CHICAGO — When Mike Ditka stands at midfield Monday night at Soldier Field for his jersey retirement ceremony, it is entirely appropriate and no coincidence that he will be flanked by two teams to whom he made substantial contributions.
But it is even more fitting because for all Ditka did for the Bears, the team’s long-overdue gesture is happening only because of what the Dallas Cowboys did for him.
In fact, it is not a stretch to say that if not for Tom Landry and the Cowboys, Ditka not only would not have become the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Bears, but conceivably might not have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player.
“When I left the Bears and went to Philadelphia [in a trade for Jack Concannon in 1967], it was bad,” Ditka said last week. “I was done, finished and I had made the decision to retire. I was hurt all the time, I didn’t enjoy the game. I was in bad shape physically, mentally and socially.
“I only came back because of a call from Tom [in 1969], who told me he was willing to take a chance on me, if I was willing to take a chance on myself.”
While Ditka may have found humility in Philadelphia after leaving the Bears and owner George Halas on bad terms, he also developed a lifestyle and an attitude there that was anything but healthy.
“Mr. Halas made the right decision. I was a pain in the ass,” Ditka said of his contentious contract talks with the Bears and secret negotiations with the Houston Oilers (the team that selected him in the 1961 AFL draft).
In his book “Ditka: An Autobiography,” written with legendary Chicago Tribune football writer Don Pierson, Ditka called his two seasons in Philadelphia a self-induced “low point of my life. I really drank a lot. Almost killed myself drinking.”
Ditka said he still doesn’t know for sure why Landry, with whom he had not had a relationship, made the call. “I really think it might be because I had good games against the Cowboys,” he said.
Dave Edwards, a former Cowboys teammate who remains one of Ditka’s closest friends, half-jokes that Ditka “could have gone into the Hall of Fame after his rookie season,” when the young tight end shocked opposing defenses with 56 catches for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns and was named the 1961 rookie of the year. Ditka also was named All-Pro in his first five seasons and never missed a start in six seasons with the Bears.
And yet, unfairly or not, it still took 16 years for Ditka to be enshrined in Canton, which took place in 1988, after his best years coaching the Bears.
One thing was for sure: If Landry had not rescued him from Philadelphia (in a trade for end David McDaniels), Ditka would not have re-dedicated himself to the game by getting into the best shape of his career. He would not have gone to two Super Bowls as a player in 1971 and 1972, catching a touchdown pass in the Cowboys’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI, the same season in which he had 30 catches.
And he most certainly would never have become an NFL coach.
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel from 1960 to 1988, said the team went after Ditka for very specific reasons.
“We felt that we had a really good team, but we didn’t have any leadership and there was no one, absolutely no one, who worked harder than Mike,” Brandt said. “We knew all of the background, that he once got into a fight with Adolph Rupp when he was a basketball player for Pitt, but we got him and I think he saw what Tom stood for and how he accomplished things.
“Consequently, I saw Mike Ditka turn from a guy who was constantly looking for trouble, so to speak, who would fight at the drop of a hat, to a guy who all of a sudden controlled his emotions.”
Ditka said he became a “team player” in Dallas. “All Coach Landry did was for the good of the team,” he said. “He didn’t tolerate anything [else].”
And their relationship was clearly the key in rejuvenating Ditka’s career and overall attitude.
“The thing about Halas, who was a great coach and a huge reason why this league is what it is today, is that he was not as attuned [to players] but more to X’s and O’s, and believed players should know how to play,” Brandt said. “Whereas with Tom, they were all like second sons to him.
“I think Mike learned so much from Tom. Things like the [Fellowship of Christian Athletes], Mike would have never thought of doing. He was a hero worshipper of Coach Landry.”
Ditka did not disagree.
“My whole life and focus changed when I met Tom,” he said. “One thing he made me understand was that every individual was a part of a puzzle. It actually made me a better person.”
A week after retiring following the 1972 season, Ditka got another unexpected call from Landry.
“He asked if I’d consider coaching special teams and working with the tight ends,” recalled Ditka, who had been a part-owner of a sports bar in Dallas and envisioned eventually opening more and making a career of it. “I would make half as much as a coach ($22,000) than I had as a player, but I told him I’d love to have the opportunity. It was a great life and very prestigious. I’m glad my mind worked rationally at that time.”
Dan Reeves, Ditka’s roommate with the Cowboys and then a player-coach, said he had also been caught off-guard when Landry asked him to join his staff.
“Coach Landry saw something in both Mike and I that we didn’t see in ourselves,” said Reeves, who went on to participate in a record nine Super Bowls as a player or coach and become one of Ditka’s closest friends.
“People don’t understand how extremely smart Mike is, just as far as his IQ. But his thought process coaching was [equally impressive]. Mike was the one who brought up the shotgun because we were so bad the year before on third-down conversions. … Coach Landry had some experience with it and said he’d think about it, that we had to work on our pass protection because the first thing people would do is blitz us. But we used the shotgun a long time before anyone else did. … Roger Staubach was awesome in the shotgun and that was something Mike brought up first.”
During the 1981 season, while still coaching special teams in Dallas, Ditka had written Halas a letter expressing a desire to renew their friendship and asking his former coach to someday consider him for the head coaching position. But Ditka said he was surprised when Landry called him into his office following the season.
“He said, ‘Listen, I think Coach Halas is going to offer you the Bears’ coaching job,’ ” Ditka recalled. “I asked him, ‘Are you sure?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, he called me.’
“I asked him, ‘Do you think I’m ready?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I think you’re ready.’ An endorsement like that from Coach Landry was all I needed.”
It was enough for Halas as well.
“Coach Halas reached out to me and took a lot of criticism from a lot of people,” Ditka said. “But he said he wanted a Bear, someone with a history in the organization.”
Ditka gave that to him and four winters later — sadly, two years after Halas’ death — he led the franchise to their only Super Bowl title. He remains the only person in modern football history to win a championship as a player and head coach with the same team.
“Tom Landry is the reason I went into coaching and other than Coach Halas, is the reason I am where I am today, no question,” Ditka said. “They were two of the most important people in my life. They both hired me twice and they really changed my life.”
With a career that has spanned from coaching to superstar pitchman and entrepreneur, to broadcasting (including as an ESPN studio analyst), acting, Arena League team co-owner and philanthropist, Ditka has extended his celebrity well beyond the boundaries of Chicago.
In comparison, getting his number retired at age 74 seems almost inconsequential. For Ditka, that’s not the point.
“The jersey retirement means a lot. Believe me, it’s a great honor,” he said. “But if it didn’t happen, I’d still feel very good about my life as a football player and coach. It’s been a hell of a run. The train is slowing down, but I’m glad to still be on it.”