By nature he isn't a big talker. Not everyone knows this. You
picture him with his mouth open, veins popping in his neck,
At home he's often so quiet that his wife leaves whatever she's
doing to check on him. He's asleep in the chair in front of the
big-screen TV, his head lolling, his neck bent like a flower
stalk with too big a blossom. She takes one of her dog's toys, a
stuffed warthog chewed all out of shape, and sticks it behind
At practice one day late last season, after he'd been quiet for
a while, he suddenly said something. He was standing around with
his coaches. "I'm not going to say that word anymore," he said.
His face suggests a perpetual case of the mumps, and it seemed
particularly swollen this day. Everybody looked at him. "I mean
it," he said. "No more."
July 19, 1998
He couldn't be serious, they thought, but nobody saw him
smiling. For years he'd been an unofficial ambassador for the
word, introducing it in conversation at virtually every
opportunity, showing his dexterity by using it as a noun, as a
verb and as an adjective.
"Every time I say it," he went on, "I'll put up $100. Every time
any one of you says it, you put up $25."
They figured that in a few weeks he'd be broke, looking to
moonlight, saying novenas to whichever patron saint handles
insolvency. How could he just not say the word anymore? What
about all those years of practice? "Let's be honest; it's a
stupid word," Mike Ditka said. "It's stupid and it's silly and
I've said it so much in my life, it's just ridiculous."
So now here he is, eight months later. It's June, the start of
yet another minicamp and of his second season as coach of the
New Orleans Saints. Ditka hasn't uttered the word since vowing
not to. He has called a team meeting, and the players, 80 in
all, are expecting a Lombardi-type rant. Ditka loves Lombardi,
and his speeches tend to be heart thumpers with wild, didactic
flourishes that leave you spinning. His philosophy seems to be,
Why simply stir a guy's emotions when you can puree them? Why
bore him with X's and O's when you can raise goose bumps on his
flesh and move him to hot, bitter tears?
Ditka stands in front of the players, his face scorched from too
many hours in the Louisiana sun, his body lean from a
high-protein diet. "I've done a lot of stupid things in my life
that I probably won't do again, and using that word is one of
them," he says. "There's no room for that word on the field. It
might slip out every now and then, but I don't want to hear it."
The players sit as if mesmerized. Can they be hearing right?
Only last season he shouted the word at one of them during a
game. For what reason? The player, linebacker Brian Jones, dared
to ask Ditka to leave a teammate in the game after Ditka had
ordered him out. "F--- you," Ditka said, his voice big and
strong and powerful.
"F--- me?" came Jones's reply. "F--- you!"
Ancient history, all of it. You won't catch Ditka doing that
again. He says, "Now when you feel like saying it...."
He has their attention. This is history, sort of.
"Instead of that one, I want you to say, 'Praise the Lord.'"
There is uneasy laughter.
"That's right, Praise the Lord," Mike Ditka tells them.
He is 58, "past midfield and going downhill," as he puts it.
Other men his age pull out calendars and cross off the days till
retirement. They experiment with Viagra and second-generation VW
Beetles. But what does Ditka do? Ditka launches a
self-improvement campaign. No cussing, no booze, no negative
thoughts, no unhealthy foods, no temper tantrums, no missing
Mass, no unnecessary gabbing to the press, no more than three
cigars a day, no gambling. Well, maybe some gambling, but not as
much as in the old days. "Yeah," he says wearily, "that's one of
the real weaknesses I have."
Over the past 10 years he's had a heart attack and three hip
surgeries. Both his hips are artificial, and that explains his
troubled gait. He walks like an egret trying to navigate a
carpet of marsh weeds. But the hips and the heart haven't really
slowed him down. Ditka seems more determined than ever, his pace
as busy and ambitious, his will as stupefyingly strong. Assigned
to make a champion of the only current NFL club never to have
won a playoff game, Ditka figures he first needs to change some
attitudes. "The people in this city, they're negative," he says.
