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Mike Ditka discusses Jay Cutler, Cam Newton and life at 71

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Da Coach is good.

Da life is good.

And that’s as it should be, as Mike Ditka plows into his 72nd year on this great spherical gridiron known as Earth.

He’s at his usual table, in the upstairs lounge at his bustling restaurant on Chestnut Street, or ‘‘Mike Ditka Way,’’ as the honorary signs on Michigan Avenue declare it.

He’s having his favorite dish, the ‘‘Dayboat Cod’’ — a Parmesan-crusted fish fillet with lemon caper butter, side of rice and broccoli — and a small glass of one of his ‘‘Kick Ass’’ brand wines.

His pal, the singer ‘‘Big John’’ Vincent, sits across from him. Vincent has been doing his entertaining at Ditka’s for many years, and it surprises people who hear him croon that such a lovely voice is coming from a guy big enough to be a pro football lineman, which he was.

‘‘Hey, Coach,’’ Vincent says with a sly grin. ‘‘Let’s go clubbing. After this we’ll do Rush Street!’’

‘‘Right,’’ Ditka snorts. ‘‘See ya there.’’

The two banter like this all the time. But Da Coach’s wild days have had a yellow flag tossed on them.

What’s not to love?

Ditka will be in bed by 10:30 tonight. He will rise tomorrow, as always, about 5 a.m. He will work out, lifting light weights, stretching mainly, loosening his battered ex-football body so that he can rumble through another day, talking sports, life, politics, inspiring folks, grumbling now and then, but loving it all and being, simply . . . Mike Ditka.

Indeed, seeing him now, watching diners and tourists and fans come up to him as if approaching a long-lost friend or a saint — Hey, the guy eats here almost every night he’s in Chi-Town, pilgrims! — is to wonder why there isn’t some memorial to this iconic man in Chicago.

We have statues of corrupt politicians and cross-eyed poodles, but Ditka isn’t even embodied on the frieze at Soldier Field.

It doesn’t seem to matter to the man himself.

Right now he wants to apologize and clear the record regarding his old and slightly estranged friend, former Green Bay Packers great Jerry Kramer.

You see, Ditka sucks the oxygen out of a room, and thus he is always portrayed as the face and voice of those attempting to get better benefits for retired and wounded NFL players. He has done much, a tremendous amount, but not all.

‘‘Now, I talked to Jerry the other day, and I think he was upset,’’ says Ditka between bites. ‘‘But I want everybody to know that he was a great player, on a great championship team, and he was the one who started the [charity] Gridiron Greats. I mean it. I don’t need credit for it. He did it.’’

Ditka himself, of course, had long run a Chicago golf-outing charity for damaged former star players before he came aboard with Kramer on Gridiron Greats.

It was for Hall of Famers ‘‘in dire need,’’ as he says, and it came about as a result of his compassion and the concussion/dementia mess he saw occurring.

‘‘I saw what was happening to Jim Ringo, Pete Pihos, John Mackey, Herb Adderley, and it was tragic. I got on the bus one time with Mackey at the Hall of Fame back in the mid-’90s, and he said, ‘Where we going?’ ’’

‘‘I said, ‘Where do you want to go?’ ’’ And he didn’t know what hotel he was staying at. It was night and day, the decline, from one year to the next.’’

On to the draft

With that matter cleared, Ditka thinks about the upcoming NFL draft and how teams, the Bears included, can improve themselves.

‘‘People talk about the combine, about body fat, 40 times, bench presses, how high you can jump. That’s great, but how do you measure heart?

‘‘People talk about Tim Tebow like he can’t do this or he doesn’t have this throwing skill. But all that matters is can he lead you from Point A to Point B. I like him. You cannot coach character. You cannot coach leadership.’’

Which leads to a rather unusual point: Ditka likes controversial Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

‘‘I would take Newton. I would take him in a heartbeat. I think he gets it. He reminds me of a bigger Tim Tebow. He’s smart. He sounds good when he talks. I don’t care about that other stuff.

‘‘Leadership is very hard to define or describe. It’s, I guess . . .’’ He thinks for a second. ‘‘Class,’’ he says.

Da Coach stops to sign autographs for folks and to pose for a photo with a woman who had nearly fainted, saying, ‘‘Oh, my God, it’s him!’’

So the Bears.

It’s clear Ditka is not much of a Jay Cutler fan, not after the quarterback’s odd NFC Championship Game exit.

‘‘If Cutler’s not in the future,’’ he says matter-of-factly, ‘‘go after the best quarterback available. Leadership and character, you can’t teach those.’’

The meal done, Ditka sips on his wine.

He winces occasionally. Both of his shoulders are ruined, but his left one is the worst, mightily affecting his beloved golf swing. He can’t raise his left shoulder above his chest, which is what happens to a limb after it’s been dislocated many times and never repaired.

Ditka has had hips and knees and all kinds of things replaced. He had an ankle that was demolished way back in the day, and the Bears’ Dr.  Fox put it in a cast, and when it came out of the cast and Ditka tried to walk on the deformed thing, he fell flat on his face. This?

‘‘In the next six months I’ll make a decision,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s no big deal. It’s life. I’m having fun. It’s great.’’

And he means it.

Big John is up on the stage now, doing one of Ditka’s favorite songs, Frank Sinatra’s ‘‘My Way.’’

Ditka likes country, loves Johnny Cash’s ‘‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’’ but he’s a sucker for the corny but defiant declaration of this tune. Especially the way Vincent belts it:

Let the record show

I took the blows

And did it myyyyyy way!

‘‘Yep,’’ says Da Coach.

Mike Ditka and Rick Telander released their book,

The ’85 Bears: We Were the Greatest, 25th Anniversary, in September 2010.



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