When he was struck we all said of course, of course, it was bound to happen: those cigars, those fists hurled into unyielding objects, the throwing of clipboards, the yelling at players and reporters and fans, the DWI (showed irresponsibility, we thought, compounded by bad luck). Of course, of course, we said--type A, what did you expect? He deserved it, in a way. Though he was a folk hero. (That's what the paper called him.) The city was especially protective of folk heroes, having lost one, a twice-elected one, nearly a year before. That folk hero's heart blew up almost, it was so big, but he was asking for it too--compulsive eater of fried objects, nonexerciser who looked it. Harold Washington didn't work out like Mike Ditka did, Ditka the Fanatic, who set his alarm for 3 AM for his 250 sit-ups, his flexing and weight lifting. (He did his exercises that day but that wasn't what sent him to the ER, said his doctor.) What was it he did, newly 49, was he punished for toying with the gods, a grown man displaying his toddler's hot temper, on TV and all, nationwide, bad example to kids? Fresh out of the hospital, he was back again, throwing the big j'accuse at USA Today, speculating that the sports-loving paper could be guilty of "blasphemy" for reporting that he, the new-erected Pillar of Calm, had been "enraged" during a Bears-Tampa Bay game. He wasn't a screamer anymore, not he, the brand-new shining Ditka, a God-fearing Ditka (not that he ever hesitated to bring God into it, revamping the Lord's Prayer before the bowl of bowls: "Father, we ask that you may protect all the players in the game so that they may play the game free from injury").
But we in the big heartland city, we forgive all because he loves us, loves the city, loves it to death, jokes with death (just fooling, folks, Grim Reaper's too feeble to arm-wrestle Iron Mike), jokes while watching the ultrasound screen: "Gee, I see my heart. A lot of people don't think I have one." And we in turn can joke and say, a sign from heaven, maybe, that mild pain while he was blow-drying his hair on the way to introduce the harbinger of a gentler, kinder nation, George Bush, a warning: look what happens when you go around endorsing Republicans.
Like most attacks, this one, the most internal of all, increased his celebrity; his acute inferior myocardial infarction was top strip in the papers, over news of Bush's and Dukakis's chances in Illinois, over inadequate evacuation plans in arms plants. Drawings in both papers laid out for us his heart's affected bottom wall. He was even accorded a main story in the sports pages of the New York Times.
A folk hero? Why? Because he rants and raves and has a personality (an impatience, a do-it-now-ness about him so that his wife Diana wondered how she was going to keep the convalescent entertained at home--Monopoly? Paint-by- number?), an electricity, because he chews people out (which may be an outlet, a saving grace, local cardiologists told reporters), because he turned the team around? Because the Bears won. They won. Now he's recovered and he's not allowed cigars and he's back in the game, a gentler, kinder Ditka, grateful for life almost lost.
His doctor said he had turned introspective. His wife talked about the real game, the game of life, and you'd think that ex-football players would ponder their corporeal limits all the time, as they bang parts of their bodies against other parts that oughtn't to be banging at anything, and seek repair through acupuncture and massage and surgeries and applications of heat and cold, all so they can go out and do it again. And if players and the men who direct their movements are not thinking of the body-body problem, what are they thinking of?--must be room for more in their brains than thoughts of strategy and money.
Ditka's important because he's well-known and, as he answered, perhaps rhetorically, a schoolteacher who said she'd be fired if she treated the kids the way he did his players: do your students get paid $500,000 to $600,000?
And do they win the all-American game through mud and weather, which turns them into folk heroes?
It does no good to point out there should be worthier folk heroes, someone who's done something about, say, housing (has anybody lately?) or disease or rights, someone who doesn't get notoriety from losing his temper and throwing things any kindergartner would be punished for throwing, someone who's done more than get large, strong men to tear and twist and bang their limbs for bucks and glory, which gives them the opportunity to endorse HMOs and taco joints and shiny vehicles that eventually can kill you, if you take a wrong turn--just like nearly everything else.