"They're very negative, and that bothers me. They say we'll
never win--the voodoo curse and all this crap. I disagree with
that. Before you can win, you have to believe you're worthy."
So this off-season Ditka's been stumping the state of Louisiana
like a bullhorn politician hustling votes. He gives a speech
nearly every day of the week: to contributors to a treatment
center for homeless alcoholics, to corporate season-ticket
holders, to men in a Catholic prayer group, to 500 female fans
who crowd a hotel ballroom and scream his name and repeatedly
ask whether he prefers boxers or briefs. "Or is it thongs?"
Ditka ignores the questions. He looks at the tip of the Cuban
cigar he's been chewing. Why isn't he at home with his wife,
Diana, snoozing in his chair? Or swimming laps in his pool? Or
banging some deep ones out on the driving range?
"We have lots of confidence in you, Mike," says an elderly
woman. "Please don't tell us you're leaving anymore."
She's referring to his meltdown last November after an
embarrassing loss to the Atlanta Falcons. He said he was
"probably the wrong guy for this job," and team management would
be "better off getting somebody else." The threat of his
departure evaporated the next day when he committed to
fulfilling his three-year contract with the Saints, but New
Orleans, already riddled with insecurity, has yet to get over it.
"Mike? Please don't do that again," the woman says.
Ditka gives her remarks longer consideration than they deserve.
"I took a liking to crawfish," he says finally. "I think I'll
stick around." The crowd roars its approval.
Other than promoting a general attitude overhaul, Ditka's
message at these events is never entirely clear. He seems to be
espousing a return to old-fashioned values. He wishes people
would stop trying to be so politically correct. He wishes they
would show some self-respect. Why don't they observe a stricter
code of behavior? Why don't they get a haircut or use a bar of
soap? "Just because it's 1998 doesn't mean you can get away with
everything," he says. Ditka, a former altar boy, never fails to
mention Jesus, occasionally referring to him as "a guy."
"Now Jesus, here was a guy...," he says.
God in heaven is also a guy. "There is a guy, and he had a
son...," says Ditka.
Once content simply to coach, Ditka now has a greater calling.
"No question, Mike wants to go to the pinnacle again in
football," says Danny Abramowicz, the Saints' offensive
coordinator. "But I think he also wants to change lives. We talk
about this a lot: Mike has a forum here in New Orleans, and he
uses it to evangelize."
"I wouldn't go so far as to call it evangelizing," says Ditka,
"but I do recognize that I have an opportunity to say, 'Hey,
gang, what you think is important isn't. This is all decoration.
It's tinfoil.' For years football has been too important and
winning too important and playing golf too important. But lately
I've gotten back the focus of what really matters. Maybe, what
it comes down to, I just want to be a good example for people.
Maybe I want to be the person I ought to be for a change."
In pursuing this end, Ditka cuts himself no slack. He's the
first on his staff to report to work in the morning and often
the last to leave at night. His day begins at about 5:30 on the
practice field, where he runs wind sprints barefoot in the
greasy half-light. The dew hasn't even had time to burn off
when, soaked with sweat, his generous mop of hair pasted flat
against his head, he waddles into the weight room and pumps iron
until his muscles twitch. Saints coaches and staff members, just
filing in to start the day's work, watch with equal measures of
awe and horror, none but the brave daring to ask what Ditka
means to prove.
"Mike, don't," Abramowicz says. "Don't go out in a jacket when
it's crazy hot like this."
Abramowicz has abandoned any hope of getting Ditka to ride a
stationary bike. "He won't get on one," the coordinator says.
"He's from the old school. You have to sweat. You have to be
outside, and it has to be miserable, and you have to suffer."
"It's agonizing to watch," says Rick Venturi, the Saints'
assistant head coach in charge of the secondary. "But his
workouts reflect his persona. You can see the tremendous will of
the man. People call him Iron Mike, but I always thought they
should call him Iron Will. Suits him better."
