I never doubted he would be an instant All-Pro.
From the first time I saw him in the Chicago Bears' training camp at Rensselaer, Ind., Mike Ditka looked and acted the part.He had everything - the boyish face of the kid next door, a crewcut of the All-America mold and a body that looked as if it had been built for a physical culture magazine.
Ditka knew how to cuss. He even knew how to talk to sportswriters without demeaning them. He knew when it was his turn to buy a round of beers. Most of all, he knew how to block and catch passes.
He performed those two functions with a passion seldom seen on a football field, especially by a rookie. And even in practice, when almost everybody else yearned to take it easy.
"He was one of the hardest practice players I ever saw," Ditka's coach, George Halas, once told me. Years later, Halas was to hire Ditka as his head coach with the hope Ditka could instill his old-time fervor into a lackluster squad. Super Bowl XX was the result.
Ditka was an immediate star, just as expected. He was the NFL Rookie of the Year and an All-Pro in 1961. He went on to play in five Pro Bowls in his 12-year pro career.
Two incidents on the field exemplify the way Ditka played the game.
One muggy day in Los Angeles, a Rams fan wandered onto the field and made the mistake of approaching the Bears' No. 89.
Ditka decked him with a right-hand haymaker that would have made boxing promoter Don King's hair lie down.
"I didn't think the guy belonged out there," Ditka explained. "The field is for players and officials. I wasn't wrong. The guy who was wrong was the guy who was on the field. That man got in my way.
"Those are the people who don't fit in society. Those are the misfits. They're the goofballs in life. We should stop tolerating them."
The other episode that epitomizes Ditka's toughness and intensity occurred in a crucial November game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh during the Bears' 1963 championship season.
It was a day of national tension and hysteria following the assassination of President John Kennedy, a day when Commissioner Pete Rozelle unwisely decided the NFL should play. The atmosphere became even more charged with emotion when Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's accused assassin, was killed by Jack Ruby only two hours before the Bears and the Steelers kicked off.
It was in this setting that the two teams battled to a 17-17 tie in a game in which tempers frequently erupted. After quarterback Bill Wade, on his own 3-yard line, tried inexplicably to throw a screen pass to fullback Joe Marconi, the pass sailed into the hands of Steeler linebacker John Reger, who was so startled he dropped the ball. He could have walked into the end zone.
But the big play, the play for which Ditka will be best remembered, came with the Bears trailing 17-14 in the fourth quarter. They faced third and 35 from their own 22. Ditka had been catching passes against the Steeler defense, and Wade wanted one more big reception out of his tight end.
"Think you can run a deep corner pattern?" the Bear quarterback asked Ditka.
"I really don't have any gas left," Ditka replied honestly. "I'll go down 12 or 13 yards and turn away from the linebacker. Try to hit me in the hole and I'll try to get us moving. We don't have to do it all in one play."
But, as it turned out, Ditka did do it all in one play. He cradled Wade's short pass and headed upfield. Steeler after Steeler climbed on the back of the big man, but Ditka kept running until he collapsed on the Pittsburgh 15, some 63 yards from the scrimmage line, with half the Pittsburgh team on top of him.
Ditka's herculean effort set up Roger Leclerc's 17-yard field goal that gave the Bears the tie they needed to stay in first place in their conference.
Ditka will be the 21st Bear admitted to pro football's citadel. But he will be the first tight end.