If there was ever someone who personified the toughness, grit, and ability to play and coach professional football, it was Mike Ditka.
— Bears History (@ChiBearsHistory) August 31, 2017
Born in Pennsylvania steel country, Ditka didn’t suffer fools.
He was tough, mean, and gave 100% in everything he did.
As a football player, Ditka was as good as they came and ended up revolutionizing the tight end position.
As a coach, he was a tad abrasive but got his Chicago Bears players to perform to their max, winning a Super Bowl in dominating fashion.
His exit from the game was self-imposed, but even in his later years, Ditka is still an icon in the Windy City and the sports world in general.
This is the story of Mike Ditka.
Pittsburgh Born and Bred
Michael Keller Dyczko/Ditka was born on October 18, 1939, in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, located just outside of Pittsburgh.
Good morning and happy birthday to Mike Ditka, born today in 1939 in Carnegie, PA
He was an All-American at Pitt before a stellar pro career at tight end for the Bears.
He coached the 1985 Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX, the most dominant team in NFL history. pic.twitter.com/lHaVvIJZIk
— Steve Cortes (@CortesSteve) October 18, 2022
The Ukrainian Dyczko family arrived in America years before Michael was born.
They soon became weary of the locals in Carnegie and Pittsburgh mispronouncing their family name.
Eventually, the family renamed themselves “Disco” initially before settling on “Ditka.”
Almost from birth, Mike Ditka had an intense side to him that was impatient with mediocrity.
One day he was playing in a Little League baseball game with his brother, Ashton, who was pitching while Mike was the catcher.
After his brother walked a few batters, Mike got up, walked to Ashton, and demanded the ball.
Now playing pitcher, Mike then got upset with a teammate’s play at shortstop.
Of course, Ditka then traded places with the shortstop, so he could help turn around his team’s fortunes.
Whenever he was up to bat, Ditka was capable of smoking a home run or breaking his bat in anger due to a strikeout.
As a student at Aliquippa High School, Ditka played three sports, primarily playing football but also dabbling in basketball and baseball.
One of his coaches at Aliquippa was Press Maravich, the same Press Maravich whose son, Pete Maravich, would become one of the most exciting basketball players in a generation.
Off To College
With the prospect of high school graduation looming, Ditka wanted to do something with his life that would take him away from the steel and mining industries of the area.
Luckily, his athletic skills were hard to overlook and local schools such as Penn State, Pitt, and Notre Dame all sought his services.
Ditka picked Penn State and then flipped to play at Pitt, mainly due to his desire to become a dentist.
— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzPittFB) October 18, 2015
He arrived on campus in 1957 but couldn’t play varsity sports due to a rule prohibiting freshmen from playing.
As he waited to get on the gridiron, Ditka spent his time on Pitt’s intramural wrestling team where he became a champ in his weight class.
He also played on the baseball team and practiced with the basketball team.
Ditka Takes the Field
In 1958, Ditka finally got the chance to play for the Panthers football team.
Wearing number 89, he played tight end, defensive end, linebacker, and punted as well.
Practices with Ditka were heated as he demanded that his teammates and coaches push each other hard.
“He used to forearm our own guys,” Pitt coach Ernie Hefferle said. “He used to complain that our practices weren’t tough enough.”
The Pitt offense at the time was run-heavy, as was the primary custom across the football landscape at the time.
Despite the lack of receiving opportunities, Ditka led the Panthers in receptions in ‘58 with 18 for 252 yards and a touchdown and had a 42.5 average on punts.
— 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐍𝐞𝐰𝐬 (@sportingnews) December 10, 2013
Pitt wasn’t a great team (it would finish 1958 with a 5-4-1 record), but that didn’t matter to Ditka.
On November 8, Notre Dame arrived in town and he was ready.
Ditka crashed through the Irish offensive line and recovered a fumble that led to Pitt’s first score of the day.
Toward the end of the contest, Ditka caught two passes that led to the Panthers’ game-winning score.
