"What we wanted to do, coming out of training camp," Mike Ditka was saying, "was to put a chip on our shoulder and carry it as far as we could go."
Some chip; some shoulder.
However large it might be, the chip the Chicago Bears have carried to the NFC title game here Sunday against the 49ers cannot be as enormous as the one their coach toted a generation ago.
"Gutsiest football player ever," Fran Tarkenton said of tight end Ditka.
More likely to ring your bell than shake your hand, John Brodie observed, though his references were a bit more earthy.
Ditka once slugged a drunken fan who staggered onto the field during an exhibition game; another time he either carried on his back or broke tackles by nine Pittsburgh Steelers on a long haul with the ball.
In the 1963 NFL title game, the Giants' Sam Huff figured the only way to even neutralize Ditka's forearm mayhem over the middle was to counterpunch. Literally.
First Bears play from scrimmage, Huff ordered his partner at linebacker to clobber Ditka in the mouth with his left hand while pushing him toward the middle with his body.
There Huff was waiting to deliver a right to Ditka's already tender jaw. Dazed and dumbfounded, Ditka still understood the message -- and everything was legally lethal the rest of the game.
"You don't have to be glamorous," Ditka says, "but you've gotta be effective."
The Bears were so effective on defense this season that they won 11 games with six quarterbacks.
When Steve Fuller went down late in the season and it seemed they could find no alternative to an attack doomed from the snap, an old Ditka friend came calling.
This was after the Bears had been embarrassed one week (by the Chargers) with Rusty Lisch at quarterback and edged the next (by the Packers) with Walter Payton behind center.
George Allen here.
Allen was a defensive coach with the early-60s Bears -- and said he had just the fellow to temporarily plug the hole in Ditka's quarterback dike: Greg Landry.
Wranglers Coach Allen knew the 37-year-old Landry was free of his U.S. Football League obligations.
On short notice, Landry threw a touchdown pass and scored on a one-yard sneak as the Bears whipped the Lions in the final regular-season game.
"I wouldn't feel bad at all if I had to use him Sunday," Ditka said.
That would mean the since-mended Fuller had been hurt again -- and also that Landry would be at quarterback in a title game for the second time in one year.
Joking, Ditka said he was hired three years ago by George Halas "because I took the same amount of money I made my last year as a player (in 1972 with the Cowboys)."
Turning serious, Ditka figured Halas "wanted to bring back the image of the Bears in the past."
But even tough-guy Ditka was not prepared for the internal resentment he discovered with the Bears. On the same team, it was offense versus defense.
"The defensive guys didn't know the offensive guys' names," he said. "And they didn't want to, either. They just wanted to hit 'em. All they wanted to do was beat 'em up in practice.
"That's a fact.
"I had my times with Gary Fencik and Todd Bell. I told 'em we didn't have that many healthy receivers in the first place and, besides, we didn't play the Bears that year. Now the defense does respect the offense, knows it's trying."
In a sly poke at the 49ers' slick and self-promoting Bill Walsh, Ditka said: "There is no genius-at-work sign on my door. There are a lot of geniuses out of work in this league."
Hundreds of high school coaches can doodle Xs and Os, Ditka said, "so to succeed you'd better be able to understand people. Right now, I understand my people better and they understand me better."
Still . . .
"I have a tendency to jump on backs more than most people. But (the people on whose backs Ditka has jumped) either are here playin' better or not here at all."
It was only this week that new Bears management rewarded Ditka with a three-year contract. Until that happened, it was rumored owner Edward McCaskey wanted a more refined coach.
The contract uncertainty was not his low point as a coach, Ditka said. That happened on the field more than two years ago.
"Losin', 10-0, to New Orleans," he recalled. "We were terrible. And after reviewing the films, I was certain of it. We didn't have the players. The worst thing you can do in this business is say you have the people when you don't.
"But the strike came along right after that game -- and I decided to ease off a bit when we came back."
Bears players were pleasantly surprised to find Ditka much more calm and analytical in meetings and one-on-one sessions than during and immediately after games.
Ditka hardly was unyielding when he cut place kicker Bob Thomas last year and then re-signed him. Forced to accept defensive coach Buddy Ryan and his unique style of defense upon being hired by Halas, Ditka has come to terms with it.
"I've told him at times to play zone," Ditka joked, "but we don't know how. I over-rule him at times, but he has almost total rein."
Ditka said Ryan was part of what he called "the Weeb Eubank vein of coaches."
If that's so, what would be Ditka's vein?
"It hasn't been identified yet," he laughed.
In truth, the Bears without regular quarterback Jim McMahon have arrived where some thought they would before his injury.
"I hope," Ditka said, "that my high point is yet to come."