While most younger fans relate to Mike Ditka as either the Super-Bowl-winning head coach of the Chicago Bears or as a current ESPN broadcaster, he was also one heck of a good football player. How good was "Da Coach"? Well in 1988, he became the first tight end to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His career was built on both his reputation as a fearsome blocker and the way he helped transform the tight end position from being primarily an offensive lineman to being a dual purpose role. Over the course of his career, Ditka hauled in 427 passes for 5,812 yards and 43 receiving touchdowns. He is also a co-holder of the NFL record for offensive fumble recoveries for touchdowns with two.
Growing up in the coal and steel town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania; Ditka decided early on that the town's mills and mines were not something that he longed to work in. He dedicated himself to earning his way out of that fate by getting a scholarship to play college football. With the intentions of becoming a dentist, Mike Ditka accepted an offer from the University of Pittsburgh. With his blue collar work ethic, Mike battled his way into the starting lineup during his sophomore season and never looked back. For all three of his varsity seasons, he led the Panthers in receiving and by the end of his senior season, Ditka had earned first team All-America honors. His collegiate efforts were further recognized when he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
With the fifth overall selection of the 1961 NFL Draft, George Halas selected the Pitt tight end. It was a move that would have a dynamic effect, not only on his team, but the entire league. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the tight end being tasked with more pass catching duties. During his first season in the league, Ditka caught 56 passes for over 1,000 yards and he scored 12 touchdowns as opponents struggled with finding ways to slow down this new type of player. For his efforts, Ditka was named the 1961 NFL Rookie of the Year. He also began the first of five consecutive seasons where he would earn both Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades. The 1963 season would allow him to add an NFL Championship to his resume. By the time his career in Chicago had concluded, Mike Ditka had re-written the Bears record books. In addition to holding all of the team's records for tight ends, Ditka still stands fourth in career receiving yards (4,503) and fifth in both receptions ( 316) and touchdowns (34). In 1967, the Bears traded Mike to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he spent two non-distinguished seasons.
Following his injury plagued tenure with the Eagles, Ditka was once again traded, this time to the Dallas Cowboys. Although by this point time and injuries had begun to take their toll, Mike Ditka once again found the spark and tenacity that characterized his early career. Fiercely competitive, over the final four years of his playing career, Mike accounted for 72 catches, 924 yards, and five touchdowns for the team. His best season as a Cowboy was 1971, when he had 30 catches and 360 yards as he helped the team win its first Super Bowl. In that game, Ditka hauled in his only touchdown catch of the season.
Following his retirement after the 1972 season, Tom Landry immediately hired Ditka to join his coaching staff. During the nine seasons that he served on the Dallas coaching staff, the team made eight playoff appearances and won three NFC Championships. They also added a second Super Bowl win during his tenure on the sidelines. Shortly before his last game on Landry's staff, the 1981 NFC Championship that is most remembered for "The Catch" that would propel the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl, Mike Ditka reached out to his former coach and Bears owner George Halas to express his desire to one day become the head coach in Chicago.
With the team having only two winning seasons since he had stepped down as coach, George Halas took Ditka up on his offer to assume the reigns in the Windy City. In three seasons, he transformed the Bears into a contender who had earned their way to the NFC Championship game, which they eventually lost to San Francisco. The following season, Ditka reached the apex of his coaching career, as he guided the team to a 46-10 thrashing of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. With the loss of his defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, whose defense had played the critical role in the Bears success, Ditka's coaching career began to wain. By the end of the 1992 season, his team had fallen from glory to a 5-11 record. Halas fired the man who had helped bring the Bears their two most recent championships, the 1963 NFL Championship and the franchise's only Super Bowl. Although Ditka would later assume the helm of the New Orleans Saints in 1997, he would never again approach the high point of his career.
Throughout his career, both as a player and as a coach, Mike Ditka helped make a mark on two franchises. Although he is, and should be, primarily known for his accomplishments as a member of the Chicago Bears, he also found success in Dallas. It is only fitting that the Bears should chose halftime of the game against Dallas to retire the #89 that Ditka wore during his time with both teams.