In 1959, the Panthers increased their win total to six.
Ditka led the team in receptions again with 16 for 249 yards and four scores and averaged just over 38 yards per punt.
— Pitt Alumni Association (@PittAlumni) June 19, 2014
At that point, Ditka’s intense fury had become well-known throughout campus.
It didn’t matter if he was on the hardwood (where he had 88 points and 82 boards combined in two seasons) or the gridiron, if you got in his way, Ditka would punish you.
“He’ll hit the first guy he sees,” said coach Bob Timmons, who coached Ditka in both sports.
Since he came from Pittsburgh’s mean streets and played with a mean streak himself, Ditka was referred to as “Iron” Mike.
“You’d see him in the huddle, or on the sidelines waiting to get back onto the field, and you knew just by looking at him he was ready,’’ remembers Foge Fazio, a teammate of Ditka’s. “He was always ready. He was like a prize fighter in the ring. He just couldn’t wait for that bell to ring and get back out there.’’
During Pitt’s 4-3-3 1960 season, Ditka led the Panthers in receptions for the third straight year, compiling 11 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
— EJ Borghetti (@PittBorghetti) August 14, 2015
As the team’s captain, Ditka continued to challenge his teammates, including Chuck Reinhold, who missed a tackle in the first half of a contest against Michigan State.
That set Ditka off and he lit into Reinhold at halftime.
“…Reinhold hollered, ‘Let’s get ‘em in the second half.’ Ditka cried out, ‘If you hadn’t given up that touchdown in the first half, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in!’ With that, he went for Reinhold. It took about six teammates to restrain Ditka,’’ wrote Jim O’Brien in Hail to Pitt.
In Ditka’s final game as a collegian against Penn State, he attempted to block a Nittany Lions’ punt and ended up dislocating his shoulder.
Not wanting to miss out, Ditka played the remainder of the game with the injury.
As a senior, Ditka became a unanimous first-team All-American.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986 and had his number 89 retired by the school in 1997.
Ditka Is Drafted Twice
Ditka didn’t catch a lot of passes in college, but teams in both the NFL and AFL liked what he had to offer on the offensive side of the ball.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 23, 2019
In the 1961 draft for both leagues, Ditka was selected with the fifth overall pick by the NFL’s Chicago Bears and the eighth overall pick by the AFL’s Houston Oilers.
He chose to play for Chicago and coach George Halas for a sum that seems paltry by today’s standards.
“I was the (fifth) player picked in the draft — $12,000 with a $6,000 signing bonus,” Ditka recalled.
When he reported to the Bears, Halas informed Ditka what position he envisioned for the rookie.
“I figured I’d play linebacker when I got to the pros,” Ditka said. “They drafted me, and I went and met (team owner George) Halas, and he said, ‘You’re going to play tight end.’”
Halas also explained his intended role for Ditka to the local media.
“Ditka fits well into our plans for more offensive football next fall,” said Halas. “He is rugged enough to take those important first-down passes over the line in heavy traffic, and from all we’ve seen, he is strong enough to clear the way for our backs.”
Rookie of the Year
Without a doubt, a player of Ditka’s size and mentality was a rarity for the tight-end position at the time.
Standing 6’3” and 230 pounds with good speed, Ditka was a mismatch for opposing secondaries as he could both block and catch the football.
In 1961, while the Bears went 8-6, Ditka caught 56 passes for a career-high 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns (also a career-high and a record for Chicago rookies).
Professional football player and coach, Mike Ditka, was born on October 18, 1939 In Carnegie, PA.
Image of Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka on the far left with teammates during a workout at Soldier Field in 1961 via Wikimedia Commons, public domain pic.twitter.com/aZy0AfTfwL
— Heartfelt History (@Heartfelthisto1) October 18, 2022
His stunning effectiveness led to the NFL naming Ditka Offensive Rookie of the Year and a selection to the Pro Bowl.
Ditka’s ability to snag passes and run after the catch was simple, according to him.
