Ditka Returns To Pitt

Former Pitt All-America tight end and Aliquippa, Pa. High School product Mike Ditka has never been shy about commenting on various topics as an NFL analyst for ESPN, and he took time out from his busy schedule promoting his new signature restaurant in the area to visit his alma mater.

Ditka was a unanimous All-America selection in 1960 at Pittsburgh and a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears. Ditka won an NFL title with them, a Super Bowl later with the Dallas Cowboys and coached the Bears to the Super Bowl title as well. He is in both the college and pro football halls of fame and has his No. 89 jersey retired at Pitt.

"I talk to the team all the time about the football tradition here at Pitt, and you can't talk about Pitt tradition without mentioning Mike Ditka,'' Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We're just glad he was able to come here and meet with the players.''

Known as Iron Mike, Ditka spoke passionately about Pittsburgh, his Panthers and the NFL. His message to the Pitt football team was to respect the school and the game.

"The main thing to me was the game,'' Ditka said. "I just enjoyed playing. I wasn't good, but I just played hard. If you play harder than the other guy and hit him harder than he hits you, you're going to win a lot of games. ... I just told them that this is the best time of their life, and they should enjoy it.''

Ditka said that the Panthers were "still a work in progress, but they're gaining confidence. And you can't have success unless you're confident in what you're doing. ... You can be as fancy as you want, but there's no disguise for blocking, tackling and execution.''

Hitting the opposition has been a hot-button topic in the NFL these days, occasionally for the damage it's done to the league's high-profile players, but also for the fines levied on the biggest hitters.

Several Steelers have been fined by the league recently, most notably wideout Hines Ward after the club's games with Jacksonville and Baltimore. He was not penalized during the games. When asked about the situation recently, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said the NFL was becoming a pansy league.

"I don't disagree with him, but it's not a pansy league,'' Ditka said. "You can't legislate hitting out of football. It's impossible. It can't be done. The hit (Ward) made was a completely legitimate hit. People will say that you can't do that, but it's football. It's always been football. ... It's a blindside hit, but it's a hit.

"The first thing you're taught as a defensive player or when you're on special teams is to put your head on a swivel (so you) don't get caught in that position. If this would have happened 40 years ago, nobody would have cared. We were making thousands of dollars. Now, they're making millions.

"Losing players who make that much money, organizations can't afford that,'' Ditka added. "So, that's why they're cracking down. Football's a tough game. You hate to see anyone get hurt. I know what the commissioner is trying to do, but I don't know if taking legal hits out of the game will make a difference.''

Ditka has advocated taking the mask off the helmet for years as a way to change the game. That way, the helmet won't be used as a weapon.

"A lot of pretty boys aren't going to stick their face in there with a mask,'' Ditka said. "If you're going to take hitting out of football, you might as well just call it soccer. A lot of people will be disappointed that I said that, but football is what it is. (Vince) Lombardi said a long time ago that football is not a contact game. Dancing is a contact game. Football is a collision sport.''

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