The NFL Network's popular documentary series continues Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET with "Mike Ditka: A Football Life." Here, NFL Network contributor Tom Waddle recalls what it was like to play for the legendary coach.
What you see is what you get. There is no better way to describe the NFL legend that is Mike Ditka. If you're brave enough to ask him a question, be prepared for brutal honesty. While Father Time might have softened some of the edges, Da Coach is gonna stare you down and shoot you straight.
It took me quite a while to figure that out. It wasn't because he ever lied to me, but because it took a couple of years to muster up the courage to look him in the eye.
As an undrafted free agent receiver who cranked out a 4.78 40-yard dash at the 1989 NFL Scouting Combine, all I was looking for was a chance to realize my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. Mike Ditka gave me that chance. Yes, he cut me four separate times, but he kept bringing me back, recognizing what the game meant to me and how hard I was willing to work to make his team.
I've always believed that the two most important commodities in this vicious game are honesty and loyalty. They are the foundation of a trust that has to exist between a player and coach. The coach must know that you are giving everything you have, willing to make whatever sacrifice is necessary for the good of the team. In return, a player deserves to know where he stands every day he takes the field.
Mike Ditka was loyal and honest. To a fault sometimes. He could test your spirit with his brutally honest evaluation of your performance. At times, his words could bring you to tears, but days later you knew that message was spot on.
Early in my career, I bounced from the practice squad to the active roster. Two years in, I had a total of three catches for 40 yards. Mike encouraged me to keep working, saying that my time would come.
Opening game of the season in 1991, we're playing the Vikings and I'm dressed but not expecting to play. Halfway through the first quarter, I hear coach call my name. I quickly ran over and asked what was up. Coach yelled, "You have to go in!" Inexplicably, I answered, "Why?"
The response caught him by surprise, but after a deep breath he added, "Because Anthony Morgan is coming off on a stretcher and I don't have anyone else to put in! Don't try to run too fast or jump too high -- you can't do either. Just do what you've done in practice the last two years!"
I accepted the honesty and went out and did what he asked, converting a third-and-8 and later catching a 37-yard touchdown pass. We beat the Vikings that day, 10-6. I had made it.
Thanks to Mike's honesty and loyalty, I had a very modest six-year career in the NFL, made possible by the man in Chicago we still call "Da Coach."
Very few people in life have the ability to get more out of you than you ever believed was humanly possible. Mike Ditka is one of those people.
Tom Waddle, an NFL Network analyst who appears on GameDay Scoreboard and NFL Total Access, played in the NFL from 1989-95. Learn more about Tom here.