PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — In his first season as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, Mike Ditka knew he needed to make a major change.
As his Bears gathered for their first training camp under Ditka at their practice facility in Lake Forest, Ill., Ditka noticed every player’s family came along.
That, he said, needed to change. And that’s where Platteville came in.
“Training camp is supposed to be something for the players to bond, to become teammates, to get each others’ back,” Ditka said as he delivered the keynote speech at the Pioneer Catholic fundraiser for Saint Augustine University Parish on Saturday night on the campus of University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “Not that this is wrong, but every wife and every kid was right there. And their mind couldn’t be on football, it couldn’t stay on football, so I said we had to get out of there. We had to get out of Lake Forest.”
Ditka credited former Bears general manager and friend Jerry Vainisi for finding Platteville. The Bears held their training camps in the city from 1984 to 2001.
“It was great,” Ditka said. “Our players loved it here. We practiced hard, and we played hard.”
Ditka spoke for about 15 minutes, then took questions from the crowd of a couple hundred people for close to 30 minutes. Questions ranged from his favorite Bears players to what message he would deliver to parents of children playing football. He spoke about Bart Starr and Walter Payton and the evolution of William Perry’s role on offense.
“My life with the Bears was very good. I was very blessed,” Ditka said.
The 1985 Bears and Chicago’s last Super Bowl championship team was brought up, and how the game today has changed from the game he played and coached.
“I don’t know what it’s like today. I don’t coach today. I know what it was like 40 years ago when I did,” Ditka said. “I knew the kind of guys we had, the kind of players they were. And I knew what their will was, and I knew that they had a great desire to succeed. All I had to do was find a way to do it. But we found a way to do it. It only happened once. Sometimes good things in life only happen one time. But the effect it had was great. It carried through that whole community, and it carried through that whole city. Could we have done more? Probably. But we had to play the Packers. They weren’t going to let us.”
Before throwing it out for questions, Ditka remembered his friend, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, who died last week.
“Bart was a good man. He was a good friend. He was just a great football player, but he was a better husband and a better father,” Ditka said.
But Payton, he said, was the greatest football player he’s ever seen.
“First time I ran into Sweetness, first time I ever saw him, I was coaching with the Dallas Cowboys,” Ditka recalled. “I put the film on, and after I watched the film, I went in to see Coach (Tom) Landry and I said, ‘Coach, did you watch this No. 34 with the Bears?’ He said, 'Yeah, I know who he is.' I said, 'He is the best football player I’ve ever seen.' I told Tom Landry that. And he was the best player I’ve ever seen.
“And he was one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He was such a great example of the way you play the game and the hustle and the effort you put out. He wasn’t a natural. Everything he did was based on hard work in practice.”
As far as the message to parents of youth football players?
“I would tell them it’s a tough sport. It really is,” he said. “Maybe put a baseball bat in their hands.”