Tomorrow night, Mike Ditka will see his jersey number retired at Soldier Field in Chicago. Just about the entire NFL associates Ditka with the Chicago Bears. He’s even been affectionately nicknamed “Da Coach” to match “Da Bears.”
Image courtesy of SI.com
It’s a little known fact that Mike Ditka not only played tight end for the Chicago Bears, but he also played for the Philadelphia Eagles (1967-1968) and the Dallas Cowboys (1969-1972). Reminiscing about coming to Dallas, Ditka told ESPN:
"When I left the Bears and went to Philadelphia [in a trade for Jack Concannon in 1967], it was bad," Ditka stated. "I was done, finished and I had made the decision to retire. I was hurt all the time, I didn't enjoy the game. I was in bad shape physically, mentally and socially. I only came back because of a call from Tom [in 1969], who told me he was willing to take a chance on me, if I was willing to take a chance on myself. My whole life and focus changed when I met Tom. One thing he made me understand was that every individual was a part of a puzzle. It actually made me a better person."
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When asked what Landry saw in him, Ditka still doesn’t quite understand why Tom called him. "I really think it might be because I had good games against the Cowboys," he said.
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960 to 1988, stated they acquired Ditka very intentionally and for a set purpose. According to ESPN:
"We felt that we had a really good team, but we didn't have any leadership and there was no one, absolutely no one, who worked harder than Mike," Brandt said. "We knew all of the background, that he once got into a fight with Adolph Rupp when he was a basketball player for Pitt, but we got him and I think he saw what Tom stood for and how he accomplished things. Consequently, I saw Mike Ditka turn from a guy who was constantly looking for trouble, so to speak, who would fight at the drop of a hat, to a guy who all of a sudden controlled his emotions. The thing about Halas, who was a great coach and a huge reason why this league is what it is today, is that he was not as attuned [to players] but more to X's and O's, and believed players should know how to play," Brandt said. "Whereas with Tom, they were all like second sons to him. I think Mike learned so much from Tom. Things like the [Fellowship of Christian Athletes], Mike would have never thought of doing. He was a hero worshipper of Coach Landry."
Shortly after he ended his twelve season long career, he hung up his cleats and got another call from Landry.
"He asked if I'd consider coaching special teams and working with the tight ends," Ditka said. "I would make half as much as a coach ($22,000) than I had as a player, but I told him I'd love to have the opportunity. It was a great life and very prestigious. I'm glad my mind worked rationally at that time."
His first experiences with a championship were when Dallas won Super Bowl VI and XII. Fast forward nearly a decade, and Ditka got another surprising call that would change his life yet again.
Landry said, 'Listen, I think Coach Halas is going to offer you the Bears' coaching job,' " Ditka recalled. "I asked him, 'Are you sure?' and he said, 'Yeah, he called me.'
"I asked him, 'Do you think I'm ready?' and he said, 'Yes, I think you're ready.' An endorsement like that from Coach Landry was all I needed. "Coach Halas reached out to me and took a lot of criticism from a lot of people," Ditka said. "But he said he wanted a Bear, someone with a history in the organization."
Ditka took the job and spent over a decade as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, winning Super Bowl XX over the Patriots.
Photo: Pro Football Talk
"Tom Landry is the reason I went into coaching and other than Coach Halas, is the reason I am where I am today, no question," Ditka said. "They were two of the most important people in my life. They both hired me twice and they really changed my life."
Lauren Lapaglia is a lifelong Cowboys fan, the NFC East Division Manager, and Dallas Cowboys marketer for Pro Football Spot. For more Cowboys content, follow the Cowboys on PFS @spotcowboys