“The attitude of a defensive player is a little bit more aggressive, and that helped me on offense,’’ Ditka said. “That aggressive attitude helps the way you approach blocking and catching the ball and running over people — and everything else.”
The Bears and Ditka Win a Championship
Chicago improved in Ditka’s second year, increasing their record to 9-5 while Ditka caught 58 passes for 904 yards and five touchdowns.
He was voted to the Pro Bowl again and also named a second-team All-Pro.
In 1963, the Bears went 11-1-2 and secured a trip to the NFL Championship game against the New York Giants.
Ditka pulled in 59 passes for 794 yards and eight touchdowns which netted him another Pro Bowl nod along with a first-team All-Pro selection.
During a game against the LA Rams on October 13, Ditka tied a franchise record when he caught four touchdown passes to help crush LA 52-14.
Then, during a game against Pittsburgh on November 24, Ditka caught a pass and blasted through six Steeler defenders for a long gain.
In the championship game, Ditka caught three passes for 38 yards and Chicago scored 14 points while blanking the Giants in the second half for a 14-10 victory.
Bears QB Billy Wade and TE Mike Ditka. 1963 NFL Champions. pic.twitter.com/O4fSpyzvEi
— 𝙃𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙚𝙩 𝘼𝙙𝙙𝙞𝙘𝙩 (@HelmetAddict) August 3, 2018
It was the team’s first championship since 1946.
After the season, Ditka experienced the first of many tense discussions with Halas about money.
“I made All-Pro, and the next year (Halas) wanted to pay me $14,000,” said Ditka. “I said, ”’Coach, that’s taking a cut. I said I wouldn’t sign for a penny less than $18,000.’ As soon as I said it, he opened the drawer and had a contract for $18,000.”
Ditka Continues to Rumble
One year after their championship, the Bears regressed to 5-9 in 1964.
The record had nothing to do with Ditka, however.
That season, he caught a career-high 75 passes (which was second on the team) for 897 yards and five scores.
Ditka was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl and made first-team All-Pro for the second time.
In 1965, Chicago went 9-5 but missed the postseason as Ditka collected 36 passes for 454 yards and two scores.
“I played football a long time and I never saw a better football player than Gale Sayers” said Mike Ditka, Sayers’ teammate from 1965-66. “I mean that. He was poetry in motion. Besides that, he was a great guy. It’s just a shame that he’s gone. He was special”#NFL #1960s #Bears pic.twitter.com/KYaX9Oh4IL
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) May 31, 2022
His stats led to a fifth Pro Bowl appearance and a second-team All-Pro selection.
Chicago Trades Ditka
As much as he liked playing for the Bears and Halas, Ditka frequently sparred with the owner/coach about his salary.
In 1966, Ditka had 32 receptions for 378 yards and two touchdowns as Chicago went 5-7-2.
During a game against the Rams in the second week of the season, a fan made his way onto the field and eluded authorities until meeting with one of Ditka’s fists.
The ‘66 season represented Ditka’s option year with the Bears and, once again, he and Halas haggled over money.
Ditka was frustrated and negotiated a new deal with the Oilers, who still had his rights from the 1961 AFL Draft.
“I’ve got a valid three-year contract with Houston,” said Ditka in early 1967, “I won’t say how much, but they gave me a $50,000 bonus to play out my option with the Bears last season. I keep that, no matter what. It’s in the bank.”
It turned out the contract was worth $300,000, but Ditka soon found out he wouldn’t be playing for the Oilers.
The Philadelphia Eagles made a trade offer to the Bears that would send Ditka to Philly and give Chicago quarterback Jack Concannon.
The contract Ditka had with Houston was instead picked up by the Eagles.
— Legends In The Wrong Uniforms (@WrongUnis) March 15, 2022
As he departed Chicago, Ditka voiced his displeasure toward Halas.
“I evidently don’t play ball the way he expects his players to play,” said Ditka. “And I don’t act the way I should off the field. That adds up to a clash of personalities, doesn’t it?”
