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1985 Bears Coverage: Ditka sees himself in team's rebels

Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

Ditka sees himself in team’s rebels

Ray Sons

Originally published Jan. 21, 1986

There was a day in this football season when Mike Ditka called into his office his punk rock quarterback with the wraparound

shades and the nose perpetually thumbed at authority and asked:

“Do you do things to shock me, or to shock people?”

The previous Sunday in Dallas, Jim McMahon, too injured to play, had shown up on the sidelines to root the Bears over the Cowboys in an outfit that might have made Boy George blush. Ditka, the head coach, had reached his own conclusion: “I thought he was doing things to piss me off.”

After their talk, Ditka changed his mind. There was nothing personal in the effrontery of this rebel without a cause. “He just does things because he wants to do them.”

Does Ditka see a lot of himself in McMahon?

“Oh, yeah,” Mike replies with a slow, thoughtful smile.

“I see a lot of myself in Gary Fencik, too.” Fencik, the Yale-educated yuppie safety with the Hollywood looks is brother under the skin to Ditka, the roughneck from a Pennsylvania mill town. Both are hitters. Both say plainly what they think, no matter the impact of their words. “He’ll say things,” Ditka says, “and, after you say them, you can’t `un-say’ them, but maybe you shouldn’t have said them that way.”

Surprisingly, Ditka says: “I see a lot of myself in Buddy, too.” Buddy Ryan, the Bears’ defensive coordinator, has a skillet for a tongue. He calls his players by expletives and numbers and never bothers to disguise differences with Ditka, his superior. “I know things are said to ruffle feathers and for other reasons,” Ditka says. Ryan’s insults are intended for effect. Ditka is an effective insulter himself. As a Bear player, he was a McMahon-Fencik-Ryan, with nerve enough for all three.

Johnny Morris, the television sportscaster whose 10-year career as a Bear included Ditka’s six seasons, says Ditka was the only Bear “who would stand up to Halas.” To be sure, Doug Atkins, the giant defensive end from Tennessee, grandly declined to practice and, after chug-alugging martinis, would phone George Halas, the patriarch-tyrant-founder-coach of the team, in the middle of the night and lecture him. But Atkins did it in “a kidding way,” Morris recalls. Ditka would flat out say “No” to the Old Man, who would never take that for an answer.

This sportswriter was an unwitting instigator of the hottest flareup between Ditka and Halas.

The yellowed clipping from the Chicago Daily News of Oct. 5, 1965, seems innocuous by today’s standards. My lead read: “Are you confused by the Bears’ quarterback situation? So are Johnny Morris and Mike Ditka, the team’s two principal pass receivers.” What followed was an account of a freewheeling question-and-answer session at an appearance by Morris and Ditka before a group of chemical salesmen. The salesmen were adamant that Halas should replace veteran Bill Wade with Rudy Bukich as starting quarterback in the wake of Bukich’s fine performance the previous day in the second half of a loss at Green Bay.

Morris finally agreed that Bukich probably had earned a start. Ditka was outspokenly critical of Wade’s play selection against the Packers.

Next morning, I got a frantic phone call from Morris. Halas had called him and Ditka to his office in the middle of the night to rage at them for insubordination. Morris finally had escaped Halas’ presence, but was worried the Old Man was mad enough to trade him. He had made this phone call to plead that I tell Halas they had been badgered into these comments by anti-Wade fans. Ditka was still on the carpet, and Morris didn’t know if Halas ever would let him go.

Halas listened to my pleas for leniency without comment. At practice that day, he ordered Morris and Ditka to apologize to the team. Ditka replied: “I don’t have anything to say.” Morris, flabbergasted at Ditka’s nerve and not wanting to be traded, remembers: “I didn’t know what to do. I kind of apologized for both of us.”

Ditka never said a word to me about this until the night before the Super Bowl last January in San Francisco. He had invited several Chicago sportswriters to dinner. When I walked into the restaurant, he looked me in the eye and said: “You got me in trouble 20 years ago.” He picked up the bill, anyway.

