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June 5, 2013

Countdown to Labor Day: 89



The countdown to the start of the 2013 season is under way, as Pitt is 89 days away from its Labor Day opener against Florida State at Heinz Field. Panther-Lair.com is counting down the days until the biggest season opener in recent memory.

Today's number is 89, so we're looking at Pitt's No. 89, one of the most iconic figures in the history of Pitt football, the history of Pittsburgh football, and the game of football itself:

Mike Ditka.

In sports, there are nicknames that grow from a passing mention into habit, monikers that had a connection to a significant act or event but evolved into a reference without a recognizable point of origin. Not every nickname is still relevant 50 years later.

Mike Ditka never stopped being "Iron Mike." Whether he was starring at Pitt, building a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, storming the sidelines as head coach of the Bears, or growling admonitions as an analyst on ESPN, Ditka was always Iron Mike.

Which is to say, Ditka was always Ditka.

50-plus years after he finished his Pitt career, Ditka's statistics and on-field accomplishments seem like arbitrary side notes to the long shadow he casts. A graduate of Aliquippa High School's classrooms and a product of that region's mentality, Ditka was one of the most ferocious and tenacious - and any other adjective that attempts but fails to describe the kind of spirit he played with - men to step on the football field at Pitt or any other school. Stories of Ditka's adversarial encounters with opponents and teammates don't seem to necessitate exaggeration; he drew from aggression on every play, and if an opponent stood in his way or a teammate didn't match his effort, there would be trouble.

That drive, determination, and defiance defined Ditka throughout his career in football, but his on-field accomplishments bear mention. For three consecutive years from 1958-60 he led Pitt in receiving at a time when, as he says it, the tight end was considered to be an extra offensive tackle. He also played on defense and punted, and when he wasn't on the football field, Ditka played baseball and basketball at Pitt, as well as having quite a bit of success in the school's intramural wrestling program.

Ditka finished his Pitt career as a unanimous All-America selection in 1960 and was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 1961 NFL draft. As a pro, Ditka was part of the tight end revolution, catching 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns, numbers that would be phenomenal even in today's pass-happy NFL. For that production, Ditka was named the NFL Rookie of the Year; he also earned All-NFL honors each of his first four seasons and was a perennial Pro Bowl selection from 1961-65.

Ditka won the NFL Championships with the Bears in 1963 and the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys in 1971 (legendary Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubauch credited Ditka as a leader on that team). He retired after the 1972 season, capping a 12-year career that saw him catch 427 passes for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns. He won his third championship ring in 1985 as head coach of the Bears.

In 1986 he was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame, and two years later he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (where he was the first tight end to be so honored). In 1997, Pitt retired his number - 89 - at halftime of a game against Miami.

The game of football has changed on both the college and pro levels, moving toward something other than what it was when Ditka made himself a legend. But even as the game evolves, even as physicality seems to be stifled, even as cerebral wizardry threatens to suffocate the brutality that the game has been known for over the last 100 years, there are still clichés in football, ideals that sometimes seem antiquated but never totally disappear, concepts of what a player should be and how he should attack the game.

Ditka is the cliché in football. Ditka is the ideal that sometimes seems antiquated but never totally disappears. Ditka is the concept of what a player should be and how he should attack the game. He defined it 50 years ago, and the model he forged still stands.

Ditka is Iron Mike.


Countdown: 90 - The four 9-0's
Countdown: 91 - The two longest plays in Pitt history
Countdown: 92 - The senior year of the most productive QB in Pitt history
Countdown: 93 - The only 9-3 season in Pitt history
Countdown: 94 - The statistical oddity of 1994
Countdown: 95 - A relentless player and his dominant season
Countdown: 96 - The biggest win in Pitt history
Countdown: 97 - A dominant current Panther
Countdown: 98 - A transition year
Countdown: 99 - Hugh Green
Countdown: 100 - A look at Pitt in 1913







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