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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Mike Ditka won Super Bowls as a player, assistant and head coach.

Ditka says player safety tough topic

Jack Lahrman, left, and Michael Lahrman have their picture taken with former Bears coach Mike Ditka at Autumn Ridge Golf Club on Sunday.
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Mike Ditka wears his Super Bowl ring from the 1985 Bears while signing autographs at the Craig Neal/Grant Delagrange Celebrity Golf Classic.

Former NFL player and Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka has had four hip replacements and no regrets.

And he’d still rather take a hit to the head than have his legs taken out.

Ditka – a Pro Football Hall of Fame member who won Super Bowls as a player, assistant and head coach – was in Fort Wayne on Sunday for an appearance at the Craig Neal/Grant Delagrange Celebrity Golf Classic at Autumn Ridge Golf Club.

The 73-year-old is now a NFL analyst with ESPN.

“When you’re young, you play,” he said. “When you’re older, you coach if you can. And when you get real old like me, you become an expert.”

He’s an expert who, like many, isn’t sure where to draw the line on safety measures and penalties in pro football.

Ditka, a former tight end, sees injury in football as a foregone conclusion. If a career lasts long enough, he said, any player is likely to get hurt.

The NFL took steps this offseason to further protect players, with mixed results. Week 2 of the preseason was a prime example, Ditka said: Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic was fined $21,000 for a hit on San Diego receiver Matt Willie that did not draw a penalty.

Two days later, Miami tight end Dustin Keller suffered tears in all three major knee ligaments and a dislocated knee thanks to a low hit from Houston rookie safety D.J. Swearinger. The tackle was widely criticized, but based on league rules, was not finable.

“With the rules in this era,” Swearinger told reporters, “you’ve got to hit low.”

Keller is out for the season, and after such severe trauma to his knee, his career might be in doubt, Ditka said.

“So what’s best?” Ditka said. “What would you rather do? If I was playing football and I was carrying the ball, caught a pass, somebody went for my head – OK. That’s fine. Not my knees. That’s only my opinion.”

Ditka stands by that opinion despite seeing the effects of multiple concussions firsthand.

The quarterback who led the Bears to a Super Bowl title under Ditka in 1986, Jim McMahon, was diagnosed with early-stage dementia – which has been linked to recurring brain damage such as concussions – in September of 2012.

Those experiences stick with the former coach. He said he understands what the NFL is trying to do and is happy the league is trying to find ways to better serve players, both during and after their careers.

It’s a privilege to play pro sports, he said, and there are inherent risks – just as there is an inherent risk in driving, other lines of work and every aspect of life. Players accept those risks because the rewards are worthwhile.

“You play the game hard, and you have a few concussions or head injuries, and it can come back to haunt you. But you don’t think about that when you’re playing,” Ditka said.

“I know what the league’s trying to do is right, but I don’t know if you can. If you do, is it football anymore? I watched the kid from the Bears make a perfect tackle and get fined $21,000.

“I don’t know what they’re looking for.”