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As Bears legend Mike Ditka nears 80, he is shaken, not deterred

NAPLES, Fla. — The great old Bear has been wounded again, it’s true, but don’t go thinking he’s ready for the big football field in the sky. Not yet. No end-zone dance coming up, folks. Not by any stretch. Of course, Mike Ditka never would think of showboating that way. Not in heaven, for sure, and not on earth, either.

You never disrespect the game.

That has been his motto forever. Even if he sometimes lost control out there on the turf or in front of the TV cameras, he never did it because he was cheapening his belief in the game. He did it because, well, he couldn’t help it.

The heart attack that walloped Da Coach just before Thanksgiving was a setback, indeed, requiring some serious plumbing work and a little electric box being installed in his chest. But Ditka had his first heart attack in 1988, when he was only 49, and his heart specialist then, Jay Alexander, told him to slow the bleep down and remember that the cardiovascular system isn’t something that can be trampled into submission. Was Ditka thinking about that when he returned to work just 11 days later?

Mike Ditka in Naples, Florida

Mike Ditka in Naples, Florida

Now, 31 years later, maybe the career football man needed this refresher course in chillin’ out.

It’s a fact that every few years, going back to when he was a player, maybe all the way to when he was in diapers, Ditka has said he’s going to mellow, take things much easier, not sweat the little stuff, and so on. Then the process soon starts over again.

It goes back pointedly at least to when Ditka was playing for the Cowboys after his career with the Bears, and coach Tom Landry took him aside and had a quiet but sincere chat with him. Landry told Ditka that he was a fine player but that his ‘‘off-field activities’’ were not good.

‘‘He said, ‘You’ve got to change’ those habits or it was all going to be over,’’ Ditka recalls. ‘‘I said, ‘I’ll change them.’ Just like that, I did.’’

He did, to some extent. And because of that, Landry gave him a chance as an assistant coach for the Cowboys.

‘‘Tom Landry was one of the great men in the history of the game,’’ Ditka says with reverence. ‘‘He was the real deal. What you see is what you get. He never screamed. No, no, no, never. But he didn’t sugarcoat things. He just gave it to you straight. Listen, he hired me to coach the Cowboys’ tight ends and special teams, and, believe me, it wasn’t about my ability as a coach. But he taught me.’’

What did an inscrutable and stoic man such as Landry see in Ditka?

‘‘He wanted some fire,’’ Diana Ditka, who has been Mike’s wife since those late Cowboys days, quickly interjects. She has been sitting here with her man, listening and occasionally correcting him about facts, such as, for instance, his stents are in there forever and are not getting removed, as he seemed to think.

So it was Landry who launched Ditka into the unlikely role of coaching, and that, Ditka believes, is why George Halas took a wild chance on him and hired him in 1982 to lead the foundering Bears.

‘‘I know that’s the reason I got hired by Halas,’’ Ditka says. ‘‘Tom had a very big heart, and he called Halas and asked him to consider me for the job.’’ He pauses and grins. ‘‘Now, maybe Landry just wanted to get rid of me.’’

Ah, how the memories flood. Ditka has been slowed but not disabled. His energy has dipped, and his memory sometimes briefly fails him. But whose memory doesn’t slip a tad when you’re not far from beginning your ninth decade on earth?

‘‘The thing about me,’’ Ditka says, puffing on a cigar as he rests on the rear porch at the Olde Florida Golf Club at the southern end of Naples, ‘‘is that people didn’t think I had a heart. Now they found out I got one.’’

Har-har. Nice gag.

But we knew he had a heart forever, just that it sometimes seemed to pump fury out of his mouth and limbs the way a steamed teapot screeches from its whistle. You’ll recall that in 1983, in his second season as the Bears’ coach, Ditka punched a locker door or luggage case or something so hard in anger after a 22-19 overtime loss to the Colts in Baltimore that he broke his right hand. He shrugged it off, despite the cast on his hand, telling his players before the next game to ‘‘win one for Lefty.’’

