The 1985 Chicago Bears embodied hard-nosed football, but three decades later their equally tough-minded Hall of Fame coach — who once famously declared, "If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn't have given us arms" — is rethinking his game plan.
That's right: Even Mike Ditka is questioning the violent nature of the sport in the wake of advancements in concussion research and his own experience with veterans plagued by health problems.
In an upcoming HBO "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" feature on a Bears squad that President Barack Obama dubbed "the greatest team in NFL history," Ditka says "the risk is worse than the reward" of playing football, telling Gumbel he would dissuade children from participating in the sport.
Thanks to a transcription from ChicagoFootball.com, here is the exchange between Ditka and Gumbel.
"If you had an 8-year-old kid now, would you tell him you want him to play football?" Ditka asks Gumbel.
When Gumbel answers that he wouldn’t, he returns to the question to Ditka. Ditka shakes his head no.
"Nope — and that’s sad," Ditka said in the piece. "I wouldn’t. My whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do."
Reinforcing Ditka's point, former Bears defensive end Richard Dent and quarterback Jim McMahon detail their respective post-playing health conditions in the HBO feature, which is scheduled to air Tuesday. Dent outlined the team's use of painkillers and alcohol as postgame treatment and describes himself as "damaged goods." Meanwhile, McMahon suffers from early onset dementia and says he understands the suicide of teammate Dave Duerson, who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
For the record, the 75-year-old Ditka has four children all born well before researchers discovered CTE — a degenerative brain disease — can result from the kind of repetitive head trauma often seen in football.
In addition to the experiences of his ex-players, Ditka has a wealth of knowledge on the subject, serving as president of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund's efforts to provide support for retired NFL players. In the HBO feature, the former Bears coach expresses his desire for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to implement additional policies benefiting those affected by the violent nature of the sport.
As Ditka said, "You wouldn't have a damn job right now if it wasn't for those guys."