Asked for an honest self-appraisal, Ditka has given the same
answer for years. "I'm just a guy going through life," he says,
the words delivered with a steely-eyed gaze and with feeling.
But that response barely covers it. Ditka, to lean on a cliche,
is trying to get his house in order. And he isn't satisfied to
focus only on himself. He wants to get everybody else's house in
order, too, and that includes more than just his players and
A tattooed woman recently asked him what he thought of her body
art. "I was born and raised as a human being," Ditka answered,
his voice cracking like a stereo speaker full of dry rot. "I
don't know why you would want to tattoo your body. You came into
this world without those tattoos, and your body was a gift from
God. Don't go out with them!" The woman slunk away, a wash of
red coloring the little Saints player she'd had tattooed on her
arm to show her love for the team.
"Coach Mike," said another woman in a different setting, "you
know we have a lot of St. Jude's altars in New Orleans. You know
who St. Jude was?"
"St. Jude? Sure. St. Jude's the patron saint of hopeless causes."
"You ever pray to St. Jude, Coach Mike?"
"No, I pray to God."
"But Coach Mike...."
"We're not a hopeless cause!"
Then there's his new city. Each year its beauty and roguish
charm enchant millions of visitors. Ditka doesn't get it. He
thinks the place could use a good scrubbing. "Why don't they
clean the streets?" he asks, his voice going off again. "It's
filthy. Filthy, that's what it is."
Not that he bothers to spend much time in New Orleans. Ditka is
a suburbanite who, on a typical day, glimpses the city only
briefly when traveling a strip of elevated roadway to and from
work each day in Metairie, La. When he took the Saints job after
the 1996 season, everybody said he was a great match for the
city. A blue-collar guy and a blue-collar town. Someone who grew
up in the shadow of the Pennsylvania steel mills, building a new
life in the shadow of Louisiana's petrochemical plants.
New Orleans is famous for letting the good times roll. Wasn't it
Diana who said that the first time she laid eyes on Mike, in
Dallas, half a dozen men were carrying him out of a bar? Who
better to coach the Saints!
But Ditka has shown no interest in exploring the old city.
Rather than live in a renovated 150-year-old town house in the
French Quarter or a leafy estate in the Garden District, where
local celebrities such as Anne Rice and Archie Manning live, the
Ditkas settled next to a golf course in the gated community of
A uniformed guard takes your name before letting you enter the
walled enclave. Then you pass along streets so new that they
appear eerily phosphorescent. You could be in suburban Dallas or
Washington, D.C., or, god forbid, Chicago. Here the wealth of
the residents is matched only by their desire to be left alone.
Ditka's house, situated near the 9th hole, has 5,100 square feet
of living area. That's small compared with the 8,600-square-foot
thing he and Diana owned in the Chicago area. Once the trees
have grown and a century of hurricanes has given English Turn a
comfortable, lived-in look, the community might attract tourists
of its own, but it still won't be the Vieux Carre. Which is fine
by Ditka, who seems to have no sentimental attachment to New
Orleans despite the fact that he has enjoyed some of the most
gratifying moments of his football career there.
In 1972 Ditka played on the Dallas Cowboys team that beat the
Miami Dolphins by three touchdowns in Super Bowl VI at old
Tulane Stadium. Six years later he returned to New Orleans as a
Cowboys assistant for Super Bowl XII in the Superdome, and
Dallas beat the Denver Broncos by 17. Then, in '86, he coached
the Chicago Bears to a 46-10 win over the New England Patriots
in the same arena.
Ditka says he has cruised Bourbon Street only once in his life.
As he recalls, he cut short the adventure because he couldn't
stand the riot of drunks spilling out of nightclubs and strip
joints. "I said, 'We're getting out of here,'" says Ditka. "And
that's what we did. We got out."
"I went down Bourbon Street a few times at night," says Diana.
"I had to cover my nose."
