Mini-Ditkas: Da Coach unveils kids' T-shirts

CHICAGO -- On a warm, late, summer night Tuesday, Peek Kids, a friendly children's boutique in the Bucktown neighborhood, was packed to capacity as a special visitor sat by the front window, hunched over a table with a pen in his hand. Natalie Merchant's "Carnival" played as children munched cookies and popcorn.

Starting at 6 p.m. sharp, Mike Ditka arrived at the store, plopped down in a large brown leather chair and did the two things he does best: be Grandpa Ditka, Chicago's football ambassador, and push Ditka-related merchandise, in this case, $34 kids' T-shirts.

Mini-Ditkas, indeed.

When Ditka got to Peek, the line stretched to the back of the store, where "stadium snacks" were served. Parents and children waited patiently for an autograph, some small talk and a picture.

"I'm not going to bite, but I might punch you," Ditka said to one little boy.

"Look at you," he said to a little girl in pigtails. "You're going to be a heartbreaker."

As every member of the 1985 Bears likes to joke, until the Bears win another Super Bowl, that team will always have lines waiting to meet and greet them, and companies willing to pay them for the association to past greatness.

For Ditka, his annual busy season is upon him.

"If I wasn't doing this, I'd be sleeping, because that's what I do," Ditka said. "I'm a professional sleeper."

In between paid speeches, ESPN TV duties, radio appearances, promotional spots, and visiting his restaurants in Chicago and suburban Pittsburgh, of course.

Ditka's appearance came hours after some controversial (in my opinion, tone deaf, but expected) quotes were released about the Washington Redskins name debate. But those opinions won't slow his popularity in Chicago.

Wearing a short-sleeve, black Tommy Bahama shirt, sunglasses and his trademark slicked-back pompadour, Da Coach signed footballs, posters and T-shirts in a special in-store appearance to celebrate the San Francisco-based Peek's new Ditka-inspired shirt line, which is only available in Chicago.

Peek is big on inspirational quote shirts, with Ditka and Vince Lombardi joining the likes of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin.

"We're known for our graphic tees with positive messages for kids, so this just fit perfectly," Peek director of marketing Marideth Post said.

The two shirts contained inspirational quotes attributed to Ditka: "Before you win, you have to believe you are worthy," and, "You never really lose until you quit trying."

Some of Ditka's most famous barbs, such as, "See that? That's your IQ, buddy! Zero!" or, "Those who live in the past are cowards and losers," weren't considered "positive messages of empowerment."

"Well, I think you got to watch some of the quotes, some of them might be censored," Ditka said.

Needless to say, there were no kids boutiques in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where Iron Mike grew up.

"We had a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and it lasted about two years," Ditka said.

While Peek produced the shirts, this partnership was brokered by Ditka's daughter-in-law Stacy, who was an early customer at Peek's first Chicagoland store in Northbrook. She founded DitkaKids.com, which carries, naturally, Ditka clothes for kids. That business has been around for more than two years.

"He loves his grandkids so much, so he was all over this," Stacy Ditka said.

A recent story in Crain's Chicago outlined Ditka's many endorsement deals, but he scoffed at the idea that he's overexposed with sponsorships.

"That's a little overdone, that was exaggerated," he said. "I've been the luckiest guy in the world. I don't go out seeking all this stuff, people come to me. I'm never going to get rich off it, but it doesn't matter. If it helps sell the product, I'm glad to do it."

Even Ditka is a little amazed at the public's fascination with him. But he takes every picture.

"It's a little bit of how I can give back," Ditka said. "If they like it, fine. I don't understand it myself, but if they like it, it's OK with me."