Halas kept Ditka around for the same reasons Ditka suffers McMahon and Ryan today. The Old Man saw himself in Ditka. And Ditka was too good to be let go.

Ditka was the prototype of the modern tight end. When he came to the Bears in 1961, the position was called “closed end” and its practitioners were ponderous blockers who seldom caught passes. “We were really the first team to start throwing to the tight end my rookie year 1961,” Ditka says. They also were first to split the tight end away from fellow linemen, giving him room to work, man-to-man, against smaller defensive backs. Out there, Ditka, carrying 220 pounds with the intensity of an irritated rhinoceros, was too much to handle.

“He was an offensive intimidator,” Morris recalls. “Most tough guys are on defense. We needed one on offense.”

Jim Dooley, now Ditka’s assistant for research and quality control, was a split end when Ditka joined the team and coached Ditka and other receivers before succeeding Halas as head coach when the Old Man retired in 1968. He remembers the fire Ditka ignited, not only in games, but in practices. “Every practice was like a game,” Dooley says. “He’d go bananas if he dropped a pass, yelling and screaming.” His fury was infectious. Offensive players who had been “mundane,” says Dooley,

turned into, well, Bears.

If Ditka had not made a play old Bears still discuss with awe, the team never would have edged Green Bay by half a game in the standings and qualified for its last championship game in 1963. In November of that year, his 63-yard gain with a short pass from Wade put the Bears in field-goal range to salvage a 17-17 tie in Pittsburgh. “He ran over about seven guys,” says Chuck Mather, backfield coach on that team. Halas himself, who had been in pro football 43 years, called it “the greatest individual effort I’ve ever seen on a football field.”

Joe Marconi, fullback on that championship team and one of Ditka’s closest pals, says: “He believed he could block anybody, catch anything. He motivated a helluva lot of people.”

There was more to Ditka than muscle and flaming guts. “He had a bright mind,” Morris says. “He would create plays in the huddle.” Given more freedom to speak in the huddle than today’s players, Ditka would suggest to Wade and Morris alterations in pass routes that would attack the defenses they were seeing.

Under the coaching of the late Luke Johnsos, as offensive coordinator, and Dooley, Ditka, Morris and Wade revolutionized the Bear passing game with quick, short passes thrown with precise timing and caught on the dead run, with Morris and Ditka decoying defenders from each other. Dooley says Ditka was an ideal receiver to exploit the openings in the unsophisticated zone defenses of the day, catching the ball just beyond linebackers and plowing over defensive backs.

In 1964, Morris caught 93 passes; Ditka, 75. They still stand 1-2 on the all-time list of Bear receivers for a single season and are second and third behind Walter Payton in career receptions among Bears.

By 1965, Ditka was such a team leader no rookie would be accepted by his teammates unless he met Ditka’s standards for toughness and ability. That applied even to Gale Sayers, probably the most exciting runner ever to play for the Bears.

“Gale was somewhat timid,” Mather recalls, “and Mike was one of his critics.”

Doubts about Sayers were erased in somewhat comic fashion in his first regular-season game in San Francisco. Sayers started a sweep to his right, ran into traffic and reversed his field in the direction of the Bear bench. Mather forbade any running back to reverse his field because it usually resulted in a big loss. It was better to power ahead, pitting yourself against tacklers to salvage yardage the hard way. Mather screamed at Sayers. Gale reversed again and ran through the whole 49er team for a touchdown.

Ditka led a committee of Bears to meet Sayers coming off the field and pummel him in congratulation. From that moment, Mather says, Sayers was accepted “and got tougher every game.”

Ditka left the Bears for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967. Technically, it was a trade that brought quarterback Jack Concannon to Chicago. Actually, Ditka had signed a $300,000 contract and received a $50,000 signing bonus from the Houston Oilers of the rival American Football League just before the merger with the National Football League. The Eagles picked up the Houston contract and compensated the Bears with Concannon.

Before Ditka left, he tossed out his ringing denunciation of Halas’ stinginess, declaring the Old Man “threw nickels around like manhole covers.”

No one could have imagined Halas one day would call him home to put his Bears in the Super Bowl.