Sad Bears fans need a little Ditka, and he's everywhere
December can be such a fun month for Chicago football fans. A Bears victory during the holiday season can spur fans to reserve travel packages for the Super Bowl, or at least pull out an old VHS tape of the "Super Bowl Shuffle." But Sunday's heartbreaking overtime loss against the lowly Minnesota Vikings serves as a cruel "Bah! Humbug!" that signals a winter of discontent for football fans disappointed in coach Marc Trestman's 2013 Bears.
We need something to lift our spirits. We need something to remind us of better days. We need something with a great mustache.
Oh, we need a little Ditka, right this very minute.
Fortunately for needy Bears fans, Mike Ditka is with us always.
"You gotta love Da Coach. Ditka just makes you laugh," says Mike Muhr, a former Daily Herald reporter and old friend from Arlington Heights, who correctly thought I'd be amused by his email listing dozens of Ditka product endorsements through the decades.
In addition to Ditka's restaurants (including one in Oak Brook), the series of Ditka wines and Ditka cigars, and his line of steaks, pork, lamb and Ditka sausages, the Ditka product stable includes items ranging from steak knives, antifreeze, rustproofing, soup and lawn mowers to Levitra, dental implants, his beach club, toilet paper and Iron Mike Cologne.
Ditka has proved that he's not afraid to look a little silly. He once donned a poncho and sombrero to hawk Mike Ditka's Hall of Fame Salsa. He coached the Budweiser team of beer bottles that lost to Bud Light in Bud Bowl VI. He coached the Dallas Cowboys in Sega's Computer Bowl '93 and lost that video game to a Buffalo Bills team coached by O.J. Simpson. He endorsed the McCain-Palin presidential ticket in 2008.
Ditka is the endorsement equivalent of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Ditka is a Halloween costume for kids born 20 years after his last victory as Bears coach. Ditka's immortalized in "SNL" TV skits. Ditka's on ESPN these days more than Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. You can't watch an NFL game without Ditka showing up during commercial breaks to hawk Binny's Beverage Depot, OverStock.com or State Farm insurance.
"I think he may be the No. 1 sports endorser in the country," Muhr says. "I don't know if you saw him in the latest State Farm 'Discount Daaa-ble Check' ad where he is in a dream sequence massaging George Wendt, but when I did, I thought, 'What doesn't Ditka endorse?'"
You would be surprised at all the endorsement deals Ditka doesn't do, says Steve Mandell, Ditka's agent for the last decade.
"He has turned down so many opportunities," Mandell says. "If there were 48 hours in a day, he could work them all. There are so many people who want a piece of him."
Ditka, who makes more now than he ever did as a player or coach, might be the most popular sports figure in Chicago sports history. That's amazing for a player who was traded by the Bears in 1967 and was fired as a coach at the end of the 1992 season after making just one Super Bowl appearance (albeit it a really good one) during a decade when fans were expecting a dynasty.
"He's an icon," Mandell says. "I think he relates well to the fans on every level. He's very real."
Ditka has given the finger and thrown his gum in the direction of hecklers. He's ripped into reporters and insulted disgruntled fans. He's far from the jolly and lovable Santa character who might be the one guy to show up in more TV commercials than Ditka this Christmas season.
"That makes him jolly and lovable," Mandell says of his client's feisty side. "That makes him real."
The agent points to Saturday's inaugural Ditka Dash, a 5K race sponsored by State Farm at Soldier Field that drew 10,500 runners just because Ditka was involved. Many of the runners wore Ditka-style mustaches, aviator sunglasses and a Ditka shirt while joining the Miller Lite Post Race Mustache Bash.
Using Ditka's endorsements to play "Six Degrees of Ditka," Muhr doesn't have to work hard to discover his Ditka connection. Muhr is founder and operator of SecondhandChicago.com, which lists more than 500 thrift, vintage and upscale resale shops in the area, including Twice Blest, a resale shop in Palatine that benefits Misericordia, an agency that serves people with developmental disabilities and is one of the charities that Ditka supports. Nobody is too far removed from something Ditka-related.
At halftime of Monday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys at Soldier Field, the Bears will retire Ditka's No. 89 from his days of playing tight end for the Monsters of the Midway. The hoopla leading up to the ceremony includes a Mike Ditka look-alike contest Sunday night at the Double Door in Chicago to benefit the Otis Wilson Charitable Association and, no doubt, a sudden increase in sales of fake mustaches and sweater vests across the suburbs.
No matter how the game goes, you can bet that Da Coach will receive the biggest ovation of the night from the crowd. Some fans might be surprised to discover Ditka had a career before becoming a TV pitchman.