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Pitt's Chuck Reinhold, a safety on Ditka's team, confirms he once missed a tackle on Michigan State's Jason Harness, enabling the Spartans to tie the Panthers 7-7 at halftime. "C'mon, we can get 'em," Reinhold pep-talked in the Pitt locker room. "Whatta you mean, we?" Ditka demanded, slamming his teammate up against the lockers. "If you don't miss the——ing tackle, we're not in this——ing fix!"
The Panthers called Ditka Pinhead after his crew-cut Marine look. (The current Bears call him Redhead for the color Ditka's perm solution turns his hair under the shimmering preseason sun—actually a Day-Glo orange.) But Ditka was a progenitor of more than hairstyles. "At Pitt we draw $80,000 into the stadium every week," he said 25 years ago. "We [players] should get at least $30 a month for toothpaste and clean shirts."
In three solid years as a both-ways starter in college, Ditka caught 45 passes, but he made a much greater impact on the defensive side. As the NFL Rookie of the Year for Halas and the Bears, he caught 56. "The disgrace of the NFL is that they never had him play defense," says Beano Cook, then the sports information director at Pitt and now an ABC-TV college football commentator. "Ditka could do anything. Jeez, he played basketball for Pitt. On the road at Kentucky, Mike went through the screens."
Well, almost anything. At Pittsburgh the behemoth tight end carried the ball twice with the result of minus-16 yards. As a Bear Ditka once got penalized for aiding his fullback Rick Casares on a running play. Back to the porker, uh, future. What goes around, refrigerates around. Maybe Ditka does see Ditka in each and every Bear.
Certainly he is no stranger to accomplishment or controversy. There was Ditka's first game as a Bear when guard Ted Karras took a swing at him for uncomplimentary remarks. Karras was a Bear guard. But Ditka went on to beat out Fran Tarkenton for Rookie of the Year. There was the 1963 season when Ditka helped Halas to his last NFL title and the '64 campaign when he caught a then tight-end record 75 passes. But three years later Ditka threatened to jump to the AFL Houston Oilers. In a nasty contretemps with Halas, Ditka railed at Bear "morale problems" and in an immortal line accused Papa Bear of being so cheap "he throws nickels around as if they were manhole covers."
After Halas banished the prodigal to the Eagles in 1967, Ditka got kicked out of an exhibition game for fighting and later was suspended for bad-mouthing Philadelphia coach Joe Kuharich, who had led the Eagles to a much deserved 0-10 record. "I have one physical problem, a big mouth," Ditka said. But there was another problem; few others understood that Ditka would always be a Bear.
Landry understood. Landry rescued Ditka, his reputation, his career, everything. The hard-edged rabble-rouser from Western Pee-Ay found the Cowboys not to be the staid, true-blue, next-door-neighbor types he had figured on, after all. Walt Garrison, Dan Reeves, that Southern bunch were "kick-ass, raise-hell, good guys," says Ditka, "and I fit right in."
But then Landry, football's resident stoic, Christian liver, rescued Ditka from all of that, too.
Whether Ditka found religion on his own or out of respect for Landry or as the perfect career move is moot now. The point is that in 1978, troubled and unhappy, Ditka changed his life around to the extent that, the rumor went, the entire Cowboy juggernaut reverted to a prissy whimper. "Before, he just went off the deep end about everything," says Landry. "Tennis with Mike used to be interesting—as long as his racket stayed in one piece. He still burned with competition. He'll always be a Bear. But spiritually...only Christ could change somebody as radically as Mike was changed."
In the Windy City, meanwhile, the Bears had all gone to the devil. Since Halas retired as coach in 1968 the Chicago franchise had drifted into the maelstrom: two winning seasons in 13. In 1980, after his only son, "Mugs," then the president of the Bears, died of a heart attack at 54, Halas took back the reins of power. He was 85. But rules were flouted, players bitched and coaches scratched their heads. Halas had been credited with thinking up the man-in-motion T formation, initiating game films, team bands, radio play-by-play broadcasts. He had signed Red Grange. George Halas, by God, had invented pro football. He wasn't about to hang around waiting for the hearse.