The first time I ever saw Mike Ditka in the Coliseum, he threw the best block I have ever seen on a football field.
It was what they used to call the shiver block, probably because the recipient shivered for days. It called for the blocker to hold his bent arms rigidly in place in front of him, shoulder high. It had the effect on the blockee of running into two iron bars with his Adam's apple.
Ditka didn't lay this apocalyptic block on any Ram linebacker, cornerback or free safety. He laid it on a spectator. Fortunately, the fellow was drunk. Only a drunk or a crazy man would go wandering into the middle of the Chicago Bears backfield in broad daylight.
Now, normal procedure for the athlete in these matters is to ignore these interlopers and let the security people corral them and lead them off to jail or the parking lots.
But, Mike was having none of that. This guy was invading Mike's turf and he didn't like it.
The guy had some pretty good moves. He was dodging the rent-a-cops with ease when he made his mistake. He charged toward the Bears' huddle. Ditka stepped up. He put his arms in execution position. He leaned expertly into the runner.
I thought the guy's head was going to come off. It snapped back. So did the rest of him. He did a back dive and hit the ground with a splat, like a watermelon that had just fallen off a truck, and he just lay there. Dempsey never knocked anyone colder.
The crowd booed. My colleagues in the press box were outraged. Personally, I was impressed. I had a kind of sneaking admiration for Ditka. I don't ever remember any drunks running out on the field the rest of that year or for a long time after that. Not when the Bears were in town.
The moral of the story? Don't mess with Mike Ditka.
You can tell it by the eyes. They have this kind of unholy light in them of a guy who would like nothing better than to find himself in the middle of a dock fight.
Ditka is just smaller than a redwood tree and his neck looks like the barrel of a cannon. If you saw him on horseback, wearing a fur hat, you would run for your life. He looks like something that arrived with Genghis Khan.
He was a tremendous football player. A tight end, he didn't so much get open as he would get free. He couldn't outrun many cornerbacks but he could out-muscle all of them. When one of them went up with him for the ball, Ditka came down with it. He caught 75 passes for the Bears in 1964, a record--since broken--for tight ends. He caught 1,076 yards' worth in 1961.
The next time I saw Mike Ditka was at Super Bowl VI. The Cowboys had just beaten Miami, 24-3, and the press was crowded around Duane Thomas' locker. I wandered over to Ditka's locker because I thought he had scored the decisive touchdown, catching a seven-yard pass from Roger Staubach that put the game out of reach of the Dolphins. He had also run for 17 yards on an end-around. But I had Ditka all to myself.
"What is the function of the tight end?" I asked him, to open the conversation.
"To kick butt," Ditka replied.
The next times I would see him would be at the Cowboys' training camp in Thousand Oaks, where he was an assistant to Tom Landry.
Now, most of Landry's assistants, when they become head coaches, emulate the master. They are calm, contemplative, given to long stares at a piece of paper, long conversations on the telephone. They watch the game with the stoic, deadpan look of a surgeon sizing up an X-ray.
Not Ditka. He looks like something that just escaped the circus. He paces, rants, roars, raves. He's still kicking butt. His neck muscles bulge. He chews gum furiously when he isn't hurling it at spectators. He feuds with his quarterbacks, his linemen, his assistant coaches, his front office. Anybody who wanders on his field.
He runs the game like a top sergeant in a pinned-down platoon. He is impatient, intransigent, intractable. He has the disposition of a guy just awakened from a sound sleep by a wrong number.
He is the best sideline show in football. The networks don't waste time with crowd shots when Ditka is on the field. Tom Landry never raised his voice on the sidelines. Ditka never lowered his. Players come off the field as if they are going to the electric chair when they make mistakes. Ditka looks like Attila the Hun with a spy he has just captured.
He dismantled his Chicago Bears team last week, discarding Hall of Fame players like cigar butts. The result was a game Sunday that only a mother could love. But the Bears won, 6-3, and afterward Ditka, who had managed to keep his chewing gum in his mouth and his fingers off the throats of his defensive linemen, was typically defiant.
"I don't know if it was a pretty game; I don't care. We made some changes, and I liked what I saw today," Ditka roared.
"Some people will think we go in the playoffs as weak sisters. Well, somebody has to come through Chicago, I know that. I don't care whether they're wearing red and gold, maroon and gold, black and gold or purple and white. Somebody has to come through Chicago."
It won't be the red and gold 49ers, but whoever has to come through Chicago won't like it. There are times the Bears wish they didn't have to, either, that they were as far away from their Vesuvian leader as the rest of the league.
Ditka is as right for Chicago as a wool jacket. An editor once called it a "dirty shirt" town. Well, Ditka's shirts are never dirty, but his uniform always was. If his team gets to the Super Bowl, it'll be because the players are far more scared of what will happen to them on the sidelines than on the field.
And if they get there and you do, too, whatever you do, don't run out on the field.