We’ve always known he had a heart because no one could get so passionate about so many apparent slights and mistakes that blowing a gasket almost seemed the norm. Passion is what makes Ditka tick. It always has been there, ingrained in him by his working-class upbringing in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and a genetic quirk of personality that could not be expunged or sublimated by any type of deep-breathing technique or new-age relaxation babble. He is wired differently than you and me. That makes one wonder whether the doctors who threaded those four stents into his blocked arteries and a pacemaker into his chest wall noticed anything unique inside, such as a tiny nuclear reactor about to erupt or a little gremlin sweating away with a bullwhip.

It might blow your mind to know that Ditka was voted the most popular boy in his 1957 senior class at Aliquippa High School or that he was in the astronomy club and the class president. Just as stunning is the fact he went to the University of Pittsburgh on a full ride for football — one of the 40 schools that recruited him — so he could stay in Pennsylvania and so he could take classes to become a dentist. Go ahead and laugh at the thought of those giant mitts jammed in some dental victim’s mouth, fishing around with a drill. But ‘‘Dr. Ditka’’ could have happened — under different circumstances. However, football and a thing called advanced chemistry interfered.

‘‘Chemistry,’’ he snorts some 60 years later. ‘‘I had no clue. And what’s chemistry got to do with anything, anyway?’’

One almost can see a college-era Ditka finding that chem prof and jacking him up against a wall by his tweed lapels and asking the same question. But that’s not fair. Ditka’s intense and mercurial, but he’s not a bully or a thug.

Probably the worst thing he did as the Bears’ coach was get a DUI in 1985 while driving home from O’Hare after the team flew back from San Francisco, where the Bears had beaten the mighty 49ers 26-10 to avenge the NFC Championship Game loss the year before to Bill Walsh’s team. Ditka had sent 310-or-so-pound defensive tackle William ‘‘The Refrigerator’’ Perry in on offense and told quarterback Jim Mc-
Mahon to give him the ball — and get out of the way. This was payback to Walsh for using 275-pound guard Guy McIntyre in the 49ers’ backfield against the Bears the previous season. Ditka never forgets stuff like that.

So the celebratory wine was flowing on board, and Ditka got pulled over by a cop. And though he never took a Breathalyzer — because he didn’t think he was drunk — he got the DUI. And then he really laid into the cop verbally. Bad scene all around. This was the Super Bowl-championship season, remember, the only one in Bears history.

Ditka would apologize to all of Chicago and, privately, to his team, but he was emotionally wounded.

‘‘Tom Landry called me during the week, and I appreciated that,’’ he recalled a little while back. ‘‘He just called to give me support. He told the press I was a ‘good man,’ and that was nice.’’

The yin and yang of Ditka’s behavior can make him seem to be multiple people. McMahon, ever the smart aleck, once dubbed him ‘‘Sybil,’’ after the infamous woman who had 16 different personalities. But the hot and cold parts of Ditka are always there, sometimes moving in and out of prominence quickly, like a window curtain flapping in the breeze. One second he can be good-naturedly signing autographs for little kids; the next second he’s gone, his chair tipped over, he himself vanished out the exit. It’s as though impatience rules him like a tyrant.

But impatience with what? Everything, sort of. But mostly just life.

He’s got to move, got to play something, got to try his hardest, got to win. He has been compared to a shark: Keep swimming or die.

But there’s no question he’s swimming slower these days. And he knows it.

‘‘I went to bed at 6:30 yesterday,’’ he says.

‘‘Oh, you did not,’’ Diana says.

‘‘I sure did. And you were asleep by 7 yourself.’’

They have a rare bond, these two. Ditka had a first wife, and she bore all four of his children. But after he got divorced, he met Diana at the Dallas bar he owned, and now they’ve been together more than four decades. Diana adds the elegance Ditka sometimes lacks, but she also does a lot of the same things he does — and likes them. She plays cards and golfs. And she used to drink with Da Coach and smoke like a chimney. But she gave up the cigarettes abruptly last year after a viral infection nailed her.

