CHICAGO - There are a lot of different ways to look at Mike Ditka.
Hard-nosed, Hall of Fame tight end. Fiery coach of the Chicago Bears whose oversized personality rivaled that of the Punky QB, the Fridge and anyone else on those '85 Bears. Maverick - some might say goofball - who traded every last one of the New Orleans Saints' draft picks and then some to get Ricky Williams. Colorful TV analyst. Shameless pitchman, hawking everything from steaks to wine to cigars to cough syrup.
But the plight of disabled and indigent former NFL players has brought out Ditka's softer side. And unlikely as it may seem, his compassion and passion for the cause might come the closest to revealing who Mike Ditka really is.
'I thought he was this gruff, mean, abrasive, hardcore guy. A little intimidating,' said Jennifer Smith, executive director of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a nonprofit organized founded to help former players in need.
'Not to say he's not all those things. But I would have never have thought that he would have a heart the size that he has,' Smith said. 'Without his participation and leadership, I don't know where we'd be right now.'
Ditka didn't found Gridiron Greats - former Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer did - but he has become its face and its very loud voice. Though only 10 months old, the organization will have given out about $225,000 in direct financial aid by the end of the year, and provided services worth another $50,000.
It's drawn the ire of the NFL and its players association, but it's spurred action, too. Earlier this month, the NFL and NFLPA announced they were updating the disability plan to allow players to get benefits more efficiently and quickly.
On Sunday, dozens of active players will donate at least part of their checks to the Gridiron Greats in an effort that could raise as much as $400,000.
'All we're trying to do is lessen the burden, maybe provide some type of relief for the family or the individual,' Ditka said. 'We're not the answer, I know that. But to say no when I have the ability to raise something, something's better than nothing. Even though it's not the whole answer, something is better than nothing.'
Ditka has never shied away from the 'Iron Mike' image. Quite the opposite, in fact. And with good reason. He hasn't coached in seven years, yet he remains one of the most recognizable names in the game. In Chicago, he has the kind of iconic status that only Michael Jordan can match. He has, in many ways, become a brand name, not to mention a very wealthy man.
But that was the public persona.
'There's a little more to Ditka the coach and Ditka the man than most people see,' former Bears linebacker Ron Rivera told the New York Times in 1991.
Friends and family saw a generous man who would quietly do charitable acts. For years, he's raised money and given time to Misericordia, an organization that helps the developmentally disabled. Smith recalls riding with Ditka in a car one day and seeing him stop to give a newspaper vendor a wad of cash. Take the day off, she said Ditka told the man.
When he appeared at a fundraiser for a paralyzed high school player last spring, he waived his speaking fee - and donated $5,000.
'It's nothing about me,' Ditka said. 'You don't know the effect (charity) is going to have on someone's life.'
But the retired players, well, that's personal.
Ditka revels in being part of the NFL fraternity, a proud group who would sooner take up knitting than admit to hurting - physically or financially. As the years passed, though, he couldn't help but notice the changes in some of his friends.
His voice drops when he talks about fellow Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, so badly afflicted by dementia that, at age 66, he's like a 3- or 4-year-old. With medical bills mounting, his wife had to take a job as a flight attendant.
He ticks off the names of other struggling players: Joe Perry; Larry Morris; Jim Ringo, who died last month. And on and on it goes.
'Mike has been very, very successful ... and he knows that there's a lot of players out there hurting. It's the same way I feel,' said Gale Sayers, who also is active in Gridiron Greats. 'If I can help these players, I'm going to help them.
'To be a big football player and now you've got to ask for help, that's a very, very humbling experience,' Sayers added. 'They don't want people to know they need help.'
But the more Ditka heard about disabled and struggling former players who were having trouble making ends meet, the angrier he got. When Kramer and the Gridiron Greats asked for his help, Ditka quickly signed on."
'It seems a little crazy to me to have no regard for these guys who helped make this league what it is today,' he said. 'To whatever degree they played the game, they helped. And a lot of them have come on hard times now.
'You can turn your back, you can spin it any way you want to, you can give all your cases,' he said 'But if the problem is a problem that can be solved, it should be solved. Period.'
Ditka quickly became the most outspoken critic of the existing disability system. When he testified before a Congressional subcommittee in June, he got so worked up he lost his place in his prepared remarks.
He's appeared at news conference after news conference with current and former players alike, and has been relentless in keeping the issue in the news.
'He's one of the living legends. When he steps up and lends his name and his time and his money to a cause ... you can't help but think it's a worthy cause,' said Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, who has been one of the most vocal active players and has pledged $25,000 this weekend.
'Having him leading the movement sure made me feel really good about getting involved, and kind of reassured me this was the right thing to do.'
Of course, he is not without his critics. The union is not exactly thrilled with the crusade, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told a Senate hearing in September that the league is actually increasing benefits when many companies are cutting them.
Earlier this month, USA Today reported that Ditka's Hall of Fame Assistance Trust Fund, which he began in 2004 to aid needy Hall of Famers, had only given a small amount of money to its intended recipients.
Ditka has disputed the claim, saying the board planned to run the trust like an endowment. On Thursday, the co-chair of his fundraising golf tournament said that $296,000 had been given to disabled players over the last three years.
Another $300,000 is to be donated to the Gridiron Greats.
'You can spin it any way you want, but what we did is right. Our board was right,' Ditka said.