Ditka also had something to say regarding his new deal with Philadelphia.
“The Bears got (taken),” Ditka said. “Philly got me cheap. The Bears didn’t get enough for me.”
He also added that Halas “threw nickels around like manhole covers.”
Unhappy in Philly
Ditka clearly wasn’t happy to be an Eagle.
His first year with his new club coincided with an injury, leading Ditka to miss games for the first time in his career.
He also switched his jersey number to 98 and hauled in 26 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns in 1967.
The following year, Ditka changed his number back to 89 and made only six starts, leading to just 13 catches for 111 yards and two scores.
Thankfully for both Ditka and the Eagles, he was traded again after the 1969 season, this time to the talented Dallas Cowboys.
During his two years in Philly, the Eagles had won eight games total.
The Cowboys won 21 games during that same span and also appeared in the 1967 NFL title game against Green Bay.
Ditka started four games for Dallas in 1969 and collected 17 receptions for 268 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys went 11-2-2 and lost to Cleveland in the playoffs.
Ditka Wins a Super Bowl
In 1970, Ditka played in every game but didn’t start any due to his role as a backup.
He would post his lowest totals as a pro with eight catches for 98 yards and zero scores.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys took a 10-4 record into the postseason where they defeated Detroit and San Francisco in the first two games to meet the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V.
With five seconds left in the game, Baltimore kicker Jim O’Brien kicked a 32-yard field goal to win the game 16-13.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) May 10, 2013
One year later, Dallas returned to the playoffs after an 11-3 season.
Ditka started four games and caught 30 passes (a record for Cowboys’ tight ends) for 360 yards and a touchdown.
The Cowboys defeated Minnesota and the 49ers in the playoffs and met the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
This time, Dallas dominated their opponent and led the entire game.
45 years ago today, Cowboys defeated the Dolphins, 24-3 in Super Bowl VI
MVP Roger Staubach
(2 TD passes- Mike Ditka, Lance Alworth) pic.twitter.com/5oIFgswXFA
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2017
During the fourth quarter, quarterback Roger Staubach found Ditka for a seven-yard touchdown on the way to a resounding 24-3 win.
Ditka Retires as a Player
In 1972, Ditka returned for his 12th season as a pro and started every game.
He had 17 receptions for 198 yards and a touchdown as Dallas went 10-4 and lost in the NFC Championship game against Washington.
Mike Ditka 1969-1972 pic.twitter.com/tsF3pXDwop
— Dazael (@DazaelLanda) April 2, 2016
When the season ended, Ditka retired.
In his career, he had 427 catches for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns.
At the time, his reception total was the most by a tight end in league history.
Ditka was a Super Bowl champ and NFL Championship game-winner.
He was also Offensive Rookie of the Year, a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro, and a three-time second-team All-Pro.
Ditka would be named to the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams and his number 89 was retired by Chicago in 2013.
Chicago also voted Ditka to their list of the 100 Greatest Bears of All-Time.
Second Act as a Coach
After retiring as a player, Ditka decided to stay in the game and become an assistant coach to Tom Landry in Dallas.
As the Cowboys’ assistant head coach and special teams coordinator, Ditka’s fiery demeanor rubbed off on his players.
He coached receivers and tight ends for nine years with the Cowboys and helped Landry and Dallas return to three Super Bowls along with appearances in six NFC Championship games.
After playing for Cowboys & Bears, Mike Ditka got his coaching career started w/the Cowboys. 10 years later, the Bears called pic.twitter.com/esCA1pOqrH
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 26, 2016
In 1977, Ditka was a member of the coaching staff that saw the Cowboys go 12-2 and defeat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII, 27-10.
While coaching in Dallas, Ditka sent word to Halas that he was ready, willing, and able to become the Bears’ head coach if the need should ever arise.
Ditka and Halas had overcome their differences during the early 1970s.
