By nature he isn't a big talker. Not everyone knows this. You picture him with his mouth open, veins popping in his neck, nostrils flaring.
At home he's often so quiet that his wife leaves whatever she's doing to check on him. He's asleep in the chair in front of the big-screen TV, his head lolling, his neck bent like a flower stalk with too big a blossom. She takes one of her dog's toys, a stuffed wart-hog chewed all out of shape, and sticks it behind his head.
At practice one day late last season, after he'd been quiet for a while, he suddenly said something. He was standing around with his coaches. "I'm not going to say that word anymore," he said.
His face suggests a perpetual case of the mumps, and it seemed particularly swollen this day. Everybody looked at him. "I mean it," he said. "No more."
He couldn't be serious, they thought, but nobody saw him smiling. For years he'd been an unofficial ambassador for the word, introducing it in conversation at virtually every opportunity, showing his dexterity by using it as a noun, as a verb and as an adjective.
"Every time I say it," he went on, "I'll put up $100. Every time any one of you says it, you put up $25."
They figured that in a few weeks he'd be broke, looking to moonlight, saying novenas to whichever patron saint handles insolvency. How could he just not say the word anymore? What about all those years of practice? "Let's be honest; it's a stupid word," Mike Ditka said. "It's stupid and it's silly and I've said it so much in my life, it's just ridiculous."
So now here he is, eight months later. It's June, the start of yet another minicamp and of his second season as coach of the New Orleans Saints. Ditka hasn't uttered the word since vowing not to. He has called a team meeting, and the players, 80 in all, are expecting a Lombardi-type rant. Ditka loves Lombardi, and his speeches tend to be heart thumpers with wild, didactic flourishes that leave you spinning. His philosophy seems to be, Why simply stir a guy's emotions when you can puree them? Why bore him with X's and O's when you can raise goose bumps on his flesh and move him to hot, bitter tears?
Ditka stands in front of the players, his face scorched from too many hours in the Louisiana sun, his body lean from a high-protein diet. "I've done a lot of stupid things in my life that I probably won't do again, and using that word is one of them," he says. "There's no room for that word on the field. It might slip out every now and then, but I don't want to hear it."
The players sit as if mesmerized. Can they be hearing right? Only last season he shouted the word at one of them during a game. For what reason? The player, linebacker Brian Jones, dared to ask Ditka to leave a teammate in the game after Ditka had ordered him out. "F— you," Ditka said, his voice big and strong and powerful.