Mike Ditka is returning to the sidelines.
No, the legendary Chicago Bears coach won't be chomping his gum back on the sidelines of Soldier Field. Instead, he'll be coaching many of the nation's top high school seniors at the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Jan. 5 (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
"I want to see how the guys react and how they compete," Ditka said. "It's not going to be much about the X's and O's for Steve [Mariucci, the other head coach in the game] and myself. I want to watch the guys and just see how far they have advanced from when I was in high school."
The 71-year-old native of Carnegie, Pa., was the first tight end to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During his 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, Ditka was known as much for his ferocious blocking as he was for his pass catching.
He became an legendary figure in Chicago as the Bears' head coach for 11 seasons and won a Super Bowl with the 1985 team, an iconic group that was known for its famed "46" defense and its personality.
Now, Ditka is an analyst for ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" and has Ditka's restaurants and other business ventures to keep him busy.
But the players don't just know him from watching him on TV. They've seen the highlights from his playing days and heard the stories about his coaching.
"I've heard a lot of good things about coach Ditka," said Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft defensive tackle Antwaun Woods. "He's a Hall of Famer and he's got a Super Bowl ring and it doesn't get much better than that."
Tampa (Fla.) Alonso defensive end Anthony Chickillo echoed those thoughts.
"Coach Ditka is a tough man and you watch all those films and see how intense he was on the field," Chickillo said. "He's just one of those coaches that you want to play hard for. When you say 'Mike Ditka,' everyone knows who that is. They know the Chicago Bears and they know that he was probably everyone's favorite coach."
Ditka retired from head coaching in 1999 after three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. He remains involved in all levels of football and watches the college and pro game extensively.
Two of his former players are currently head coaches in the NFL -- Mike Singletary with the San Francisco 49ers and Leslie Frazier with the Minnesota Vikings.
"I love football, I mean it's been such a big part of my life," Ditka added.
But as much as he'll coach these players about football, he wants to teach them a little about life off the field as well.
"When you go off to college are you going to play football or get an education? I hope it's to get an education, because if football is the means to your end then you are going to have a shallow end," he said. "A lot of days you see these kids talking about cars and the money and everything else, but those things come and go. The education is going to be with you forever."
This doesn't mean that Ditka doesn't have high hopes for the current generation of football players. He just wants to make sure they have their priorities in line.
"I want to see what kind of character these young men have," Ditka said. "The game is going to be fun, it's an exhibition so I'm looking to see if these guys have the attitudes to succeed in football and succeed in life."
Corey Long has been covering high school football and recruiting in the Sunshine State since 1995. He can be reached at email@example.com.