Mike Ditka is a man known for his passion for the game of football. His outspoken, fiery attitude and brutal honesty have made him what he is today: a household name in the world of sports. When the Chicago Bears retired the icon’s number, 89, at Soldier Field on Monday, it was a great way to pay tribute to a storied career. The honor mostly revolves around his contributions as a player, but a lot people got to know Ditka as the head coach behind the legendary 1985 Bears team that is still considered by many to be one of the greatest National Football League teams of all time.
Ditka’s accomplishments are not modest by any means. Drafted fifth overall by Chicago in the 1961 NFL draft, he immediately redefined the tight end position by catching 58 passes and scoring 12 touchdowns as a rookie. In a role that was normally used for blocking, his style of play allowed him to be a groundbreaking receiver who notched five Pro Bowl selections. In fact, he’s on the Bears’ all-time receiving list, ranking first among tight ends and fourth overall with 4,503 yards. Throughout an 11-year playing career and 14 seasons as a head coach, Ditka has won some of the most important games in NFL history.
Here are four that rank among the greatest.
1. Super Bowl VI
At Tulane Stadium in New Orleans in 1972, Super Bowl VI pitted the NFC Champion Dallas Cowboys against the AFC Champion Miami Dolphins. Tom Landry, another legendary coach, led the charge on a day that had his Cowboys dominating in a 24-3 victory and hoisting the trophy. During the contest, quarterback and game MVP Roger Staubach threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Ditka.
At the end of his playing career with a 4-year stint with Dallas, that Super Bowl was Ditka’s final game in uniform. But to his surprise, it wasn’t the last time he’d be on the field. A week after the season ended, Ditka received an unexpected phone call from Landry asking him to be an assistant coach. That moment turned out to be what would kick off his successful coaching career. “Iron” Mike’s assistant coaching tenure with the Cowboys lasted from 1973 to 1981.
2. 1963 NFL Championship
Before the Super Bowl existed, it was simply called the NFL Championship. And in 1963, the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears had a classic battle at Wrigley Field in frigid temperatures. It was also tight end Ditka’s first championship playing at the professional level. The game featured some great players on both teams, including Sam Huff and Frank Gifford for the Giants, as well as Doug Atkins and Richie Petitbon for the Bears.
Chicago was victorious, with a final score of 14-10. One of the significant background stories of the event involved Bears coach George Halas refusing to move the game to Soldier Field, even though the NFL felt it would be a better option to hold more fans. Halas felt his team would have an advantage at Wrigley because the Giants were not familiar with the venue. That hunch actually proved to be true.
In January 1986, Ditka coached the Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears to a 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots. Considered by many to be the greatest team in NFL history, the Bears completely dominated the game, setting several statistical records. With a 15-1 record, the ’85 team was loaded with talent like Richard Dent, Walter Payton, William “Refrigerator” Perry, Mike Singletary, and quarterback Jim MacMahon.
The team also became a huge part of popular culture in the ’80s when the players recorded the rap hit Super Bowl Shuffle. The tune was actually made a few months before the championship game, selling more than a half-million copies and reaching No. 41 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Additionally, the song made the Chicago Bears the only American professional team of any sport with a hit single at the time.
4. 1985 Bears versus 49ers
A year before the ‘85 Bears Super Bowl run, the San Francisco 49ers completely embarrassed Ditka’s team by a score of 23-0 in the 1984 NFC Championship. As revenge for the thrashing, this game was what put Chicago on the map as a big NFL contender in those days. The Bears came back to San Francisco for a Week 6 regular season contest in 1985 and beat up on the Niners, 26-10.
Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana was sacked seven times by Chicago’s stout defense, and his offense was limited to only 183 total yards. This was one of Ditka’s defining games as head coach. At the end of that championship season, starting linebacker Mike Singletary was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year; running back Walter Payton won NFC Offensive Player of the Year, and Ditka was named NFL Coach of the Year.
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