The 8th annual Mike Ditka Autograph Show is now history, and with the possible exception of its debut, this might have been the best Ditka show ever.
Held at the Westin Hotel in the Chicago suburb of Itasca, more than 40 former professional athletes, most of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, showed up to pay homage to Ditka and to help support his many charitable causes – including the fund that aids former players with injuries who are unable to fend for themselves.
Ditka is leading a crusade to have disability benefits for needy former players significantly raised from their current levels. Ditka, along with a number of other vocal advocates such as fellow Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, have become very high profile in regard to this issue. Ditka has even testified before Congress on the subject. Thus, with a significant portion of the proceeds from the autograph show going to Ditka’s fund for needy players, virtually all of the players that SCD spoke to at the show cited their desire to boost this cause as the main reason they were there. Of course, there was also the camaraderie of being with the guys they played both with and against, and the opportunity to meet some of their childhood heroes.
“I love being here and interacting with the fans. It is also an honor to be able to spend time with the guys who came before me, the guys I worshipped,” DeLamielleure said. “I grew up in Detroit, so I was a huge Lions fan. Now, I get to meet the guys who I used to root for. I’m a big fan myself, so to hang out with guys like Ditka and Sayers is fantastic. They are a big part of the reason I played football.”
Another Hall of Famer, Billy Shaw, struck the same note as DeLamielleure.
“I have only missed one of these events. I enjoy being here every year,” he said. “I go to a number of events like this every year, and I see a lot of the same guys, but Ditka is a special guy and I really don’t want to miss this one. Mike and I played in a couple of All-Star games together, so our tie goes back quite a ways.”
Although Shaw was loquacious when it came to explaining his presence at the show, Charley Taylor was just the opposite. When asked why he was there, Taylor said, “Ditka is the man. That is all I have to say.”
Dante Lavelli was equally brief.
“The reason I like coming back to this event each year, and why I like to do card shows and signings in general, is I like to see the players I played with and against,” he said.
However, Bobby Mitchell expanded a little bit on that theme by answering the question this way.
“Why am I here? When the Coach calls, you come,” Mitchell said. “I don’t really do a lot of this stuff, but there is a certain camaraderie among the players. It’s like a fraternity at times. Some of us have gone a lot of years without seeing each other, so this gives you a chance to renew old friendships. I even enjoy seeing the guys I didn’t used to like. There’s Gino Marchetti down there. I played against him. I used to love telling him before the game that I was going to run right by him. Now, we get a chance to joke with each other about that. I try to come each year because it helps to keep me in the loop.”
Even first-times knew the event was special.
“This is the first time I have been able to do this event,” said John Hannah. “I wanted to come before, but my schedule just didn’t allow it until now. It’s a good cause, though, so I am glad I could get here this year. I really appreciate what Mike Ditka has been able to do for former players who are in need. I also like being here to see the guys again, especially some of the older guys who were my heroes when I was growing up. The guys I used to watch before I started playing myself. Gale Sayers is one of those guys. What a great player he was. I also love meeting the fans. Remember, without them, we wouldn’t have been able to play. This is all about being with them and letting them be a part of everything. We were able to make a livelihood because of them.”
Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, always an outspoken guy, added, “Ditka is really a great guy. I really appreciate the way he is trying to help the down-and-out and the hurt former players. There was even an article about it in the Canton newspaper during Hall of Fame induction week. They shouldn’t be cheating those guys out of their disability benefits.
“This group here at Ditka’s event is mostly a Hall of Fame group, but I guess I am here because I was a great player and an infamous legend,” Henderson added. “Actually, Ditka coached me when I was with the Cowboys, mostly when I was on special teams. I don’t do a lot of these shows anymore, but this show is a bit of a novelty. Mostly, when I do them it is in the New York and New Jersey area. People do still seek me out. I did pretty well here at this show, even though it is mostly a Bears and Hall of Fame crowd. I like being here also because I like the fans. I like talking to them. I like talking to the guys I played with, like “Too Tall” Jones over there. It is an honor for me to be here with guys like Gayle Sayers. He was one of my heroes, you know.”