Ditka also has visited historic Jackson Square only once, and
that was by accident. Recently he and Diana were looking for a
church downtown when they got confused and ended up deep in the
French Quarter. They walked past street artists and musicians,
sightseeing buggies, mimes in whiteface, kids tap dancing on the
pavement, fire-eaters, and palmists and tarot readers dressed as
if for an I Dream of Jeannie reunion. Ditka saw the teenage
runaways who are known locally as gutter punks. This wasn't
Chicago. It wasn't even New York. The scene so spooked him that
he sensed the presence of evil.
"It's appalling," he says, "just appalling. People think that's
what this city is all about, and it isn't. Why don't they clean
it up? If the city has one problem, I mean it, there has to be a
code of pride initiated, and the people have to say, 'Hey, we're
going to change all this.'"
"Kids everywhere, why do they let them live there?" says Diana.
"Make them go to work or something. Get them off the streets.
It's totally disgusting."
At any other time in his life Ditka might have bitten his
tongue, but he believes he has an obligation now to stand up for
what he thinks is right. "People are going to slam me for saying
this, but it's something I feel," he says. "They're going to
say, 'Worry about the Saints, Mike. Get them to do something,
then we'll worry about the city.' Listen, that's a cop-out. I
say, 'Worry about everything.'"
The French Quarter is crowded with renowned restaurants, but
Ditka prefers to dine at an unheralded place in Metairie called
Impastato's, out near a giant shopping mall and convenient to
I-10 and his long drive home. He usually agrees to eat in town
only when he knows there's a parking garage near the restaurant.
Although Ditka has lived in the New Orleans area for more than a
year now, he hasn't done any shopping in the city. "What?" he
says. "You're going to go to a clothing store here?" He laughs.
"You'll have to show me. Where?"
What about the upscale Rubenstein Brothers or Saks Fifth Avenue?
Ditka shakes his head. "You go to Chicago and you go to
Nordstrom's or some of those places that are just fantastic," he
says. "Now, that's where you do your shopping."
Ah, Chicago. Will Ditka ever get over it? Will the city ever get
over him? As a tight end for the Bears he was named Rookie of
the Year in 1961, and he made five straight Pro Bowls before
being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in '67 and ending his
career with the Cowboys in '72. Sixteen years later he became
the first tight end to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. As
coach of the Bears for 11 years, beginning in '82, he averaged
more than nine wins per season and won six NFC Central titles.
To Chicago he was Da Coach, the eternal Grabowski, and a man
whose legions of bloated, beer-swilling fans were lovingly
satirized on Saturday Night Live.
"I miss Chicago," Ditka says. "I miss my friends. That'll never
change. To me, Chicago is the best major city in America, by
far. It's clean, it's run well. They can talk about the
politics, but that city has better politics than most cities
anywhere in the world. The police? The police do a good job. I
think the mayor deserves a lot of credit. The City Council? They
get things done. The roads are good. I miss living there. And,
hey, we had a great football team."
Ditka's run with the Bears ended unceremoniously in January
1993, when team president Mike McCaskey fired him. Ditka said
goodbye in a tearful press conference that broke the hearts of
even those Chicago natives who remember him only for the ugly
sweaters he wore. Forced into retirement, he quickly grew
restless. He worked as an NFL analyst for NBC, and he delivered
motivational speeches at $15,000 to $20,000 a pop, giving
"between 50 and 80 a year," he says. His annual income was
reportedly around $3 million. Ditka also spent time working on a
restaurant called Mike Ditka's Iron Mike's Grill. It opened in
February 1997, and it's a classy, highbrow place in Chicago's
Tremont Hotel--so classy and so highbrow, in fact, that the
butter pats are stamped with Ditka's image. The menus have
pigskin covers, and the price of many items listed therein ends
with .89, after Ditka's old jersey number. Planning the
restaurant chewed up a lot of Ditka's time, as did playing golf
nearly every day of the week. But Ditka, out of football, still
"My nine-iron's getting better, but my life's getting worse," he
told Diana and his friends. When he looked in the mirror, he saw
a guy who'd lost his raison d'etre. "You don't have any
purpose," he said to himself. "There's no challenge. What's your
big decision today--what color shirt to wear?"
