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The first tight end ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is also one of only two men to win a Super Bowl as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach. He also happens to be the only individual in modern NFL history to win a championship with the same team as a player and a coach. Those facts paint the picture of Mike Ditka, a legend who has at least three fond memories of Nebraska football that he shared with us this past extended weekend:
1) as a player at Pitt in 1958;
2) as the head coach of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears team that included two former Huskers on its official roster; and
3) as a legend who went to bat publicly to support Tom Osborne, a coach he did not know well, yet was more than willing to accommodate a Nebraska sportswriter to help set the record straight.
We offer this quick-hitting triple after meeting Ditka in the upscale downtown Chicago restaurant that carries his name and serves as his one-hour pregame radio studio before Bears’ games. Ditka built his reputation as a tough, hard-nosed player/coach tracing back to his family’s coal mining, steel manufacturing roots in Western Pennsylvania. Since Michael Jordan moved from the Windy City, even a Friday riverboat tour guide called Ditka the most iconic sports legend still living in Chicago, the national headquarters for the Big Ten, the nation’s oldest conference. Ditka was a gracious celebrity host when he stopped by a table to meet four surprised Husker fans before dinner. From that 10-minute conversation, we share three memorable Ditka moments that intersect with Nebraska football history.
1) On Nov. 15, 1958, Ditka was a starting sophomore tight end and punter on a nationally ranked Pitt team that visited Memorial Stadium. Nebraska won only three of 10 games that season, but the heavy underdog Huskers upset both Penn State (14-7 in State College) and Pitt (14-6). Ditka and the once-beaten Panthers, fresh off a big win over Notre Dame, came into Lincoln as three-touchdown favorites and their eyes on nothing less than a major bowl bid. Ditka, who became a consensus All-America tight end two years later, was a factor in Nebraska’s third-quarter touchdown, managing only a 19-yard punt to his own 42-yard line. Husker halfback Larry Naviaux threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mike Eger and a 2-yard scoring pass to Pat Fischer. Lincoln insurance executive Dick McCashland came up with a critical interception, and local dentist/center Don Fricke delivered a sizable number of key blocks. The Nebraska-Pitt game drew only 24,000 fans. NU students stormed the field after the upset and tried to capture a historical reminder, but the North Stadium’s steel goalposts withstood the assault. Nebraska’s Corn Cob mascot, however, lost his head in the joyous, chaotic celebration. There’s one more ironic footnote to that 1958 season. Before Saturday’s Nebraska-Purdue game in West Lafayette, the only other time the two schools have met was that same ‘58 season when the Boilermakers blanked the Huskers, 28-zip. Fifty-five years later, Nebraska’s Blackshirts fell 39 seconds short of pitching a shutout at Purdue. A 55-yard touchdown reception spoiled that piece of trivia, but let the record show that Tommy Armstrong Jr. became the first Husker in history to score against the Boilermakers in football with a 3-yard keeper less than six minutes into the game.
2) The two former Huskers who were members of Ditka’s 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears team were tight end Mitch Krenk and defensive lineman Henry Waechter. Ditka can’t remember coaching many Huskers, but he has no trouble recalling those two. Krenk was a walk-on from Nebraska City. He worked his way up from seventh-team to major playing time at Nebraska. Even though he was placed on injured reserve status in ‘85, Ditka said Krenk (who made the Bears in both ’84 and ’85) was “a good man” and earned his Super Bowl ring and the bonus money that came with it. Waechter also fit in well with Ditka and earned his own niche in Super Bowl history. The Bears flattened the New England Patriots, 46-10, in New Orleans’ Super Bowl XX. The lopsided game was the first to draw more than 90 million television viewers. In the fourth quarter, after former Husker/NFL Hall-of-Famer Irving Fryar caught a touchdown pass from Patriot quarterback Steve Grogan, Waechter registered the game’s final two points, sacking Grogan in the end zone for a safety. A native of Epworth, Iowa, Waechter joined the Bears in 1982. He played for the Baltimore Colts in ’83 before returning to the Bears in ’84, ’85 and ’86. “Henry never said a word,” Ditka told me. “He just did his job.” I saw Waechter minutes after the Purdue game Saturday in West Lafayette and shared Ditka’s comments. Waechter smiled. “I played for the Bears again the season after we won the Super Bowl, but Mike let me go after that, so I ended playing my last year with the Redskins,” he said. “Three years after Mike cut me, he told me he made a mistake doing what he did because I was always positive, played hard and did what I was supposed to do. That meant a lot to me. I loved playing for the Bears.”
3) Retired Omaha World-Herald Sports Editor Steve Sinclair is a lifelong Chicago fan who tries to attend at least one Bears’ game a year at Soldier Field. He was with me when Ditka stopped to chat in his restaurant. Sinclair shared a personal story with Iron Mike that involved Ditka speaking at a University of Nebraska Medical Center banquet in Omaha. Since Osborne had been the target of statewide criticism that week more than two decades ago, Sinclair asked Ditka for his take on Osborne, a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. “I don’t know if you remember that interview, but you were very quick to support Tom, and Tom wrote a letter three days later to thank me for writing it,” Sinclair told Ditka. Still a weekly NFL analyst for ESPN, Ditka had the perfect sound bite to put a wrap on the conversation: “Tom Osborne was a great coach and an even better man.”
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