Rich Cohen's new book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football drops next month and it's a ton of fun (more on Rich and the book in the weeks to come). Meanwhile, here's a story on Mike Ditka he wrote for the Atlantic a few years ago:
I love Mike Ditka. I dream about him. I dreamed about him last night. I was driving down the expressway and I saw him in the next car, signaling me to pull over. We stood on the shoulder, him yelling, telling me what I had to do: “It’s going to hurt like hell, but you’re going to learn to win.”
He’d taught me this before, in real life—taught my whole city, in fact. In 1982, he returned to Chicago, where he’d been an All-Pro tight end, to take over as coach. This followed years of misery—of Jimmy Carter and Mayor Jane Byrne; of Vince Evans, the ineffectual quarterback of my youth, and Steve Swisher, the weak-hitting catcher for the Cubs. Ditka looked at his team on that first day and said, in essence, “I’m going to the Super Bowl. Who’s coming with me?” It sounds corny, but he changed the mood in Chicago. He made you feel like good things were still possible after years when it seemed like everything would just get worse and worse until a last big wind blew the husk of the city across the plains. Within a few dog years, the Bears were dominating their division. In January 1986, they beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, 46–10.
And now, after all that and more—winning and losing, run-ins, rants, firing and hiring, and Halas dead, and the steel mills gone, and the fields west of the Alleghenies filled with soccer players—Ditka’s retired from the sidelines, but he remains a commanding presence: restaurateur, resort owner, venison eater, coach for life. Playing himself in 2005’s Kicking & Screaming, he says, “I couldn’t really hear ya—my Super Bowl ring was making too much noise.” For a nominal amount of money—the price of a short flight, a rental car, a steak, or a room—you can bathe yourself in Ditka-ness, the accumulated life and wisdom of the man. So I did.
I first returned to Chicago, to visit Ditka’s, the steak house he opened on East Chestnut Street several years after the ’86 Super Bowl. He’s opened other locations since, but this is the mother ship. I was told that the great man himself takes many of his meals there, and I hoped I might see him. When I’d called on Monday and asked if the coach would be there, the hostess told me he usually comes in at the end of the week. When I called back on Friday, I was told my best bet was a Monday or Tuesday. In an establishment like Ditka’s, the namesake is Jehovah: always looked for, seldom found.
[Photo Credit: Tasos Katopdis/Getty Images]