretty good-looking place now.. I put a lot of memorabilia in here; I have more to put in. We have a great chef. The food's good and getting better. Plus we own the property. That's a little different than just owning a restaurant. You own the property, it's an investment in real estate, as well.

What brought you to Naples?

We first came down 16 years ago. They had a meeting for all the Central Division coaches in Tampa, and we were invited down here to play in a golf tournament by Russ Thomas, who was the general manager of the Detroit Lions at that time. He lived at Windemere, so we came down, my general manager and myself, and we ended up buying a home. I never was a big fan of the East Coast. Too much traffic, too much congestion. But I always wanted to settle somewhere more relaxed, have an off-season home, whether it was Florida or Arizona or wherever. There's nothing I don't like about Naples. I like the pace, the golf. It's easy to get to from Chicago. You fly down to Fort Myers and you're at our house in 25 minutes.

People seem surprised to see you sitting in here.

That's a funny thing. I mean, when I'm in town I eat here most every night. I feel I have an obligation. My name's on the sign. There are a lot of celebrities that have their names on restaurants and they never show up. Even in Chicago, people come over and say, "I can't believe you're here."

What's a typical day for you in Naples? Do you golf every day?

Every day. I don't fish, I don't boat, I don't hunt. I play golf. And then we come here to the restaurant and say hello to people. My life is very uncomplicated.

Speaking of golf, is your handicap still six?

My handicap is lower than that, but I have a hard time playing to it. I did play good enough to get it down to two but I'm not at two right now. Probably more like a six or a seven.

You don't get to the beaches in Naples?

No, I'm afraid someone might kick sand in my face. I don't go in the water unless I know what's in it, besides me. I did that when I was young.

Does the fact that things ended badly in New Orleans ever motivate you to try to get back into coaching, to end your career on a better note?

No, because I have accomplished my dreams. My life ambition was to coach the Chicago Bears. And I fulfilled that, and we won the Super Bowl. How many people in life really get to do what they want to do in the city they want to do it in?

So have you ruled out a return to coaching?

I really don't expect to coach again. But if somebody said to me, "Would you coach the Bears tomorrow?" I probably would. That's the only team I would ever coach again. Would I do things differently than they're doing them now? Absolutely, because I don't think they're doing it right. The hardest thing I find about sports today, all sports, is that it's very hard to build loyalty.

Why is that?

It's based on money. It's the agents; they're going to go where the money is. They don't give a damn about the organization, if they're playing for Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Tampa.

You mentioned winning the Super Bowl in '86, as coach. You also won it as a player with the Cowboys, in 1972. How did the two compare?

When you win it as a coach, you know that you've brought about something that the whole organization can share in. That's a good feeling. I was just a small part of the big machine in Dallas, but I was a big part of the big machine in Chicago. It's very different. When you compete, you expect to win, so the highs are never as high as the lows are low. When you lose as a coach, the lows are tremendous, because you haven't lost individually, you've lost collectively as an organization.

After some remarkable years with the Bears, you had a difficult season in 1992 and you didn't leave on good terms. Afterward, you said you lost all enthusiasm for the game.. How does that sit with you now?

I still believe it was really unfair, and I was hurt. For what we had accomplished, to take one season as an example wasn't right. We could have turned it around. We would have rebuilt it. But then I realized the guy that owned the Bears at that time, he didn't hire me. So he wanted to have his own guy. I was being undermined. But there's nothing you can do about that. I loved it up until the last year and I really put everything I had into it.

You suffered a heart attack during the 1988 season. How did that affect your approach to coaching?

It made me realize for the first time that I was vulnerable. I wasn't Iron Mike. It made me realize what things were important, the value of things. What happened was because of stress. I was in shape, I worked out. I thought heart attacks were for the guy who lived down the street. It didn't have to do with cholesterol or heredity. It was the stress of the job.

When you returned to coaching with the Saints in 1997, you were quoted as saying, "It's not life or death, I'm not going to anguish over it as I did in the past."

But I did. I still did. Ironically, when I took the New Orleans job, I really wasn't looking for a job. I was happy doing what I was doing. I had a good life. They came to me and I told them exactly what it would take me to coach and they matched what I asked for. So I said I'd go down and give it my best shot. And I did. I really put everything into it. I thought history would repeat itself in New Orleans because I had been on three winning Super Bowl teams, as a player, assistant coach and head coach, and I thought this was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it was.

What went wrong in New Orleans?

It's something that takes time. We would have gotten there. I'm proud of things I did in New Orleans, I really am. We drafted right. We built a team from the bottom up. We had plans for the fourth year I would've been there, for what we would have done with the quarterback situation. We knew what we were going to do but we didn't have the opportunity to finish it.

You still have your restaurant in New Orleans. Do you still have a home there?

We sold the one in New Orleans, thank God. I live in Chicago, downtown, about three blocks from my restaurant. I still have a restaurant in New Orleans, but I have no desire to live there anymore.

Now that you're spending more time in Naples, will we see you more involved in community and charity events?

I expect to be. I always try to be involved in charities and we're going to do a thing here next year, have a two-day event with tents out back, where we present music and raise a lot of money for Make-a-Wish Foundation. That's the charity right now that we're talking about.

You said the heart attack helped you realize the value of things. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, none of us is promised tomorrow. The Bible tells you very explicitly you live today and do the best you can. I think the Golden Rule says it all-do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. If you had that all around the world, we wouldn't have the problems we have. There's no value on human life in our society today. People just take a gun and blow people away. Where does that mentality come from? Forty years ago it wasn't here. You had criminals, but not to the point of indiscriminately wasting human life that way.

What can be done to change that?

I think it has to start at home. I know the upbringing I had-I had such a fear of my dad. I knew that if I did wrong, I would get my ass whipped. Cut and dried. We have a society now where you can't really discipline your children properly. We send them to school and we tell these teachers who are grossly underpaid, "Teach them but don't touch them. Don't discipline them." I think that's a fallacy in our society. That's just the way I feel. It doesn't make me right, it doesn't make me wrong, it just makes me mad.

Everything in life is based on education. And if you can't educate people at an early age, you have a problem. Peer pressure is a tremendous influence on young people. You may have kids who were raised in a very solid family and all of a sudden someone says, well, let's do drugs. And they'll try it because they want to be part of the group. Eighty percent of the minority kids coming into the NFL right now are from single-parent families. Most of that's a mother, or an aunt, or a grandmother. Without the father figure, where's the discipline going to come from? If you want something in life, you have to work for it. My dad worked his butt off. Can it be changed? I don't know. I think we've become a very liberal society. And I'm a very conservative person. I don't mind saying that. I don't care who likes it or doesn't like it. I don't try to be politically correct.

Can you talk about the role of faith and God in your life?

I'm a Christian. I believe in God. I don't try to push what I believe on people. I'm not perfect, I don't pretend to be perfect. But I believe you should live your life a certain way and that you should try to be the best person you can be. And in the end you are what you are. There's a great song by Sinatra, "My Way." That song fit him, that song also fits me. You always wish somewhere along the line you had done things differently. But you know what, you don't have that chance, so you keep going and you do your best. You get knocked on your butt, you get back up, you go back out there and you try again. That's the way I was raised. That's the way I live my life.

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