It’s gonna be difficult to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday — 6:30pm ET on FOX, like you don’t already know — without thinking of 1985. At least it will be if you live or used to live in Chicago (full disclosure: I’m a native Chicagoan) and you still have a chip on your shoulder about the Packers beat-down of the Bears from a few weeks ago.
It’s a emotional scar that’s just as real and painful as Jay Cutler’s sprained knee. It would’ve been a nice symmetry if the Bears had managed to return to the Super Bowl 25 years after their historic defeat of the New England “Not the Face!” Patriots. More importantly, it would’ve been a great excuse for some pointless nostalgia. For a moment there, it looked like the 2010-11 Bears would be to the 1984-85 Bears what Ziggy Marley is to Bob Marley. Not exactly the same thing, but hey, remember Legend? But then the Packers took that dream away, and they did it, at least in part, with a defensive lineman called “The Freezer.” Which was pretty much the dictionary definition of adding insult to injury. I mean, come on; a young and beefy athlete with a refrigeration nickname arriving on the scene during the silver jubilee of another beefy and no-longer-as-young athlete with a refrigeration nickname? It just made it abundantly clear that everything we thought was so unique and special about the ‘85 Bears was maybe not so unique and special after all. If Ben Roethlisberger shows up on Sunday wearing a headband, maybe with some kooky or ironic slogan like “No Means No”, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. But while the NFL heroes and sacred cows of the past may be all-too-easily replaced by a new generation, there is one football icon who won’t be fading into obscurity any time soon.
Mike fucking Ditka.
I know I sound like an old Saturday Night Live sketch. But that doesn’t make me wrong. The Packers’ Mike McCarthy and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin are decent enough coaches, but have either of them broken a wrist after punching a locker during a halftime tirade? Have they ever thrown a piece of gum so hard at a fan that it resulted in assault charges and the gum being booked as evidence by the local police? Have they starred in a video as cringingly god-awful as “The Grabowski Shuffle” and not only survived the experience but somehow made the entire world forget it ever happened, like an alcoholic after a blackout drinking binge? Not goddamn likely. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan is the only one who even comes close, but his trash-talking antics seems like amateur hour compared to Ditka in his prime. With just a disapproving stare and a twitch of his legendary mustache, Ditka would have Ryan fleeing to the locker-room in tears and wailing, “Why do you have to be so mean?”
I called Ditka in Chicago, in the middle of a snowstorm that, in true Ditka form, he probably didn’t even notice. When I told him I was a lifelong fan, he growled and said, “Of course you are.” Which just made me love him more.
Eric Spitznagel: Let’s start with your Super Bowl prediction. Steelers or Packers, who’s taking home the Lombardi on Sunday?
Mike Ditka: The Packers, definitely. I picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl during the second week of the season.
Seriously? You were betting against the Bears even back then? Et tu, Ditka? Et tu?
I’m pretty good. And I’m a National Conference guy, so of course I’m going to pick the Packers. I know they’re favored slightly. Not that any of that matters. The Steelers are a great football team. They’re well coached, they’ve got a great defense. And they’ve got a good offense. Roethlisberger is as good as anybody in the game. He bides time, he extends the pocket, he does some things very well.
I’m not sure what you’re telling me. Pretend that my kid’s future college tuition depends on the outcome. Who’s the chalk? Do I put it all on the Packers or the Steelers?
The Packers. I watched the Packers play all year. I just think there’s something special about them. They’ve overcome the loss of eight starters. They’re doing pretty good.
Is this because of BJ “the Freezer” Raji?
He’s part of it, sure.
As somebody who coached William “The Refrigerator” Perry, how can you support somebody with such a derivative nickname?
I think he’s great. I really do. The name doesn’t bother me. I think it’s great for the kid, I think it’s great for the game. When these guys playing in the defensive line become heroes, that’s a good thing.
Like a lot of Chicagoans, I’m still upset that the Bears aren’t in the Super Bowl this year. Is it all Jay Cutler’s fault?
Not at all.
But can we at least use him as a scapegoat?
We can’t blame him, no. I think you have to look at what happened in the game (against the Packers). The Bears defense was flat from the very beginning. Jay’s only one player, and he’s a good player. And he busted his knee.