‘‘Things didn’t taste good,’’ she says. ‘‘Wine tasted bad, so I quit.’’

Just like that?

‘‘Just like that.’’

After how many years of smoking a pack or two of Virginia Slims a day?

‘‘Sixty,’’ she says. ‘‘I started when I was 16.’’

See, she’s got that Ditka discipline, the toughness. If Diana were easily intimidated, she wouldn’t be one of the three female members here, along with roughly 270 men. But how can she stand all this passive cigar smoke?

‘‘It doesn’t bother me,’’ she says dismissively.

Ditka and his quirks don’t bother her, either.

‘‘I didn’t know anything about football when I met Mike,’’ she says. ‘‘I remember friends saying they’d heard I was going out with a Dallas Cowboy and asking me what position he played. I said, ‘Tight ass,’ because I knew it was something like that and I’d never heard of a tight end.’’

Ditka was a natural tight end, all right, a Hall of Fame-style inside receiver with great hands and size and enough speed to split safeties down the middle. And he could block like a maniac. He also was quite good at baseball. In high school, he hit a home run at old Forbes Field. He was on the basketball team at Pitt for two years, and he likes to joke that he got into a game against West Virginia after two Pitt starters fouled out and ‘‘held their star to 44 points.’’

In truth, he was an outstanding athlete, likely at anything he tried. Now the clubhouse life is where he is most comfortable with what athletic ability remains for him.

Naturally, Ditka was on the golf course when he had his recent heart attack. He was playing cards when he had the first one long ago. Golf and rummy have been him ever since the coaching life ended. Indeed, he played 18 holes here this April morning, and there are card games going on all around him in the dining area, games he soon will be joining once he stretches in the shade a bit more.

An old boy approaches with some crumpled bills in his fist. He hands Ditka $15.

‘‘We won that, bud, and we didn’t even know it,’’ the man says with a chuckle.

Ditka takes the money and grins. Woo-hoo. It’s fun to be back in the action, any action.

‘‘I can’t hit the drives the way I used to,’’ he says after the man leaves. ‘‘But I can still chip and do the short game.’’

He doesn’t play from the championship tees anymore, which is a reasonable concession for a 79-year-old who has been through the wringer. In fact, it’s moderately impressive that this day he shot a 90 on the long course with near-jungles crowding the fairways. Hit one out of bounds here, and you’d need a machete and a gaggle of snake-wranglers and gator-wrestlers to find your ball.

‘‘I’m used to shooting in the 80s,’’ Ditka says. ‘‘Today I didn’t.’’

Unsaid is that simply playing anything at all is a gift.

He’s wearing gray shorts, black Nikes, short white socks and a long-sleeved white T-shirt with a small number ‘‘89’’ in dark blue near the left neckline. That was his jersey number with the Bears, and its subtleness on this casual outfit — you presumably can buy a shirt just like it online or at his restaurants — makes it seem like it’s a note pinned to a little kid’s pocket, so that if the kid gets lost, people know who he is and where to send him. For Ditka, that might mean back to the hospital. But maybe not.

He’s got a couple of Band-Aids on his tanned legs. The patches are there not because of any medical procedure but because he bumps into things and the small scrapes bleed like faucets because of all the blood-thinning medication. If his blood flows like water, then what’s to get clogged in those heart hoses again? Such is the reasoning, anyway. And Ditka has gotten all the heart-health lessons and lifestyle information he can handle.

He told reporters after the last heart attack that he even had given up his beloved cigars. But the blue cloud wafting above his head says differently. There were two cigars sitting in front of him on the table, and he fired up the slender one that had the ‘‘Diana’’ label on it, then offered the Camacho with the ‘‘Mike Ditka Gametime’’ band to a visitor.

Now there are two clouds of smoke hovering in the warm air. You can smoke here because this is a private club and the wealthy retro crowd of veteran country-clubbers wouldn’t have it any other way.