At least he was trying to keep a sense of humor about it. But
other times he said, "There's got to be more to living than this."
There was. But who could've imagined it would be with the most
inept club in NFL history? In 30 years the Saints had put
together only five winning seasons. They had had 11 coaches.
Arguably their greatest moment had come on Nov. 8, 1970, when
Tom Dempsey, a fat kicker with only half a right foot, booted an
NFL-record 63-yard field goal on the final play of the game to
beat Detroit 19-17. People in New Orleans still gloat over
Dempsey's kick, forgetting that after the Detroit game the
Saints proceeded to lose six straight and finish the season at
2-11-1. Such a tradition of failure would seem unlikely to
attract a former Super Bowl winner, but Ditka was so bored that
he might've considered a gig as the Saints' mascot. Although he
claimed to be "99.9 percent sure" he didn't want to coach again,
he apparently forgot that a week later, in January 1997, when he
met with Saints general manager Bill Kuharich and owner Tom
Benson in a conference room at the San Antonio airport. The
interviewers pitched questions. What was Ditka looking for at
this point in his life? How was his health?
Then the subject of gambling came up. In 1994 and '95 Ditka
worked as a cohost on a call-in radio sports show that was
broadcast live from Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Miss., about
an hour's drive from New Orleans. The casino flew him in each
week during the football season. When not on the air, Ditka was
known to play craps in the casino. He also wagered when he
played golf, and he liked to bet on gin rummy, his favorite card
"I do like to gamble once in a while, but you know Coach
Lombardi liked to gamble, too," says Ditka. "I like to play golf
for money, and I gamble when I get the opportunity. I'm not
going to be a hypocrite and lie about it. If it was illegal,
fine. But it's not illegal."
In his pocket Ditka carries a wad of cash secured with a rubber
band. The money makes him "look like a pimp," says Diana. But
Mike is never stingy with it. He peels off $100 bills and gives
them to panhandlers. He's just as quick to pull out the money to
pay off a gambling debt. "Money's not a god to me," he says. "I
don't respect it." Ditka brings a fairly ingenious logic to
explaining away his penchant for making bets. Since money has no
meaning to him, he says, he can dispense with it as he
pleases--whether by giving it to a homeless man or by rolling
dice. "I think I'm very generous to people," he says. "I really
live by What's mine is yours." But when asked how he reconciles
gambling with the Christian example he tries to set, Ditka says,
"You're right, that's a problem."
During the interview in San Antonio, Kuharich and Benson were
satisfied with Ditka's assertion that he never gambled on
football or any other team sport. "You know, it's like anything
else," Kuharich says. "When he gambled, he was a private citizen
who was not employed by the NFL. It was legal, so it wasn't a
What was a concern, however, was finding the right man for the
job. "Let's turn this thing around!" had been the Saints' battle
cry for most of three decades. But after the '96 season, "Let's
give this thing some mouth-to-mouth!" seemed more appropriate.
The team's previous coach, Jim Mora, had quit halfway through
the season after exploding in a profanity-laced tirade that
became a primer on how not to act at a postgame press
conference. Kuharich entered his meeting with Ditka armed with a
sheet of paper listing the attributes he thought essential in
the Saints' next coach. Winner, talent evaluator, talent
developer, motivator, communicator, organizer and clutch
performer were on the list. Although hothead, bully, health
risk, gambler, golf addict, wine connoisseur and cigar
aficionado were not among the requirements, the Saints saw in
Ditka a messiah unlike any since Hank Stram, another former
Super Bowl champion (with the Kansas City Chiefs), who took over
the Saints in 1976. Evidently under a voodoo curse, Stram
produced a 7-21 record over two seasons.