Are you saying “busted” with ironic air-quotes?
Not at all. Everybody has a different threshold for pain. Some people can handle it better than others. And in his case, he couldn’t handle it. So they made the right move, putting somebody else up there.
Chicago is a town that holds on to sports grudges. Who are we more likely to exonerate first, Cutler or Steve Bartman?
I honestly don’t know. He’s got a big hurdle to overcome right now because of the fans. Fans are fickle. In this town, you’re a hero one minute and you’re a bum the next. But when you’re a bum, you’re a bum for a long time and they don’t forget very easily. It’s just what it is.
You know that from experience?
Oh yeah. I’ve been on both sides. They love you and then they hate you. Next year, when he makes another touchdown pass, they’ll forget it. But for now, he’s got to take his lumps. He had a chance to define his destiny forever by winning a Super Bowl. But he blew it. If you win in this city, they’ll make you a hero. It didn’t work out for him so much. That doesn’t mean he won’t get another chance. But it was a pretty sad ending.
Here’s a hypothetical match-up: The 2011 Bears versus the 1985 Bears. Who wins?
[Laughs.] You don’t want to go there.
I really do.
No. Trust me on this. You don’t want to go there.
Okay, let’s make it a little more fair. You’re coaching the 2011 Bears. Could you out-coach the 1985 Ditka?
It wouldn’t matter. We had such a lineup of players. Our defense was outstanding in every position. And our offense was pretty darn good. We had a great offensive line. We had Walter Payton, one of the greatest football players in the game. We had Matt Suhey, Jim McMahon. We had a pretty good football team. I’m just saying, I think the ’85 Bears would have the edge.
But purely in terms of “Golden Age Ditka” versus “Retired and Living in Florida Ditka,” which Ditka has the edge?
I don’t think about stuff like that.
You don’t think you’ve gotten better with age?
You have to live in the moment. I don’t live in the past, I don’t live in the future. I live in the right here and the right now. The past me came to Chicago with a vision and told Mr. Halas (the former owner of the Bears) that I would make him proud of the Bears again. And I did that. We never won it again, but we did win it in ’85, with a great collection of football players and great coaches like Buddy Ryan. We were pretty darn good for that one time in history. You can say to me, “We should have won it more than once.”
Okay, if you insist. You should have won the Super Bowl more than once!
Well maybe we should have. But we didn’t. I don’t think I would’ve been a better coach today than I was back then. Maybe I would be if I had the same temperament I have right now. I’m a lot less fiery than I was back then, believe me.
I do believe you. If this was the 80s, you would’ve torn me a new asshole at least once by now.
Maybe, I don’t know. I admire these coaches who have great self control. But I don’t think you can be anybody but who you are. There’s isn’t a mold for a head coach. Landry, Lombardi, Shula, Walsh, everybody’s a little bit different. When I was coaching, I knew what was going on at all times. I never lose my acuities. But I’ll tell you what, I did get excited. [Laughs.]
Here’s another hypothetical battle: you versus a hurricane. Who wins that contest?
I’m big winded but I’m not as windy as a hurricane. I’m pretty sure the hurricane would win hands down.
What if the hurricane was called Hurricane Ditka?
Well, then we’d have a problem. A hurricane that takes my name? I’m not going to let that slide.
Between the Steelers and the Packers, which team is more likely to record a song like the “Super Bowl Shuffle”?
I think they’re both smart enough to avoid doing that.
Is that why you weren’t in the original “Super Bowl Shuffle”?
They asked me to be in it, but I said no. I didn’t really know what they were doing or what it was. It seemed kind of ridiculous, especially making a video like that after we’d just got beaten by Miami. But they were a confident group of guys.
What holds up better, the “Super Bowl Shuffle” or the “Grabowski Shuffle”?
I think the “Super Bowl Shuffle” won an Emmy or something. The “Grabowski Shuffle” wasn’t quite in that league. The “Super Bowl Shuffle” was about a whole team, but the “Grabowski Shuffle” was just about one guy.
And Jackhammer George.
One of the working class heroes in your video. The construction worker in the yellow suspenders and mustache? The guy who’s “never a fool when he’s using his tool?”
