Afternoon Shift

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Nov. 19, 2012

He does not seem made of flesh and blood. It is a summer day some years ago and I am looking at his head. Look…it is the color and shape of a gigantic tomato, the sort that wins prizes and "wows" at a county fair. Look at his hair: It is like one of those sleek bicycle helmets. And look how he walks, with a limp so pronounced that it hurts to watch him, as if his legs were made of wood.

He is Mike Ditka and he stands for something. He's got character. He's an American. He's loyal. He's hard-working. He's paid his dues. And he's unafraid of being himself.

That's why everybody wants a piece of him, to be near him. It's enough for a lot of people just to be near a picture of Ditka. He is no longer a sports figure—he has become an American icon. 
And a Chicago phenomenon. 

It has been many, many years since he has held a steady job in Chicago. He's nearly three decades removed from coaching the Bears to a Super Bowl victory. It has been longer still since he last donned a helmet and shoulder pads. But Ditka's popularity in Chicago is extraordinary.

On any given night or during Sunday afternoons during the football season, the largest gathering of what might be called Ditkaholics can be found at Mike Ditka's Restaurant at 100 E. Chestnut St. There isn't a night there that you won't hear someone say, “Hey, he's upstairs. Ditka's here.” You know he is out of town but you go upstairs anyway and there's some guy who looks just like Mike---the hair, the mustache, the cigar. After a while you start to think half the guys in Chicago look like Mike. 

The place is packed with Ditka look-alikes or wannabes, perusing a menu filled with such items as Da Pork Chop, Kick-Ass Paddle Steak, Training Table Pot Roast and Smashed Potatoes. The prices end in .20, .63 and .89, corresponding to, respectively, Super Bowl XX, the year Ditka joined the Bears and his jersey number.

Ditka's image is everywhere. The restaurant's walls are covered with photos of him, as well as other sports stars. There is his caricature on the beer taps and mugs; on cigar bands and matchbooks; on the shirts and hats sold at a gift counter; on the dinner plates and the backs of bar stools. 

The face is even stamped into every pat of butter.

Ditka's hard-working, fun-loving and crazy. What's not to love? He's genuine. Nothing he does is an act. There is always a cauldron boiling under the surface and it often erupts. This is a man with no hidden agenda. The agenda's right up there in your face. 

Ditka was carved from the foothills of western Pennsylvania in the rough mill town of Aliquippa, north of Pittsburgh, escaping the steelworker's life and traveling a road that took him to all-America honors at the University of Pittsburgh; a Hall of Fame career as a tight end for the Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys; and a coaching job for eight years in Dallas. 

In 1982 he wrote a letter to his former coach and the owner of the Bears: 
"Dear Mr. Halas: 
I want to come back. I am a Bear."

And so he did. And so will he ever be.