Mike Ditka still wields power that separates him from others

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LAS VEGAS — It’s the game that won’t die.

The 1985 Bears slaughtering the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, and all of Chicago celebrated the apex of the toughest pro sport in town.

Can it be 30 years ago this season?

It can.

And who knew that all those decades would go by and the feats of that wildly dominant team would still loom over any sports accomplishment in this town except for Michael Jordan’s six-ring dynasty with the Bulls. And that was basketball. Everybody knows football rules in Chicago.

On Friday at the Silverton Casino and Hotel, Mike Ditka, the ringleader of the ’85 Bears, waits to give the main speech for Gridiron Greats’ 2015 Hall of Fame dinner. Ditka is the president and driving force behind the charitable group that aids former NFL players who, as the brochure states, “have fallen on hard times.”

Sometimes that is meant literally.

Sometimes it’s only a wish.

For instance, the Sylvia Mackey Woman of the Year Award will go to Chie Smith, the wife of former Raider Steve Smith, who is bedridden with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Was the terrible toll of ALS caused by head trauma from football? Nobody knows.

But Smith, 50, is immobile and has been using a feeding tube since 2006. Chie and their children must bear the burden of caring for him.

Indeed, it’s a sad thing that this group of famous former players and various donors and charitable workers have to do something that the NFL, with its splendid riches, should do on its own.

So be it. Like the ’85 Bears, the damage wreaked upon many NFL players and their unrequited suffering in later years is a topic that won’t go away.

Ditka, looking trim and fit with his trademark “V” hairdo and mustache, has a half-smoked cigar in front of him. He’s feeling good.

“Been working out,” he says.

“Look at him walking,” says his pal and Chicago night-club singer “Big John” Vincent, who will perform. “Better than ever. Can’t keep up with him.”

“You can either walk or shuffle,” says Ditka, who used to hobble like a crab. “I decided not to shuffle.”

As for the cigar, well, “Da Coach” has his guilty pleasures.

“I like these,” he says, pulling an unwrapped, fat “Ditka Signature” Camacho out of his breast pocket. It’s the same as the half-smoked one in the ashtray. “Made in Nicaragua. People give me Cubans, and I give them away.”

The dinner is still an hour or so away, and Ditka drinks iced tea and chats with people who have come in early. And, of course, he does one TV or radio interview after another. The world can’t seem to get enough of Da Coach.

At 75, he’s still swimming like a shark, if not quite as fast as when he was in the turbulent tank with the famous Bears of yore. With all of his charity work and endorsed products (is there any food group or sauce he hasn’t covered?), Ditka is a monolithic entity as much as an authentic card-playing, golfing, aging human.

Conflict always has been close to him, if for no other reason than that he has always loved the violence of football and has always spoken his mind. His relationship with the Bears organization is minimal at best.

Former Bear Jim Covert (one of the Hall of Fame inductees) and his wife, Penny, come in and take their seats next to Ditka at the main table. Covert was one of the greatest offensive tackles ever, and only a shortened career has kept him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Ditka’s continuing love for the big man is obvious as they greet one another.

Then Jim McMahon walks in with his girlfriend of many years, Laurie Navon, to sit at the head table. Ditka and “Mad” Mac’s relationship is a tad different.

Both respect each other and are bound by shared accomplishment. They are often at similar events, but they still circle each other, if not warily, then cautiously. Back in the Bears’ heyday in the ’80s, they were like oil and vinegar — or like dynamite and a blasting cap.

“We loved to see the friction between McMahon and Ditka,” Covert later says impishly during his acceptance speech. “They were exactly the same person. They don’t like to admit it.”

The competitive flare burned in each like an industrial fire, that’s for sure. And this created success and problems with the powers that be.

It’s telling that in the program for the event, every inductee — from late Raiders owner Al Davis to former Rams coach Dick Vermeil to Canadian Football League tight end Ray Elgaard and more — has a congratulatory page sponsored by his former team.

Everybody except the two former Bears, that is. McMahon’s page is sponsored by the Packers; Covert’s by no one.

Ditka, of course, stands alone.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

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