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DITKA : The Mentor of the Midway Has Mellowed Some, but Inside He's Still Aliquippa Steel

December 30, 1985|MIKE DOWNEY | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — In Lake Forest, Ill., no longer the city of ordinary people, the ice and snow have turned the streets into toboggan runs, the salt and slush have stained the paint of the cars, and one of the most appropriately named movies ever to hit town, "White Nights," is playing at the Deerpath Cinema. The weather is not fit for man nor bear.

A commuter train slows and stops, but there is no one at the depot to get on board. There is not much traffic stopped by the crossing gates, either. Very few cars have pulled into the Lake Forest business district this day. Few drivers have passed the Burma Shave-style signposts that line the road leading into town, the warnings from Students Against Drunk Drivers that read: (First sign) The Drink (second sign) You Leave Alone (third sign) May Save a Life: (last sign) Your Own.

Mike Ditka, who learned a tough and unfortunately timed lesson about drunken driving only a few weeks before, is one of the few Lake Foresters on the move on Christmas morning. He goes to the Chicago Bear training camp, near the grounds of Lake Forest College, to put himself through a workout that keeps his 46-year-old body hard. Then he drops by his desk at Halas Hall and spends a couple of hours pushing papers.

"So, what did you get for Christmas?" a guest in his office asks.

Ditka leans back and begins to slide his fat National Football League championship ring on and off of its finger, a nervous tic that he cannot seem to control.

"Uh, my Christmas gift is on layaway," Ditka says. "Hopefully, it's coming."

"What, you ordered something and it hasn't come yet?"

"No," Ditka says. "We just want to get it in New Orleans Jan. 26."

Ditka, being both naughty and nice, does not know if he will get what he wants. He does know that no other gift but another gaudy ring will do. Not a cassette of the "Super Bowl Shuffle" musical rap recorded by 10 of his players. Not one of the 57 varieties of William Perry-inspired "Refrigerator" trinkets and shirts that Chicago's stores have been peddling. Not even the gold blazer buttons that Diana Ditka bought her husband to be attached to his sportcoats, the ones that say "Go Bears."

"I don't need anything," the Bear coach says. "I've had Christmas every day this season."

This is the new, improved, mellow Mike Ditka, the nice Mike, mentor of the Midway, NFL coach of the year for 1985, the guy who has enjoyed 15 wins in 16 games without punching lockers or flinging clipboards like Frisbees. The late George Halas, who was his first NFL head coach and later gave him his first job as an NFL head coach, rarely experienced such a season. In fact, the 1963 title that Ditka and his teammates won for Halas was the only one the Bears have won in the last 40 years.

Ditka wishes this team could do more than just wear the old man's initials on their sleeves. "I wish he was here. I wish he could see this," he says. "It's been a very rewarding season, not just for me personally, but for the city of Chicago and the organization. A lot of good things have happened, especially for the organization, because, well, you know, the Bears have kind of been maligned and the city has kind of been maligned, and it's nice to give people something to cheer about, see them smiling, get the mail you get, make them proud to be Bear fans again.

"It's really amazing, I'll tell you. We get mail from Europe, from every state, from everywhere. I saw the same sort of thing happen when I worked in Dallas. You can't believe the number of people behind the Bears now. Three years ago, we go into a hotel and the doorman won't even open the door for us. Now, we get mobbed. It's like, well, it's like the Cowboys going someplace."

Or even the Cubs, for that matter. The big difference is, the Cubs have always had a reputation as lovable losers, as cuddly little Gummy Bears, whereas the football team in Chicago has usually presented an image of being mean, dirty, grisly Bears.

"I think that's the way Mr. Halas always wanted it. He wanted to have a ballclub with a certain personality, a team made up of, you know, rough, tough guys, a team that didn't take any crap from anybody and could dish it out."

Halas coached at least one such player. Tight end Mike Ditka was the guy who, having been rookie of the year and having made the Pro Bowl five times in his first six seasons, went to the old man for more money, failed to get it, then went public with a Bartlett's-worthy remark that Papa Bear Halas was the sort of person who "throws nickels around like manhole covers." It was at this point that Ditka tried to jump to the Houston Oilers of the American Football League, who had battled the Bears for custody when he was leaving the University of Pittsburgh in 1961. Halas took legal action to block this maneuver, and took his vengeance by trading Ditka to the Philadelphia Eagles.

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