Monday, January 3, 2011



Dr. Ditka Has Created Some New Monsters

      It was in a football game at the Coliseum 15 or more years ago. The Bears were playing the Rams, and it was late in the game when a drunk ran out on the field.
   Now, ordinarily, the athletes ignore an episode like this. Drunks are not in their contracts. Guys who are not carrying a football are somebody else's responsibility.
   But suddenly, as the overcoated inebriate began running playfully through the Chicago end of the field, one of the Bears stepped out of the knot of players and stationed himself in the path of this onrushing civilian. He placed his mammoth forearms in front of him in what is known as the "shiver block" position.
   He clotheslined the poor umbriago with one blow. The guy went down and out. He did no more running that day. He had trouble breathing through what was left of his nose.
   The Bears' Mike Ditka had done what he was paid to do — clear out any upright objects within his field of vision on a football field. No one did it any better in those days.
   That was not the first block Ditka had laid that afternoon. But it was the most devastation. The Rams, on their side of the field, were amused. "The guy should know better than to blitz on Ditka's side," they pointed out. "Did they find his head yet?"
   Controvery flew. In the press box later, the historians were largely condemnatory of Citzen Ditka's vigilante action. The law-and-order types thought the guy was lucky Butkus didn't notice him, too.
   In the locker room, afterward, Ditka was neither gloating nor remorseful — just disinterested. "It's dangerous out there," he explained. "I didn't want the guy to get hurt. I mean, what if he started to get on Butkus' nerves?"
   Mike Ditka was one of the toughest football players to come out of Aliquippa, Pa., and I bring this whole episode to hand because watching the Chicago Bears fight their way into the conference championship game Sunday brought it all vividly to mind. The Bears looked like 40 Mike Ditkas out there. The Chicago Bears line of scrimmage was once again no place for a guy to be without a gun. Or with a football.
   This was a team that used to be "The Monsters Of The Midway." They were representing a town where the municipal symbols were the tommy gun and the bulletproof limo. The town had a scar on its cheek and a gun under its shoulder, and the Bears were like the town — they came straight at you and crippled you and sent flowers later. The Bears were not given to finesse. They tried to run football the way Capone ran the Loop. Line you up against the garage wall and open fire.
   They never entirely lost their reputation for meanness and toughness, but the game began to pass them by, and they lost their roots somewhat. To give you an idea, they let Mike Ditka go to free agency. That was a mistake because Mike went to the Dallas Cowboys in 1969, and the Cowboys went to two Super Bowls in his tenure. Cowboy Coach Tom Landry knew what he had. When Mike quit playing, Landry kept him on as an assistant coach.
   Ditka learned a lot about football from the Cowboys, and the Cowboys learned a lot about tough from Ditka. Mike had been an All-American at Pittsburgh in the days when ends played both ways, and he was so uninterested in pain that when he went to the dentist for an infected tooth once, he told him to pull all his front teeth. They were getting to be a bother.
   The Chicago Bears of those days were so tough themselves that, rumor had it, the tackling dummy was made out of brick, but Ditka was considered the roughest thing to hit Chicago since Dillinger. He caught 75 passes one season, but his great strength was passing out nosebleeds. Ditka's art was getting cornerbacks to flinch before the ball was in the air. It was guys like Ditka who gave NFC Central teams the nickname "the black-and-blue division."
   Before Ditka, the Bears were mostly blue. They approached the game like polo. Ditka reinstalled the iron-wrist game of the Nagurskis, Osmanskis, Casareses, Butkuses, the "knock somebody down, help them up and knock them down again" school of play. You may have noticed. No la-de-da "flex" defense for the reborn Nonsters of the Midway this year, no "nickel backs" or rotating zones. The Bears just line up seven to nine men and come at you like cops raiding a crap game in a cellar.
   "We're not a pretty football team," Ditka admitted after his plug-uglies disarmed Joe Theismann and the Washington Redskins Sunday to go into the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park next Sunday.
   I know one thing: I wouldn't advise anybody to run out on that field in front of Ditka Sunday — and that might include the San Francisco 49ers.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times

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