Ditka: Tough on outside, happy on inside

Mike Ditka watches a video tribute honoring him durning the ceremony retireing his jersey Monday, December 9, 2013 at Soldier Field. (H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com)

CHICAGO – Danny Randall could not stop grinning.

Randall, a 49-year-old police officer in Chicago’s 2nd district, was working his second job Monday as a security guard at Soldier Field. He was part of a three-man crew stationed outside of the Bears’ interview room when his eyes opened big and his smile stretched wide.

Walking toward him was Coach.

Before Randall knew what had happened, Mike Ditka had paused for a picture with the security crew. As Ditka smiled and walked away, Randall’s voice traveled through the stadium’s lower concourse.

“Coach just made me feel like a kid!” he exclaimed. “Coach just made me feel like a kid!”

Keep in mind that Randall’s next birthday will be his 50th.

A few minutes later, after Randall’s heart rate had dropped below approximately 1,000 beats a minute, he chuckled at his reaction to meeting Ditka.

“I’m a Chicago cop,” Randall said. “You’d figure we would be all tough. But I about passed out.”

No need to apologize.

It’s perfectly OK to be happy and tough at the same time.

For evidence, look no further than Ditka, the 74-year-old franchise icon who was honored during a fast, frigid ceremony during halftime of the Bears’ game against the Dallas Cowboys. A sellout crowd roared as the Bears retired Ditka’s No. 89, honoring the hard-nosed tight end who was selected to five Pro Bowls and the spitfire coach who delivered a Super Bowl championship.

Ditka looked tough, too, as stood on the field and waited to be introduced.

The wind chill, which was minus-9 at kickoff, surely had dipped into the negative double digits by this point. Yet Ditka wore no winter hat, no earmuffs, not even an old helmet, as a freezing wind coming in off of Lake Michigan whipped his hair and burned his ears.

After a video presentation and a brief speech by Bears chairman George McCaskey, Ditka grabbed the microphone. He thanked his fans. He thanked his teammates. He thanked his players.

Then he booked it for the semi-warmth of the stadium’s tunnels.

Ditka’s next stop was the interview room, where the team had arranged a news conference.

“OK, we’re going to do this like the old days: Real quick” Ditka barked as he climbed a small stage in front of dozens of reporters and a handful of TV cameras. “Come on.”

Surely, a few of us straightened in our seats.

Yes, sir.

But in the seven-plus minutes that followed, Ditka quickly shed his gruff exterior. He joked about how tough it was to stand in the cold – “Don’t forget, now, I’m pretty old” – and smiled at how his persona has thrived through the decades – “Going through airports is pretty interesting.”

By the time Ditka reminisced on his rookie season in 1961, he was on a roll.

“I was a 22-year-old kid when I came to Chicago,” Ditka said. “I met Mr. Halas. I was dazzled by that $12,000-a-year contract, and then I went out and bought a new car. I had it going.

“A $6,000 signing bonus, and – shoo! – I went out and bought me a 62 Olds Starfire convertible.”

Good stuff.

By now, Ditka can have anything he wants. He has his own restaurants, wine, salsa, cigars, radio show, you name it. And now he has his number retired, one of only 14 Bears players to receive such an honor.

Most importantly, Ditka has perspective.

He’s still tough, mind you.

But just like Randall, the big-city cop, Ditka is not afraid to share his happiness.

“I’m just having fun with it,” Ditka said. “I can tell you, honestly, probably the best thing that happens is when you stop taking yourself so [darn] serious.

“And I quit. I don’t take myself serious. …

“What else you want to know?”

Nothing. You said it all.

Keep smiling.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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