It’s 8 o’clock on a mid-July morning in downtown Chicago, and we’re in an 8th floor hotel suite, setting up for an interview with Mike Ditka. This is the first of two separate interview sessions that Ditka has agreed to do for MIKE DITKA: A FOOTBALL LIFE, and I have to admit, I’m more than a tad nervous at the prospect of interviewing a man who’s inevitably described in at least one of the following ways: temperamental, blustery, cranky, antagonistic, and mercurial. Long story short: Mike Ditka is a legendary curmudgeon!
Through the hotel window, you can see the Wrigley Building on North Michigan Avenue, and this iconic structure will provide the backdrop for Ditka during the interviews. Given the changeable summer sky, cinematographer Brian Murray faces a challenge with the lighting, so a fair amount of time is required to get the proper lighting inside the suite in order to compensate for the natural light outside. At least we’ve got another half-hour before Ditka is scheduled to arrive. Then suddenly, my phone rings and when I answer, a familiar voice growls in my ear, “Where the hell are you guys? – I’m ready to do the interview!”
Mike Ditka is famous for his hard-nosed playing style, his sideline coaching tirades, his emotional outbursts on and off the field, and his adversarial relationship with the media. All of these aspects of Ditka are explored in MIKE DITKA: A FOOTBALL LIFE. But unbeknownst to me, Ditka is also famous for showing up early to nearly everything he does. He operates on “Ditka time” and those who aren’t ready when he is run the risk of feeling his wrath. When I hear Ditka’s gruff voice announcing he’s ready even though we’re not, I feel sort of the same way that Doug Flutie or Jim Harbaugh must have felt when walking back to the sideline after throwing an interception. I announce Ditka’s imminent arrival to the crew, and everyone starts to move at warp speed. But 5-6 minutes go by and Ditka still hasn’t shown up. Then my phone rings again, and I hear that distinctive growl one more time: “I’m still down in the lobby – how the hell do these elevators work?!”
When I get down to the lobby, I tell Ditka that I’d like to sit down and discuss what we have in mind for the interview and for the show. What I’m really trying to do is stall for time as 8 floors above us, the crew hustles to get the set-up just right. Ditka agrees to talk — for a few minutes, but he’s obviously impatient to get started. Despite this unexpected turn of events, it seems entirely fitting to me that Ditka has arrived ahead of schedule, because in a sense, that’s exactly what he did as a player.
In 1961, Ditka was named Rookie of the Year after a season in which he caught 58 passes for over 1000 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged nearly 20 yards per reception. No Tight End had ever put up numbers like these before Ditka, and very few have put up these kind of numbers since Ditka. Although he was built like an armoire, Ditka was deceptively fast and could run deep patterns. Yet he still had the muscle and mentality of the “block first, catch occasionally” tight ends that typified the position as it was played before Ditka. When “Iron Mike” couldn’t get behind defenders, he had the strength and determination to put defenders on their behinds. He was a Space Age Tight end, sure, but he was Space Age with a touch of Stonehenge. Parenthetically, it should be noted that in his playing days, Ditka rocked a crew cut that still seems like the hairstyle he was meant to have, as opposed to the perm, the “Freddy Munster”, and the slicked-back looks he wore when he coached.
Although Ditka played 6 seasons with the Bears, his most productive years predate the birth of NFL Films. Ditka’s best plays were captured on black and white film, and while these plays are in our film vault, our cameramen didn’t shoot them. Ironically, as NFL Films began to establish its cinematographic and storytelling style during the mid-60’s, two of their favorite subjects were Chicago Bears – Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. While Films was helping Butkus and Sayers become part of NFL mythology, Ditka was on the decline as a player. Injuries had slowed him down. He had become more of a “throwback” Tight End instead of the downfield threat he was when he established his Hall of Fame credentials. He had become a possession receiver whose main job was to mix it up in the trenches with the likes of Mike Curtis and Dave Wilcox. Still, the Ditka footage captured by NFL Films during his stints with the Bears, Eagles, and Cowboys — featured in MIKE DITKA: A FOOTBALL LIFE – shows one of the most physical, ferocious and sure-handed Tight Ends in pro football history.
Today, it almost seems like an afterthought that Ditka was the NFL’s first great Tight End. His playing career is undoubtedly overshadowed by the 11 years he spent coaching the Bears. The dominating ’85 season, the temper tantrums, the feuds, the mood swings – these are what made Ditka a larger-than-life figure. When he appears on ESPN, he’s almost always asked to respond to something as “The Coach.” Sure, most people know that he played for the Bears long before he coached them, but few realize just how great of a player he was. So, when you mention that Ditka was the first Tight End to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the typical response is, “Really? I didn’t know that.” Canton’s inaugural class was in 1963. It took the selection committee 25 years to induct its first Tight End. That Tight End was Mike Ditka.
In the hotel lobby, I’ve tried everything but shadow puppets to keep Ditka preoccupied, but my grace period is over. When we get to the 8th floor suite, I catch a glimpse of the patented Ditka scowl as he surveys the cameras, lights, and the number of people involved in putting all of it together. Then, he grumbles, “What are we doing here, Cecil*? It shouldn’t be this complicated. We ain’t making BEN-HUR**.”
During the interview, Ditka is alternately charming, touchy, funny, self-deprecating, unrepentant, and defiant. To find out exactly what he said about his childhood, his relationship with George Halas, his reverence for Tom Landry, his coaching tenures in Chicago and New Orleans, his Bloody Mary mix, the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, and Sarah Palin, well, you should definitely watch MIKE DITKA: A FOOTBALL LIFE. As for this interview session, when it draws to a close, I make a mental note to tell co-producer Bennett Viseltear, who’s going to conduct the 2nd interview, to make sure everything is ready long before Ditka is scheduled to show up. Like the young Mike Ditka who revolutionized the Tight End position, this Mike Ditka is still ahead of his time.
*Ditka is invoking Cecil B.DeMIlle, the master of the “sword and sandal” movie spectacular. DeMille directed both the silent and sound versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Inevitably photographed wearing jodhpurs and holding a bullhorn, he personified the autocratic directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I hasten to add that I’ve never patterned my own directorial style after DeMille’s.
**BEN-HUR is the ultimate “sword and sandal” movie. It was made in 1925 and remade in 1959. Cecil B. DeMille did not direct either version. The 1959 film won11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, and runs 212 minutes. I often measure my endurance on international flights by calculating how many times I’d have to watch BEN-HUR all the way through before the plane reaches its destination – i.e., on a trip to Hong Kong, you could watch BEN-HUR in its entirety 3 times.