"Frankly, I'm surprised anyone had the balls" to hire Mike,
Diana told a Chicago TV reporter and cameraman who had caught up
with her at O'Hare International Airport. She'd been waiting to
board a flight to New Orleans to attend a press conference
announcing her husband's hiring. "They also asked me if I
thought Mike would ever be a Bear again," Diana says. "I said,
'No, he's a Saint now. Don't be surprised if that halo comes
down and chokes him someday.'"
Several months later Diana further irked some residents of her
new city by giving her opinion of local eating customs. "If I
suck on something," she told New Orleans Magazine, "it's not
going to be a crawfish."
Ditka's first trip back to Chicago with the Saints came last
August, for a preseason game against the Bears, and he was given
a hero's welcome complete with police escort. "In my whole time
living in Chicago, I've never known anyone to get from the
airport to downtown in 17 minutes during rush-hour traffic, but
we did it that day," says center Jerry Fontenot, who joined the
Saints as a free agent in 1997 following eight years with the
Bears. After landing at O'Hare at around 4 p.m., the team
traveled along one-way streets in the wrong direction, with
television crews running alongside the buses to chronicle
Ditka's every move. The only thing missing was ticker tape.
Ditka's heart blew up large in his chest at the greatness and
the beauty of Soldier Field.
He'd worn dark blue as a Bear for what seemed like forever, and
now at home in New Orleans he would be wearing black as a Saint.
He didn't mind the color change. He liked black, as a matter of
fact. Black was tough. Even better, black was slenderizing. If
he had his druthers, every article of the Saints' uniform would
be black--black helmet, black jersey, black pants.
He decided to have the Saints wear black jerseys when the team
picture was shot. This was a break in tradition--the players had
always worn white for the picture--but, hey, look at the
tradition. It was his team now, anyway.
"The guys in the black uniforms, what's wrong with them winning
for a change?" asks Ditka. "We've got a beautiful uniform. It's
as good-looking a uniform as there is in the league. I say it's
terrific. Do the guys in the red uniforms or the blue uniforms
always have to win? Why not us instead of them? This is what I'm
trying to get across to everyone. Why not us for a change?"
The Saints finished 6-10 last year. That's twice as many wins as
the season before. For changing the Saints' benighted history,
and for giving their fans hope, Ditka gets standing ovations
wherever he goes, which isn't very far, but he gets them
"Are you just a tiny bit disappointed that we didn't get
Peyton?" someone asks the coach at one of his speaking
engagements, referring to this year's No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Ditka's eyes glaze over. His mouth comes up in a smirk. "I did
have Payton one time," he says, "and his name was Walter."
Ancient history, all of it. As if to prove his new allegiance,
Ditka bought his wife a Mercedes-Benz SLK 230 and parked it on
the circular driveway in front of their new house. A SAINT reads
the vanity license plate. But to whom does it refer?
"Menopause will be absolutely wonderful in this car," Diana says
with a bright gurgle of laughter, and seems to answer the
question once and for all.
No, in the year 1998, with the world way too politically correct
and everybody being too negative and no one knowing how to act
right anymore, it's Mike Ditka who's the saint. His coaches know
it, and so do his players.
"The truth is, he's a whole lot less vulgar than I thought he'd
be," says quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, who joined the team in
November after the Buffalo Bills released him. "In the past you
could read his lips on TV and see the words he was saying. You
knew his reputation, and you kept waiting for these nasty things
to come out of his mouth, but it never happens. When I got here,
I kept saying this one word, and he kept giving me these funny
looks. O.K., it was the f word, but you hear it a lot on the
football field. Coach Ditka was staring at me, and I said to
myself, Man, he must not like me. But then he pulled me aside
and told me something I'll never forget.
"He said, 'Billy Joe, you don't have to talk like that to be a
leader. And you don't have to talk like that to win.'"
"I miss Chicago," Ditka says. "I miss my friends. And, hey, we
had a great football team."
"Don't be surprised if that halo comes down and chokes him
someday," Diana says.