Mike Ditka takes his own plane to Charlotte Friday. I don’t know if he’s in the cockpit, but he’s Ditka, so of course he’s in the cockpit.
I bet he lands on Tryon Street and parallel parks and, because he’s Ditka, doesn’t get a ticket.
Ditka, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, speaks to the Charlotte Touchdown Club at The Westin hotel Friday, and every seat is occupied and every table full.
He’s 74 but he looks like he’s supposed to look, and he sounds like he’s supposed to sound. What do you expect? He’s Ditka.
“He’s still sharp,” says Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil, one of several Panthers players and coaches to attend.
Ditka’s golden hair is slicked back, and his mustache is thick, and he wears a black jacket with an American flag pin in the lapel and a black shirt.
Ditka won a Super Bowl as a tight end, as an assistant coach and as a head coach. Panthers coach Ron Rivera played for Ditka in Chicago.
One night at training camp, Rivera – who introduces Ditka on Friday– and a few teammates sneak out after curfew and go to the VFW to drink a few beers and shoot pool.
When the round comes, they pull out their wallets, and the waitress says coach Ditka already paid.
Ditka walks over, drinks a beer, shoots a little pool. The players wait for Ditka to go off on them. All Ditka says is that he’d better go because he has practice in the morning.
In the morning, on the practice field, Ditka summons the players. Now he’s going to go off. All he says is that if they’re going to “hoot with the owls, they better fly with the eagles.”
Practice is fantastic.
“We didn’t want to let him down,” Rivera says.
I ask Ditka about the way he handled the curfew violation.
“What the hell would a coach do without players?” he asks. He adds: “I did that when I was a player.”
Ditka’s message is simple.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he says.
Ditka does say that. He always wanted to. But this isn’t his message.
Says Ditka: “Life is not what you want it to be. It’s what you make it.”
Don’t listen to people who tell you what you can’t do, he says.
If your attitude is bad, you’ll never accomplish anything, and you’ll be a pain to be around, he says.
Says Ditka: “You’re not guaranteed anything in life but an opportunity.”
Rivera occasionally takes notes as Ditka speaks.
Ditka says that if somebody gives you something, you remember it for awhile. He sticks a finger in the air for emphasis as he says that what you earn lasts a lifetime.
Ditka says: “I am a professional sleeper right now.” He says he might fall asleep as he talks.
Ditka, an ESPN NFL analyst, fell asleep during a “Sunday Countdown” segment in late December featuring the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Most viewers didn’t nod off until the game began.
Ditka says he made $12,000 as a first-round draft choice in 1961 and received a $6,000 bonus. He was rookie of the year, and Chicago coach George Halas called him in and told him he was getting a raise – to $14,000.
That’s less than he made as a rookie, Ditka responded. It’s $2,000 more, Halas said. Ditka said he wasn’t signing for less than $18,000. Halas pulled a contract out of his desk. It was for $18,000. Ditka signed.
Ditka told stories Friday and recited a piece of a poem he’d memorized, “The Person in the Mirror.” He invoked Abe Lincoln. He invoked Stan Musial, who like Ditka is from western Pennsylvania. Ditka signed autographs and posed for pictures. The autograph line is the longest in the club’s 23-year history.
In the line is Providence Day football coach Bruce Hardin. Hardin, who this fall will begin his 49th year of coaching, is one of the top coaches Charlotte has had.
“His toughness,” says Hardin, when I ask what he admires about Ditka. “His honesty. He’s old school. He’s an inspiration.”
Ditka tells the crowd Rivera will win a Super Bowl with the Panthers. Later, as Ditka signs autographs for two police officers, I ask why.
Rivera, he says, is a smart and natural leader who as an outside linebacker often directed his teammates.
Rivera “understands that life is a process of setting goals and reaching goals and resetting goals,” Ditka says as he poses with a woman as her friend takes their picture. “You have to have goals, and you have to have methods to reach those goals. I mean, you just can’t say: ‘We’re gonna win the Super Bowl!’ How are you going to do it?”
I tell Ditka I admire what he says about opportunity, that it’s out there if you recognize it.
“It’s out there regardless of whether you recognize it,” Ditka says.
Ditka believes in us, believes that if we work, we’ll achieve.
We, in turn, believe in Ditka.
That could be him in the cockpit high above the Westin, soaring with the eagles and presumably wide awake.