Little praise for this Ditka
The stiffness in his walk was familiar; the stiffness in his upper lip was not. As Mike Ditka began what could have been - and should have been - his final trek from the Tampa Stadium field, it seemed he was intent on leaving a memory of passiveness. He moved slowly, as he does, and his face was benign despite a 20-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bears had missed a last-second field goal that would have forced overtime, but there was no anger apparent. Ditka had a handshake for Bucs linebacker Jimmy Williams. He had a smile for tight end Tyji Armstrong. He walked away from the bright lights, toward the darkness of the tunnel, and his face told of an acceptance of the things that had occurred. It was a nice picture, while it lasted.

Once, as Ditka walked off this field, there was adulation to wade through. There are so many Chicago fans around here that during a Bucs-Bears game, this resembles nothing quite so much as Half-and-Half Stadium. Once, the fans leaned to touch him, to praise him, to catch his eye. This time, however, the words hit Ditka as he cleared the South end zone. The voice was harsh, and the words were worse - profane labels of the misery that has enveloped a suddenly toothless franchise. "Hey, Ditka," the fan yelled. "F--- you. You suck. Retire."

Suddenly, Ditka was back in full snarl. He leaned across the railing, his rage unbridled. He pointed to the fan, screamed at him, beckoned him to come closer. The fan stood and continued to yell. An offensive tackle named Stan Thomas heard the shouting. He looked up and was surprised by what he saw. "It was a Bears fan," he said, shaking his head. "I thought it would be someone from Tampa, but this was one of our own guys."

Such is the popularity of Mike Ditka, football coach, 1992. Once, he was the toast of Chicago, if not the entire NFL. Now, he appears to be a man in self-parody, trying in vain not to unravel before his football team does. This year, he has taken on the world. He has berated his quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. He has taken on Ed O'Bradovich, who once presented him into the Hall of Fame and whose son married Ditka's daughter. He has invited one radio show caller, the famed Neal from Northlake, to meet him at his office so the two could fight.

Now, here he was, yelling over the rail and inviting a fan to come on down. "He called me a bad name, and I called him one," was Ditka's explanation. This wasn't the first insult directed toward Ditka. In Chicago, the popular question is whether Ditka has become more celebrity than football coach. Some wonder if his heart is still in his job; others wonder if his head is. Sunday, at Tampa Stadium, he left both questions open to debate.

First things first: The Bears as a football team are not very good. They are slow offensively and passive defensively. Their stars are growing old, and there are no young players who appear ready to step into stardom. If you look at their 4-6 record, the four is more of a fluke than the six. That said, Ditka the football coach didn't have a very good day.

Consider the closing moments. Harbaugh had passed the Bears from their 28 to the Bucs' 32. Only 28 seconds remained, and Chicago needed another 10 yards or so to give kicker Kevin Butler a legitimate shot of forcing overtime. And the Bears, with no timeouts remaining, ran the ball. Neal Anderson went up the middle for a yard, and 15 seconds - two plays - disappeared from the clock.

That damage done, the Bears had to turn to Butler to win the game from 44 yards. But Butler, too, carried his own particular baggage onto the field. In the third period, Butler had hooked a kickoff out of bounds. When he reached the sidelines, Ditka was irate. "He told me I was gutless," Butler said. "He said I was mentally weak, that I was the worst kickoff guy in the league."

Kickers, mind you, live in fragile housing. And this was the mental state that Ditka had left his kicker, all because of an out-of-bounds kickoff that led to nothing. Butler said the dressing-down had nothing to do with his missed field goal at the end. But could it have helped? Was it worth the possible price?

For Ditka, the latter question is the most important. He talks at times of rebuilding the Bears, at times of walking away from a career he seems not to need so much anymore. Funny. These days, it is difficult to tell which of those statements is to be considered a threat.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1992