Mike Ditka is an NFL legend. He was the first Tight End ever elected into the National Football League Hall of Fame. The man famous for his moustache and sweater is part of the one of the most exclusive fraternities, being elected to the Hall of Fame both as an NFL player, and as an NFL coach. This Monday at the Bears/Cowboys Monday Night Football game, the iconic Ditka accepted one of the greatest individual accomplishments a player can get in professional sports: his number, 89, was retired. From Monday forward, no player for the Chicago Bears will ever wear number 89, because 89 stands for Mike Ditka.
Growing up as a kid, I was fascinated with Ditka and the Bears. My all-time favorite NFL player is the late Walter Payton. My book reports, biographies, and spending money went to researching and capturing the magic of the ’85 Bears team. But amid all the talk of Payton, McMahon, Singletary and Butkus stood the square jawed “Iron Mike.” This week was filled with an equal amount of memorable fanfare as the NFL and sporting world stopped to celebrate the accomplishments of Ditka.
I was listening to a radio interview with Ditka on ESPN radio, and heard him mention something that hit me with all the force Ditka stirred from his linebackers. The Coach was reflecting on his relationship with the equally as legendary, Tom Landry, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. In 1967, Ditka was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and entered a time which for Ditka was laden with sorrow and depression. In his autobiography Ditka called his stint in Philly, the “low point” of his life, almost killing himself with alcohol. But two years later, in 1969, the down and out Ditka received a call from Landry, inviting him to join the Cowboys.
Ditka said that Landry was willing to take a chance on the washed up Tight End. A chance that paid off as Ditka and the Boys won the Super Bowl in ’71. Ditka was reflecting on this turn of events when he spoke of the role Landry played in his life. He said that during his time with Landry, “I came to understand that there were more important things than me.” His voice salty with tear, the Coach paused on air, gaining his composure before finishing with, “and I said I wouldn’t do that.”
For Ditka, who went on to, and still continues to, do much work with charities including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he could never see himself not being his own god. Mike Ditka wanted the world to bow to Mike Ditka. After success in Chicago, and a flare out in Philly, it took Tom Landry to show The Coach what he never wanted to learn. Ditka did not want to change, but in a humbling, and uncomfortable way, Landry showed him the beauty of change. Ditka thought the best possible life was a life according to self. Tom Landry showed him that life was a charade and a façade, and for the first time, Ditka saw life through new eyes.
I was struck by this line, because this is very telling of all of us. Romans 8:7 tells us that our sinful hearts are hostile towards God, and hostile towards that change. Jesus himself says that the world hates him, because they hate the idea of change that Jesus stands for (John 15:22-25). Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, and take up his life. This stands as a harsh and unacceptable idea to Mike Ditka, and to us. But the beauty of Jesus is that he revealed this need to us through himself. In the same way Landry revealed the hidden need of Ditka’s heart, the gospel is God’s revelation to us. Through the word of God, God shines the light of Christ into the darkest corner of our hearts and forces us to come to grips with who we are not. Jesus is our revelation. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit confronts our hearts with the reality of our sin, and his grace. The truth is, we as humans don’t know what’s best for ourselves. Proverbs 14:12 tells us that the way which seems right to man only ends in death. We need someone to show us the right way. We need someone to show us the greater life. That someone is Jesus (John 14:6). The life change that comes from this realization can’t even be touched by the accolades of one of football’s greatest men.
If Landry had not shown Ditka the painful realization that “Mike is not King,” who knows what Ditka’s legacy would have been. But Ditka did what he swore he would never do, because he was made aware of a greater reality. We, as Christians are doing what our sinful hearts dreaded the most, because God’s revelation to us in Christ is more attractive than we could ever imagine.