[Laughs.] Sure, sure, yeah. We had fun doing it, but it’s probably not as meaningful as the “Super Bowl Shuffle.”
You never thought your singing skills were underrated?
My singing skills stink. They always have, they always will. I have no illusion about being a good singer.
Or you’re being humble.
I’m terrible, I’m telling you. You’re deluded if you think otherwise.
In the video for the “Grabowski Shuffle”, there are people holding signs that read “Mike Ditka for President.” Were you hinting at your political ambitions?
No, no, not at all. I’m pretty conservative in my thinking, but I have no interest in running for any political office at all. I admire politicians with common sense, because I think we have a lack of common sense in our country. But I have no desire to serve in that capacity.
But didn’t you seriously consider running against Obama for his Illinois Senate seat in 2004?
Well yeah, that’s true. There’s no question about that. But it’s really not who I am. My problem is, I have a hard time saying anything but the truth to the people.
That’s a problem?
For a politician is it. If you’re running for office, telling the truth is not going to get elected. You have to paint a pretty picture.
In an alternative universe where you were elected U.S. president, how are we doing in 2011? Are we still mired in two unwinnable wars? Or have we kicked Afghanistan’s ass like they’re the New England Patriots?
We’d be out of there. Because we can’t be the keeper of the world anymore. There was a time when that was our role. We have a good thing going, with freedom and democracy and all that, and we want to tell other people about it. But those times are over. Now we’re in an endless war, and the longer we’re in it, the more American lives we’re going to lose. There’s no point to it. The people who live in those countries, in those Mid-East areas, they place no value on human life. They’ll kill, terrorize, do whatever they have to do to get their point across.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about head injuries lately, especially after Jay Cutler got a concussion during a Giants game last October. Are the media and the NFL making mountains out of molehills?
No, I think it’s very important. These guys are getting hurt left and right. The game has always been violent, let’s not fool ourselves. But the head-to-head blows are becoming more prevalent. It’s a real problem because football is an instinctive game. It’s a game of reactions. So it’s hard to tell these players to go out there and be more aware of what they’re doing. When you’re in the game, you don’t think that way.
Especially if you’re bleeding from the ears.
Right, right. The helmet is there for protection. But when you’re on the field, it’s also a weapon. You’re not thinking about it in terms of protecting your brain.
When you were coaching back in the 80s, or playing in the 70s, was cranial abuse something you ever thought twice about?
Not at all. And I got my bell rung more than a few times. I took some pretty nasty hits from (Green Bay Packers linebacker) Ray Nitschke. That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit. You get up and you really don’t know where you are. But I continued to play. I never remembered anything that I did in the game until I saw the films. And even then, I still didn’t remember what had happened.
So you were basically comatose?
Yeah, but I was on my feet. I was in a coma but still in the game. [Laughs.]
How do you plan to watch the Super Bowl this year?
I’ll fly back to Florida and watch it at home. I won’t go to Texas for the game. I’ve been to plenty of Super Bowls in person. I don’t care to stay for it.
Will you invite over some pals for a Super Bowl party? Maybe break out some nachos and PBR? Or do you prefer to watch it in private?
I don’t need a lot of people around me to do it. I like it on TV because you see the replays and you get to watch everything slowed down. You understand what they’re doing with the strategy of the game. I really enjoy watching it that way.
Do you ever flip the channel to Puppy Bowl during commercials?
Puppy Bowl. You must’ve heard about this. With puppies on a football field? On Animal Planet? It’s pretty awesome.
[Laughs.] No, I’m probably not going to watch that.
I spoke with fellow Chicagoan John Cusack not long ago, and he remembered the ’85 Super Bowl as being, in his words, “dark and weird.”
How was it dark and weird?
Well, he was tripping on mushrooms at the time.
Yeah, well there you go. I don’t care for drugs. Any time you take yourself out of reality, whether it’s with drugs or something else, I think you’re just cheating life. It’s like smelling a flower and not being able to smell it. What the hell is the point?
Or getting hit so hard during a football game that you spend the rest of the day in a comatose daze? Something like that?
Sure, that too.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)