You’d think it would be enough to send Diana gagging toward the screen door. But she doesn’t mind at all. It’s a dubious virtue, for certain.

Ditka mentions that his mom lived well into her 90s, and he’s counting on some overtime for his own existence on this mortal coil. But ask him his main goal these days, and he says, ‘‘Make it to 80.’’

That’ll be Oct. 18, the Friday before a possible Bears home game (the schedules won’t be determined until later), and it would be nice if the Soldier Field crowd could sing ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ to him, with Ditka in attendance, on the sideline, just like old times.

If beloved Walter Payton were still alive, he no doubt would want to lead the stands in the singing. Play drums, too. Ditka himself would remain mute, though he might cry. He can get emotional, you know. Don’t forget, too, that back in Catholic grade school, the nun said to Ditka’s music class one day: ‘‘Everybody sing. Mike, you just hum.’’

‘‘And I thought I was the next Bing Crosby,’’ he says forlornly.

But he shook off the disparagement, moved along and became the only person to win a Super Bowl as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach.

Regrets about this life?

‘‘It’s like the song,’’ he says. ‘‘There’ve been a few, but too few to remember. . . . ‘I did it my way.’ ’’

Then he stops and corrects himself.

‘‘No, it’s not only doing it my way,’’ he said. ‘‘I learned so much from so many other people. I rode ’em pretty hard and put ’em up wet for a long time. And you know why? You think you’re invincible. This [heart] stuff opened my eyes. I tell you, if I die now, I’m gonna die a very sober individual.’’

He’s not doing any TV or radio gigs these days, none of that ESPN weekly travel-to-Bristol stuff or other commuting.

‘‘I’ll be honest with you,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t think I’m in demand.’’

He spends half the year in Naples, where he owns a house, and the other half in Chicago, where he owns a condo near the Magnificent Mile. He’ll be back in town in mid-May and says he’ll be eating at his Chestnut Street restaurant three or four times a week — from the healthy side of the menu.

But as far as media stuff goes, you never say never with this man. Think of all the disparate and head-scratching things he has endorsed in his career: anti-freeze, soup, erectile drugs, banks, paint, cars, airlines, corn chips, hearing aids, beer, booze, hairspray, casinos, toilet paper, dental work, hot dogs and much more.

Ditka’s got a beef with some parts of ‘‘the media,’’ saying: ‘‘I don’t see a lot of nice talk about people in writing. It’s kind of negative, in most cases. Me, that’s OK. That’s life. Everybody’s entitled to how they want to judge people.’’

But Ditka himself, an ironclad conservative, has a lot that he’d still like to say to the world, to people who need direction. One of those things, the main one, is: ‘‘Life isn’t what you want it to be; it’s what you make it.’’ The other is: ‘‘You can’t be everything to everyone. I have resigned myself to the fact that nobody’s perfect.’’

That’s decent enough philosophy from Da Coach. He even admits he has gone around and tried to apologize to a lot of guys because, ‘‘I was an asshole to them.’’

And what do those folks say in response?

‘‘They always agree: ‘You were an asshole!’ ’’

It’s that kind of self-deprecation and darkish humor that makes the hard-charging, vitriolic Ditka tolerable to so many people and, dare we say it, so beloved. He might be flawed, but he’s the first person to acknowledge as much. Actor George Wendt and his comedic ‘‘Superfans’’ troupe never would have raved about, say, Vince Lombardi, Bobby Knight or Bill Belichick the way they did about Ditka. Great as those coaches are or were, there’s nothing lovable, cuddly or particularly human about them. Remember the gorging, beer-swilling ‘‘Superfans’’ classic Thanksgiving prayer on ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’?

‘‘We thank Ditka — and God — for all they have provided — for the food we eat, the air we breathe . . . ’’

Hilarious. And thinking about it only makes a Chicagoan hope that Ditka himself — the real, live, cigar-smoking, Skoal-dipping, (former) club-flinging ‘‘Coach’’ — lives on forever.