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When His Fighting Heart Gives Mike Ditka a Message, He Listens Politely and Goes Back to Coaching

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Brawling and broad-shouldered, volcanic and vitriolic, Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka might have been created by the Bears’ crusty founder, George Halas, with footnotes by Carl Sandburg. He is not only a Super Bowl winner as both player and coach. He is also the symbol of the brawn of his city and the ferocity of his team.

But on a recent morning in his office, Ditka, 49, was studying the label on a box of crackers, checking the ingredients in sodium-free Triscuits. The athlete who was once the prototypical tight end in football, an aggressive proponent of straight-ahead blocking and straight bourbon whiskey, was worried about the nutritional value of a snack. If a Triscuit without salt sounds about as entertaining as a Bears game without a quarter-back sack, consider the sudden plight of a coach reduced to squinting at fine print.

“It’s pretty humbling,” Ditka says, “to find out that the body you’ve always counted on can betray you.”

Ditka suffered a minor heart attack last month. He has since rushed back—some say prematurely—into the National Football League playoff race. But even as he tempers his schedule of 14-hour workdays and tries to put the incident behind him, he remains aware of the hazards that might stagger him again. A heart attack is only minor when it happens to somebody else.

“I wouldn’t want to say I thought of myself as invincible,” he says. “But ‘bulletproof probably applies. I always figured that health trouble was something that happened to the guy down the block.”

When the heart attack struck, he refused to recognize it. “I finished working out that morning,” he recalls, “and I sat in the sauna for maybe five minutes. When I came out, I felt chest pains. But I was supposed to introduce Vice-President Bush [at a campaign rally near the Bears training camp in Lake Forest, III.]. So I struggled and got my coat and tie on, even though I was in a cold sweat that wouldn’t stop.”

When two of his assistants took a look at him and insisted that he go to the hospital, Ditka refused.

“No, I have to meet the Vice-President,” he said. Looking back, he recalls, “I was covered with sweat and felt like there was a vise around my chest, so I knew on one level what was happening. But I kept figuring it couldn’t be happening to me.”

Hours later, he was in the cardiac unit at Lake Forest Hospital, convinced. “You face reality, like it or not, when you lie in a bed for seven days and see people come in and not leave alive,” he says. But when he left that bed and patrolled the sidelines of a Bears game with the Washington Redskins only 11 days later, some critics wondered if he had gotten the message. Last week, when his aerobics instructor began to lecture him about stress, he interrupted: “Nancy, I’ll give you the definition of stress. It’s me sitting here this morning when I’m dying to be in my office looking at game films.”

Ditka’s doctor, cardiologist Jay Alexander, has called him one of the great rationalizers of all time. Among his patient’s unsubstantiated theories on personal well-being is a belief that recuperation can take place in the calming confines of a football stadium. “When I watched one game in the hospital,” says Ditka, “I started with a pulse rate of 64. We blew two third-down plays in the first quarter, and it went up to 124. So how much worse can the tension be on the sidelines?”

It has usually been true that wherever Ditka goes, anxiety follows. Raised in a housing project in Aliquippa, Pa., by a hot-tempered Ukrainian steelworker father and an equally volatile Irish-German mother, he has always been ready for a good fight or a good time. A highly publicized drunk-driving arrest in 1985 (he was fined $300) has also contributed to the hell-raising image that has traditionally been a part of being a Chicago Bear. “The Bears all hate each other,” an old Green Bay Packers defensive tackle once said. “But they hate us other guys more.”

These days, a surprisingly serene Ditka spends most of his evenings relaxing at his Grayslake, III., home with his wife, Diana, 45. “He’s changed a lot,” she says. “Just the other day I was watching old videos of him exploding on the sidelines, and he looked like a different person. Now we’ve got this wonderful new house we’re moving into, and while we’re decorating it, we haven’t had one fight.” Only on the sidelines does the old Ditka, the jut-jawed combatant, emerge.

“Mike coaches by crisis,” says his friend Jerry Vainisi, the general manager of the Bears’ championship team of 1985, now an executive with the rival Detroit Lions. “He’s always generating something that he or the team has to fight and overcome.”

“A game should be a crisis,” Ditka responds. “There is a tremendous urgency about this business that begins with the fact that the players know they have a short career span. They also better know how to enjoy victory when they get it.”

Ditka was no different during a playing career that lasted from 1961 to 1972 and led to the NFL Hall of Fame. As a tight end who expanded the definition of the position—catching passes as well as blocking—he hurled himself about so recklessly that he now walks with an artificial hip and nagging foot injuries.

“He always had intensity and dedication,” says Ed O’Bradovich, a punishing defensive end who won games and closed saloons with Ditka in the early ’60s. “You look at those old Bears, and you’re looking at some pretty tough people.”

As a coach, Ditka throws himself just as willingly into battles with the characters he seems to attract: flashy quarterback Jim McMahon, feisty former defensive aide Buddy Ryan and the world’s most talented overeater, William “the Refrigerator” Perry. “I can’t change,” says Ditka. “But I’m trying to learn from coaches like Don Shula and Tom Landry. They get mad, but they control it. I haven’t always been known for my control. But I’m working on it now.”

This formidable project has begun with some self-education. “My knowledge of the heart was that it had an aorta someplace and some valves nearby,” he says. “Most, of us know more about our cars than our hearts. But I’m starting to learn what’s good for me. I’ve switched from running and weight-training to aerobics. I have discipline, so I’ll have no trouble staying off high-cholesterol foods, red meat, alcohol or cigars. In fact, I was hardly drinking before the attack. And the cigars were just pacifiers. I didn’t inhale them.”

Diana has been another peacekeeping influence. “I never want to be an old bitch or a nag,” she says. “I just try to give him choices. Like, do you want to do everything people ask of you, or do you want to rest? I guess I’m really trying to teach him how to say no.”

Diana has also gotten into the requisite family health kick by trying to quit smoking, but, she says, “I’m not doing great at it. I’m down from a pack a day to about four cigarettes a day. But when Mike was sick, I was doing 1½ packs. Five years ago, I managed to quit smoking completely. But I’m a tall and willowy person, and I gained 25 pounds. Mike looked at me sympathetically and said, ‘You’re getting fat.’ ”

Ditka usually reserved that kind of blunt commentary for his former assistant coach, Ryan, defensive architect of the Bears’ Super Bowl win. Ryan, now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, had a reputation for agreeing with Ditka as infrequently as possible when they worked together. But he was among the first concerned callers to the Bears’ offices when he learned of Ditka’s illness. He also seems to share Ditka’s gut feeling that the strain of coaching football shouldn’t be fatal.

“Stress is patrolling a rice paddy in Asia, or hearing that the mole on your back is cancer,” says Ryan. “Football stress ain’t going to kill any of us.” This time around, it hasn’t stopped Ditka from grabbing all he can out of life. It has just made him pause to read the warning labels.