“I’m a great Bear fan and a George Halas fan now,” said Ditka before playing in Super Bowl V. “I stopped by last winter and talked to the old man. We had a nice conversation, and at the end he stuck out his hand and said: `Life is too short to carry grudges.’”
Ditka Returns to the Windy City
After Ditka left Chicago as a player in 1967, the Bears franchise took a turn for the worse.
Halas himself stepped down as coach following the ‘67 season, and it took 10 years before the franchise returned to the playoffs.
The 1977 Bears, coached by Jack Pardee, lost badly to the Cowboys and assistant coach Ditka, 37-7, in the Divisional round of the 1977 postseason.
Then, Chicago returned to the playoffs two years later under Neill Armstrong but were defeated by the Eagles in the Wild Card round.
Following the 1981 season, when the Bears won only six games, Halas fired Armstrong and took Ditka up on his offer.
Halas interviewed Ditka formally, and Ditka was excited to return to the Windy City.
On this day in Chicago Bears history January 20th. The year was 1982 and they hired a new coach whose image became synonymous with my beloved Bears. IRON MIKE DITKA pic.twitter.com/JRWWtNfaQx
— Vee (@vee_whyme) January 20, 2022
During his first press conference as the new head coach of the Bears, Ditka explained that he knew very well the task at hand.
“I’m a realist,” Ditka said. “I understand what the situation is. I understand it’s not gonna be the fair-haired son coming home and everything is going to be beautiful and the sun is going to rise and set on the city of Chicago and the Bears.”
Ditka Promises a Winner
Shortly after his introduction to the media, Ditka met with the Bears players.
He was direct in telling the team that some of them would not last long under his regime.
If you're ever tempted to rest on your laurels, remember that Mike Ditka DOES NOT think this is a good idea. pic.twitter.com/M9eacwZrC5
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) October 18, 2022
However, Ditka also promised good things ahead if they followed him.
“Give me three years, and if you walk with me, we’ll get to the dance,” said Ditka.
At the time, Chicago already had a good core of players.
They included all-world running back Walter Payton and fullback Matt Suhey.
Jay Hilgenberg and Keith Van Horne were part of the offensive line.
On defense, the Bears had Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael on the defensive line and “Samurai” Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson as linebackers.
The secondary included Gary Fencik, Leslie Frazier, Jeff Fisher, and Doug Plank.
In the 1982 NFL Draft, Chicago selected BYU quarterback Jim McMahon.
— Chicago History ™️ (@Chicago_History) May 29, 2016
Not only did Chicago have a solid core of players, but they also had defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
Ryan was a holdover from Armstrong’s time in Chicago, and Ditka decided to keep him on staff.
As Ditka re-tooled the offense, Ryan got to work on the defense and began developing his “46” defense, named after Plank’s uniform number.
Chicago struggled through Ditka’s first year due in part to the player’s strike.
The following season was better when the Bears went from three wins in ‘82 to eight wins.
Then, as if on cue, Ditka’s initial promise nearly held up.
In 1984 the Bears went 10-6 and defeated Washington in the Divisional round before getting shut out by San Francisco in the NFC Championship game.
By 1985, Ditka and the Bears’ front office had the roster loaded with talent.
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) September 9, 2015
Along with the core players Ditka inherited in 1982, Chicago now had receiver Willie Gault and “Jimbo” Covert, Tom Thayer, and Mark Bortz on the O-line.
Richard Dent and rookie William “the Refrigerator” Perry anchored the D-line, while linebackers Wilber Marshall and Ron Rivera prowled the middle of the field.
The secondary included Dave Duerson and Shaun Gayle.
Without a doubt, the ‘85 Bears fired on all cylinders.
They were undefeated through the first 12 games of the year before losing to the Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino in Week 13.
The loss was embarrassing to Ditka, and he could be seen arguing with Ryan on the sidelines during the game.
Although the Bears lost to Miami, they still won 15 games, a first for the franchise, and Ditka received the NFL Coach of the Year award.
