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Alas, this swagger look was the simple outgrowth of a preseason training camp mishap in which McMahon chopped his own hair too short and then enticed the camp barber, Willie Gault, to undo the damage. "I knew he was ready for the insane asylum," said guard Kurt Becker of his roommate, McMahon. Gault, who is known to drop a pass now and then, let this one slip right through his fingers, whereupon his victim soon turned into a cult figure.
Previously McMahon had been known as the Catholic kid who went to Brigham Young, swore, drank and chewed all the wrong, non-Mormon things, passed for 9,563 yards and 84 touchdowns and said his fondest memory of Provo was "leaving it"; the rookie who climbed out of a limo at Halas Hall on draft day with sun rays reflecting off those glasses and onto a beer can; the fragile yet reckless torpedo always out to prove he could headbutt with anyone rather than dive out of bounds or go to his knees. So it was simple fate that McMahon, who was sidelined for the third game of the season with a back injury, who sat up in the practice-field bleachers with Joe Namath instead of practicing, who hadn't even read the game plan, kept badgering Ditka to put him in. And fate again how he ultimately came off the bench—bad leg, bad back, bad attitude, bad eye and extremely baaad hair and all—to throw three touchdown passes in less than seven minutes and turn a 9-17 Bear deficit into a 33-24 victory.
Back then, on Sept. 19, the defense was yet to deliver. The Fridge was yet to be plugged in. Viking coach Bud Grant referred to the winners as "an up-and-coming team." Nobody but nobody realized what had happened. Yet the Bears had already landed. "I tried to cut my own hair once," Ditka said.
To say that Ditka sees every Chicago Bear as the embodiment of himself would be stretching a point. Iron Mike would never hunt rattlesnakes, for example, as McMichael does. Or run with the bulls at Pamplona, as Gary Fencik has. Or frequent a Boy George/Culture Club concert, as Hampton has done ("Clock of the Heart is one of the greatest songs of all time," says the Danimal). But Ditka drafts and trades for and teaches and motivates only those players who are Bears, which automatically makes them one of him. Ask Ditka to name his most cherished accomplishment over his indomitable 25-year football career and the answer is not winning or competing, the Super Bowls (two as a player, three as an assistant coach) or the All-Pro teams, but this: "I am proudest of being a Bear."
A Bear is fair, smart; rough, tough; unyielding, unforgiving. A Bear works, tries, persists, never gives up and plays hard, oh, so very hard. "Bear down Chicago Bears" goes the fight song. A Bear "gets a chip on his shoulder in June and doesn't get it off until January," Ditka warns his players. (Preferably, Jan. 27 in 1986, the day after the Super Bowl.)
It was because he was a Bear that in 1961 Halas drafted Ditka, a mean, ornery All-America end out of Pittsburgh. Halas just happened to be a mean, ornery end himself. It was because he was a Bear that Halas brought Ditka, limping from degenerative arthritis in his hip, back to coach in Chicago in 1982. Halas's own bad hip forced him to retire from coaching at the age of 73. Goodness knows, it was because Ditka was a Bear that Dallas coach Tom Landry had picked him up late in his career, a washed-up relic who could barely make it downfield. But Landry hoped a Bear would show some tough to the laissez-faire Cowboys, and after Ditka worked his weary body "into the best shape of my career," virtually remaking his legs, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
Ditka would stay in Dallas as player and coach for 13 years—throwing clipboards at work, tearing up decks of cards at play, raging at officialdom everywhere. "Are you a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes?" he once screamed at a zebra after running onto the field. "No? Well,——you,——you,——you." Did Ditka always show tough? He was the man who had to tell Bob Hayes, the best Cowboy receiver in their history, that he was gone because he couldn't block down-field. Ditka was a Bear.
Ditka was a Bear even at Aliquippa (Pa.) High when, as a scrawny 135-pound sophomore, he got kicked off the practice field for his own protection. Immediately Ditka was cleaning the locker room latrines and pounding out push-ups with such effort at home "you could hear the house rock," remembers his father, Mike Sr. The family was originally from the Ukraine, the grandfather's name was Dyzcko. Two uncles changed it to Disco, but Mike's dad went with the tougher-sounding Ditka.
"I wasn't always the best, but nobody worked harder," says Ditka. "One-on-one. You and me. Let's see who's tougher. I lived for competition. Every game was a personal affront. Everything in my life was based on beating the other guy."
At Pitt sometimes it didn't matter if the other guy was on his side. Ditka was a manic practice player who once charged blindly into a solid steel blocking sled, knocking both himself and the sled cold. It got so the Panther coaches couldn't scrimmage Ditka during the week; he played every Wednesday as if it were Saturday. In Ditka's senior year, Pittsburgh went 4-3-3 with two of the losses by one point and three home games ending in brawls; the Panthers were seven points away from 9-1, 19 away from a perfect season. Ditka became so frustrated that year that he once punched out two teammates in a huddle.