Ditka at Eagles training camp, 1967. He was often hurt and never started in two seasons. | AP
Updated: January 9, 2014 6:27AM
The legend of Mike Ditka took shape in Aliquippa, Pa., and was emboldened in Chicago but came perilously close to flaming out in Philadelphia. After six monster seasons with the Bears, Ditka became entangled in a contract squabble with owner and coach George Halas in 1966. In need of a quarterback, the Bears shipped their All-Pro tight end to the Eagles for quarterback Jack Concannon. The first sign things weren’t right in Philly: Ditka was issued jersey No. 98 because a linebacker named Mike Morgan was wearing 89. Constantly battling injuries, Ditka missed eight games in two seasons and never started. He had reached the lowest point of his life. He was retiring at age 29. — Dan Cahill
At the end of that stay in Philadelphia, I made up my mind I was retiring and was leaving football. There was a lot of despair.
I had another job and was going to come back to my family in Chicago. I was done with football, as far as I was concerned.
The experience I had with the Eagles was not good, but it wasn’t their fault. It was my fault as much as theirs; I was hurt a lot and wasn’t a very good player.
So, I came back and kinda made up my mind that I was done.
I went to stockbroker school for a while, and I had a job with Montgomery Ward. So I had a couple things I could have done. They were just jobs, but I would have done them. I didn’t expect anything. You know, we didn’t make any big money in those days. You had to work to keep up your house and your family, so I would have found a way to work.
But then I got the phone call from [Dallas Cowboys] Coach [Tom] Landry. Very simply, he told me, ‘‘I don’t know if you can play anymore, but I traded for you, and I’m willing to take a chance on you if you take a chance on yourself.’’
I went down to Dallas, got in the best shape of my life and probably played as good of football as I ever played. It was important to me. The Cowboys were a big part of my life. I was, put it this way, blessed.
Could it have ended in Philadelphia? Well, things don’t end for a reason. Part of the reason was opportunity and part of the reason was me.
Opportunity is no small thing. A lot of people get opportunities and squander them. I was fortunate to get that last opportunity with the Cowboys, and I didn’t squander it. It was a learning experience, not only as a player but as a person.
I was a better person in Dallas than I was in Philadelphia, that’s for sure. You know, I had a lot of self-pity and “why did this happen to me.” But you strap on your boots and do what you have to do. I wasn’t very happy with the person I was when I left Philadelphia.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt that [low], even when things didn’t go right at the end of my coaching career with the Bears. That didn’t bother me. We had a chance to win more than one, but that’s all we won. We had a great group of guys. You can’t add by subtraction. Once we lost some things, we weren’t the same. Life goes on.
I had another experience in New Orleans — it was a great opportunity, but it didn’t work out.
Sometimes you don’t know how far down you are until you start getting back up. I think the Eagles opened my eyes. I really do. I don’t know if things would have been the same if I wouldn’t have had that experience.