Along the way, McMahon, Payton, Singletary, and Perry, among other teammates, recorded the song “The Super Bowl Shuffle” to raise money for charity and announce their intentions.
— Old School 80s (@OldSchool80s) December 3, 2020
Normally, such a thing wouldn’t be allowed under Ditka’s iron rule.
Somewhat mellowed from his normally intense nature, he permitted the recording on one condition.
“I just made everybody a deal,” explained Ditka. “I told ‘em OK, we clinched early, we had a little time, I let you do your shuffling and dancing and your TV commercials, I let you make some money and I let you have some fun, and now that’s it, no more. No other obligations until this thing is over. I think they understand where I’m coming from now. I told ‘em you don’t shuffle to the Super Bowl, you work your ass off to get to the Super Bowl.”
Super Bowl XX
Ditka didn’t need to worry about his players preparing for a Super Bowl run.
Chicago played the New York Giants and LA Rams in the first two games of the ‘85 playoffs.
The final combined score after both games was 45-0 in favor of the Bears.
"If you're not in the parade, you watch the parade. That's life."
― Mike Ditka (born this day, October 18, 1939) pic.twitter.com/3WrSAXEFzi
— MacCocktail (@MacCocktail) October 18, 2022
Before Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots, Ditka couldn’t help but think of Halas, who had died during the 1983 season.
“I wish he was here. I wish he could see this,” Ditka said. “It’s been a very rewarding season, not just for me personally, but for the city of Chicago and the organization.”
As expected, the Bears annihilated the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
New England scored the game’s first points, but wouldn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
Chicago, on the other hand, scored often and through various methods.
Cornerback Reggie Phillips returned a pick-six for a score, and late in the third quarter, Ditka lined up Perry as a running back, and the 335-pound fireplug blew through the Pats’ defense from a yard out.
The final score was 46-10 in favor of the Bears, (although Ditka later remarked that his biggest regret was not giving Payton an opportunity to score).
In celebration, both Ditka and Ryan were carried off by Bears players at the end of the contest.
I owe a lot to the great Mike Ditka and late Buddy Ryan🙏
They helped guide my coaching career and taught me priceless lessons that gave me the opportunity to chase my dream of being an NFL head coach.
Defense runs strong in an '85 Bears!!💪 pic.twitter.com/tVQ0QacZu0
— Jeff Fisher (@CoachJeffFisher) May 18, 2020
Chicago’s victory was unique for a few reasons.
Ditka became the only NFL head coach in league history to lead his team to a Super Bowl win and also score a touchdown as a player in the game (Super Bowl VI).
He also won a Super Bowl as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
Notably, Ditka had been involved with the last Chicago team to win an NFL title, in 1963, during the NFL Championship game.
Ditka Leaves Chicago
As talented as the Bears were, they weren’t able to return to the Super Bowl.
The team came close in 1988 after winning 12 games and defeating the Eagles in the Divisional round.
Ditka was named Coach of the Year for the second time, but the Bears would lose to the 49ers in the NFC Championship game 28-3.
That same year, Ditka was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 5, 2021
From 1986 through 1991, Chicago went to the playoffs five times.
In 1992, the Bears ended the season 5-11, and Ditka was fired.
“All things must pass,” he said after his firing. “This too shall pass.”
During his 11 years in Chicago, Ditka won 106 games, second only to his mentor, Halas.
The Saints Hire Ditka
After leaving Chicago, Ditka spent the next five years working for NBC as an NFL analyst.
Then, in an effort to get his team back into postseason contention, New Orleans Saints Owner Tom Benson hired Ditka as his coach.
New Orleans had not been to the playoffs since 1992 and had not won any of their four playoff games in team history.
Benson hoped Ditka would change that and turn the Saints into a success story like Ditka did in Chicago.
— SI Vault (@si_vault) July 20, 2017
In his first season, Ditka’s Saints were 0-2 before a Week 3 game at San Francisco.
During halftime of the game where New Orleans was getting soundly beaten, Ditka lost his temper and challenged the manhood of his players.
