Former Pitt, NFL star Mike Ditka says you can't take hard hits out of football, but masks can go

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Iron Mike Ditka, a former Pitt All-American and NFL Hall of Famer, had a message for the players at his alma mater yesterday. He told them to outwork and outhit the opponent.

It's a formula that served Ditka well throughout his college and professional career as a player and coach, and it was the main subject of a 15-minute pep talk he gave to Pitt players before practice yesterday.

"I wasn't good," Ditka said. "I just played hard. If you play harder than the other guy, you can win a lot of games. If you hit him harder than he hits you, you're going to win a lot of times. I don't care what anyone tells you. You can be as fancy as you want, but there's no disguise for blocking, tackling and execution."

Outhitting the opponent has been a hot topic in the league Ditka covers for a living at ESPN. The NFL has come under fire for its random fining of players for what are seemingly hard, legal hits. Several Steelers have been fined by the NFL, and the Steelers asked the league for explanations, which they got yesterday.

Safety Troy Polamalu made headlines last week when he said the NFL was becoming a "pansy league."

Ditka does not disagree with the Steelers' sentiments.

"It's not a pansy league, but you can't legislate hitting out of football," said Ditka, who was in town to promote the grand opening of his new restaurant in Robinson. "It's impossible. The hit that Hines made [against Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers] was a complete legitimate hit. People will say, 'Well, you don't do that.' But it's football. It's always been football. We did that in the '60s, the '50s, the '40s. It's a blindside hit, but it's a hit.

"The first thing you're taught as a defensive player is to put your head on a swivel. Don't get caught in that position. If this would have happened 40 years ago, nobody cares. You're making thousands of dollars. Now you're making millions. So you're losing players who are making that much money. You can't afford that as organizations. That's why they're going to crack down."

Ditka said he understands why the NFL is taking a strong stance in protecting its multi-million dollar athletes, but he said it can't be done at the expense of changing the essence of the game.

"Football is a tough game," Ditka said. "You hate to see anyone get hurt whether it was 50 years ago or now. I know what the commissioner is trying to do, but I don't know if taking legal hits out of the game is going to make it any different."

Ditka said the only way to change the violent nature of the game would be by changing the equipment.

"I said a long time ago if you want to change the game take the mask off the helmet," he said. "It will change the game a lot. If you want to change the game and get it back to where people aren't striking with the head and using the head as a weapon, take the mask off the helmet.

"A lot of pretty boys aren't going to stick their face in there. If you're going to take hitting out of football, you might as well just call it soccer. That's what I believe. A lot of people will be disappointed I said that, but football is what it is. [Vince] Lombardi said it a long time ago. Football is not a contact game. Dancing is a contact game. Football is a collision sport."


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