Mike Ditka, the former NFL player and coach and Aliquippa native, meets on Monday with players on this season's Aliquippa High School football team at California University of Pennsylvania. Volunteer coaches Greg Gills, in hat, and Junior Thornton stand behind him.
Before he was a star at University of Pittsburgh, before he was one of the elite tight ends in NFL history and long before he cemented his status as a coaching icon by leading the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl title, Mike Ditka was a Quip.
And on a stormy Monday afternoon, it was time for him to return home.
Mr. Ditka visited and spoke with players from the Aliquippa High School football team at California University's Adamson Stadium, using the opportunity as a chance to stress the importance of hard work and the value of education.
"If you can impart anything to them, it's that their destiny is not controlled by anybody but them," he said. "It's their efforts -- whatever they put into it, they're going to get out of it. There's a lot of sacrifice, sweat, effort and discipline that's got to be exhibited to go further in life, and that's what I tried to tell them."
Mr. Ditka's surprise appearance was a part of an ESPN series titled "Back to School" in which four of the network's analysts who were former coaches visit their old high schools. The first installment of the series is to air Aug. 28 on Sportscenter and also will feature Lee Corso, Herm Edwards and Lou Holtz, according to ESPN spokesman David Scott.
Huddled in a crowded stadium locker room, Mr. Ditka spoke with Aliquippa players for roughly 10 minutes, using personal anecdotes to emphasize the lessons he was trying to pass along.
Mr. Ditka was once in the same position as the young men to whom he spoke; he, too, once was a high school football player at Aliquippa with dreams of a bright future playing the sport he loved. He was a three-sport star in high school before deciding to stay close to home and attend the University of Pittsburgh, largely on the advice of his high school football coach.
Though he enrolled at Pitt planning to become a dentist, his immense talent as a tight end was quickly evident, and with thundering blocks and stiff arms, he began knocking out the very teeth he had hoped to one day examine.
He went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL for three different teams and in 1988, he became the first tight end to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also compiled a 14-year head coaching career in which he won a Super Bowl with the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Having experienced so much personal success, Mr. Ditka hoped to deliver the message to the players that they too can make something out of their lives.
"I had a lot of opportunities in life, but I did something with the opportunities, and I tried to tell these kids that they're going to have opportunities," he said. "Sometimes you get an opportunity in life, and it's either a stepping stone or an obstacle -- make something of it."
Along with his talk with the Aliquippa players, Mr. Ditka visited his mother and showed the ESPN crew around Aliquippa and Downtown Pittsburgh. He noted that the Aliquippa the high school players live in today stands in stark contrast to the Aliquippa in which he grew up in the '40s and '50s but that it's still a community that can empower young people to persevere.
"When J&L Steel closed down in 1982, the city kind of closed down economically," he said. "But the spirit's still there, and I think the spirit lives in these kids who understand that [football] is their ticket out."
For Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac, who did not know of Mr. Ditka's visit until he walked into the locker room, the appearance and speech were extremely helpful. Not just because it came from a football legend, but because it came from someone who has remained loyal to his roots.
"He's a role model for these kinds of kids," Mr. Zmijanac said. "He's truly an Aliquippa guy, and that's one of the things that we preach to our kids -- don't forget where you're from, and he obviously hasn't forgotten that."
Indeed, Mr. Ditka, has never forgotten where he came from, always keeping in mind the place that shaped him into the man he is today.
"This is who I am. My identity is Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh, and I'm proud of that," he said. "I wouldn't be the person I am if I hadn't come from Aliquippa. If I wouldn't have had the parents I had or the high school coach or the discipline within the community, I wouldn't be me."