Mike Ditka is a steely-eyed, fire-breathing folk hero. For generations, he’s inspired both rabid football fandom and light-hearted Halloween costumes alike. At 76, “Iron Mike” is an institution.
It’s been a remarkable football life for Ditka, who was coached by “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s dad, Press, at Aliquippa (Pa.) High School before going on to a College Football Hall of Fame career as a three-sport star (football, baseball and basketball) at the University of Pittsburgh. The 6’3”, 230-pound, tough-as-nails tight end was the fifth overall pick of the Chicago Bears in 1961 and went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career over 12 seasons — winning championships with George Halas’ Bears (1963) and Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl VI). He earned two more rings as a coach, serving as an assistant under Landry (Super Bowl XII) and cementing his own larger-than-life persona as “Da Coach” of the legendary 1985 Bears (Super Bowl XX).
Since leaving the NFL, Ditka has taken his no-nonsense show on the road with broadcasting gigs at NBC, CBS and ESPN, where he’s currently a contributor on SportsCenter. He’s also put together an IMDb page that includes the final episode of Cheers, a co-starring role opposite Will Ferrell in Kicking & Screaming and, of course, cameos with Saturday Night Live’s “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” of “Da Bears!”
Most recently, he has partnered with Life Extension to promote Mike Ditka’s Prostate PM and raise awareness during National Prostate Health Month in September. We caught up with Ditka, and he was everything you expect “Iron Mike” to be.
Talk about Mike Ditka’s Prostate PM…
I’m not a scientist. I don’t know. It works. It lets me get a better night’s sleep. It helps me, keeps me more regular. But there’s a lot of good products out there. I’m not trying to stick this one down your throat or anything like that. It’s a good product. You don’t want to be up all night, that’s the whole thing. I think it’s important.
You’re not a scientist, but you wanted to be a dentist if football didn’t work out. What kind of dentist would you have been?
A bad one. Believe me, I wouldn’t have been very good at it at all.
What do you think about Tom Brady’s “DeflateGate” suspension?
It’s bogus. Brady doesn’t have to cheat to win. But let me tell you what, going back as far as I remember, on cold days everybody took the footballs and rubbed that wax off of them with a solvent. Everybody did it. Why? Because it helped the quarterback grip the ball better, that’s why. You want the game to be good? Or you wanna piss around and fine people? I think the league made a big mistake with Brady.
What about the Washington Redskins name controversy?
That’s bogus, too. Believe me, there’s political correctness to the umpteenth degree.
Should the NFL expand to Europe?
American football is an American sport. I know we drew well (in London), but I think a lot of it was just the novelty. I don’t know if they’d support it on a week-to-week basis.
Should college football players be paid?
Do colleges make money? Okay, then you answered your question. I don’t know. I think they gave us $25 a month for laundry or something. The guys didn’t use it for laundry; my mother did my laundry. You use it for beer. When you go to college, you don’t go to get paid, you go to get a college education and to play the sport that you play.
If you were NFL commissioner, what changes would you implement to deal with concussions?
What changes can you make? It’s football. What, you wanna play touch football? Football is football, it’s been this way for a long time. It’s tackling, it’s physical, people get knocked out, people get hit hard. And I think that’s part of the appeal of the game to people, whether you like it or not. Probably get worse before it gets better, because guys are bigger, faster, stronger.
Who’s the best player you ever coached?
Walter Payton, by far. His attitude for the game. He was relentless in his pursuit of excellence. He was always trying to be the best. He was the best conditioned athlete we had. He led our team by example.
Who’s the best player you played against?
I played against a lot of great players. (Ray) Nitschke was tough. Gino Marchetti, Willie Wood, Herb Adderley. A lot of them are in the Hall of Fame. Dick Anderson. I can’t name them all. Jeez.
Who’s your favorite current player?
I like Aaron Rodgers, I really do. He’s the real deal. He’s a great leader of that football team and he’s a great example for young people. I think too many of these guys go out there now and act like a**holes.
The Saturday Night Live “Superfans” might have had a heart attack hearing you say Aaron Rodgers is your favorite player. What was your relationship with those guys?
They were unbelievable. They were typical Bear fans, that’s what they were. You say, “Wow. Oh yeah, we have Bear fans just like those guys.”
What about the Bears-Packers rivalry?
I don’t know if it’s the same now as it was then. I was in with the guys who started the league, (George) Halas and (Vince) Lombardi, and the great Packer teams of the ’60s. I played against those guys, beat ’em out in ’63. It’s right up the road from us. Green Bay-Chicago was meant to be a great rivalry. I don’t think there’s a better rivalry in sports.
You’re still beloved in Chicago. Have you had any crazy fan interactions recently?
I stay away from those people. They’re nuts. No. People are pretty good. I take my picture with people. To me, if people think I’m not normal, they’re wrong. I’m no better or any worse than anybody else.