Veteran corner Eric Allen pushed back.
“[Ditka] was looking for a player to come back at him so he could get a charge out of the team,” Allen speculated later. “He knew I’d respond, so he went after me.”
The move failed to work, and the Saints lost the game 33-7.
Ditka apologized to the fans about the team’s play after the contest, but veteran players such as Allen could already sense something was amiss.
“This is horrible, pathetic,” Allen said. “It’s much more depressing than last year or the year before. If we don’t get it together, things could get ugly. Instead of people playing to win or to please the coach, we could have people playing to save their careers.”
In Week 6, New Orleans beat Ditka’s former team, the Bears, 20-14 but that proved to be the highlight of the year as the Saints finished 6-10.
He Did What!?
Unlike the rosters Ditka fielded with Chicago, the Saints couldn’t seem to get help through free agency and the draft.
There were a few good players on the team when Ditka arrived, such as tackle Willie Roaf, but little else.
The quarterback play was terrible and the players the Saints drafted were spotty at best.
Tackle Kyle Turley was drafted in the first round in 1998, but he was known more for his rage and anger issues than his playing ability.
Then, in the 1999 NFL Draft, Ditka made a deal that is still analyzed and roasted to this day.
On this day in 1999, Mike Ditka and Saints traded 8 picks to Redskins for rights to select RB Ricky Williams 5th overall. The players eventually taken with the 8 picks:
Lloyd Harrison pic.twitter.com/99Mvpz07pb
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) April 17, 2020
Looking to upgrade the running game after another 6-10 record in ‘98, Ditka traded all the Saints draft picks plus their first pick in 2000 to the Washington Redskins for their number five pick.
University of Texas running back Ricky Williams was widely regarded as the best back in the draft, and Ditka believed Williams was also the best player in the draft.
With his one and only pick, Ditka drafted Williams then posed with his new toy on the cover of ESPN Magazine with Williams wearing a wedding dress.
At the #1 spot for moments in #NFLDraft history…
Mike Ditka and the Saints give up their entire 1999 draft and their 2002 first and third round picks in order to move up 7 spots to select running back Ricky Williams pic.twitter.com/dBZYbj0hUG
— HOMAGE (@HOMAGE) April 30, 2021
Benson Fires Ditka
Even the talented Williams couldn’t help New Orleans as the rookie rushed for 884 yards and two touchdowns in 1999.
The Saints could get only three wins, and it was clear Ditka had had enough even before the season ended.
After a Week 13 loss to Atlanta, Ditka was honest with reporters.
“God puts people in places for reasons, and he probably put me here to be humbled. I deserve it,” said Ditka.
He also told the media that he “just didn’t have it anymore.”
Mike Ditka – New Orleans #Saints (1997-99)
— Legends In The Wrong Uniforms (@WrongUnis) September 8, 2022
When the season ended, Benson fired Ditka after a 15-33 record in three years.
“It was necessary to clear the slate,” said Benson.
Ditka responded by saying he understood why he was fired and that he didn’t plan to coach ever again.
“I understand it fully: You’re 3-13, you have the expectations we do, you bring in Ricky Williams, and it doesn’t work out,” Ditka said. “I mean, we got to be realists.”
Life After Football
In the past two decades, Ditka has stayed in the public eye, and he remains a beloved figure.
He has helped write several books about his career and has appeared in numerous television shows and movies.
Ditka and the Bears were frequently mentioned in several Saturday Night Live skits where the cast members played fans of “Da Bears” and “Ditka.”
— Brad Porter (@bradkporter) October 18, 2019
In 2005, Ditka played himself in the Will Ferrell comedy Kicking and Screaming.
Not only has Ditka done analyst work with ESPN and CBS, but he also owns restaurants and has other business interests including a wine and sausage company.
He was a co-owner of the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League and became the owner of the X League (a women’s tackle league) in 2020.
Ditka has four children and has been married twice. He has been married to his second wife, Diane, since 1977.