Perhaps the most thoughtful responses came from Elvin Bethea and Randy Gradishar.
“I like what Mike has been doing in regard to making people aware of the problem with players’ benefits,” Bethea said. “I was a player rep, and I was on the board of the union. We did some good, especially for the pre-1959 players. We got some stuff for them. Gene Upshaw works hard at it, although I remember telling him that he was crazy to take the job as head of the union when he first got elected. One of the problems is that the guys today make way too much money, so they don’t seem to care too much about the older guys. And it is almost too late for some of those older guys because they are really too old now to reap any of the benefits even if they started coming in now.
“Frankly, I think we are probably going to need the courts to get behind us on this one,” Bethea continued. “The guys in baseball, they do a lot better for their retired players. Football should be embarrassed when you compare us to what has happened in baseball. Commissioner Roger Goodell has the right idea. He wants to bring everyone under the same umbrella. The older guys and the current guys. That would resolve a lot of things.
“One of the problems we have right now is that we can’t get a solid number in regard to how many former players are getting benefits and how much is being paid out. The number keeps shifting. There are probably only a couple of hundred players currently getting benefits. And the problem for a lot of these guys is they can’t get to all the meetings to organize and get the information. It is costly to be flying around to Miami and Vegas all the time. We really need to get more active politically. That’s why what Mike is doing is so important. I remember going to my Hall of Fame induction. I was so excited my head was spinning. But then I remember seeing Willie Wood and what bad shape he was in. It really made me think.”
Gradishar brought his friend Col. Jaworski to the event.
“I work for an auto dealership in Colorado Springs, which is near Ft. Carson, so we have a lot of interaction with the military,” Gradishar said. “Because of that connection, I have already been to Iraq several times to do ‘meet and greets’ with the troops over there, to show my support. On one of those trips, I went with Bud Grant and Deacon Jones. We had a great time, although it was a little scary at times.
“We were doing a signing for the boys at one point, sitting behind a table like usual,” Gradishar continued. “But later, we met Gen. Abizaid, who was the commander in Iraq, and he told us that the place where we were signing had been Saddam’s main palace, and the table we were sitting at was in the room where Saddam used to have all of his cabinet meetings – you know, the one we used to see on television all the time before the war started.”
Another reason Gradishar attended is to say thank you to fans.
“I went to Ohio State, and Woody Hayes was my coach. He was all about sacrificing, and that’s how I feel. You have to pay forward, you have to give back to the fans. At the same time, it is also a lot of fun for me to do this.”
In addition to filling in the gaps in their autograph collections, many of the fans at the Ditka show said they felt like they were doing some good because a portion of what they were spending at the show was going to help older players, such as Bill Willis, a Hall of Famer currently confined to a wheelchair, and Willie Wood, who used to come to the show but is no longer able to attend. And, there were some folks in attendance who remembered the sad case of Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer who was living in an old car when he came to the Ditka show a few years ago before his premature death.
Along those lines, one collector in particular stood out in the crowd. Craig Donoff, a Florida attorney, flies up every year for the show because he has grown close to some of the players as a result of their participation in charity signings that he helps conduct in his area. Donoff and his wife spent most of the day getting the Hall of Famers to sign helmets and other memorabilia. But more importantly, he was there to share stories and conversation with the guys during gaps in signing.
Interestingly, many of the players professed not to be collectors. You might think that with the access they have, they would naturally accumulate lots of interesting, if not downright valuable, collectibles. However, the typical response was one that DeLamielleure gave when asked if he collected.
“I have never been a collector, but I may start now,” he said. “I can see how much fun it is when I see the people running around here.”
Added Shaw, “I was never a collector when I was a player, or even after I retired. It was just not something I ever thought about or was interested in until I made it into the Hall. That was a special event, so I began to think that it might be nice to save something from that, but I thought it was really too late for any of the memorabilia from my playing career.
“Then one day I got a call from a guy in Massachusetts who asked if I had anything. I guess he wanted to buy it. I wasn’t really interested in selling anything, but I thought it would be interesting to find out what the stuff would be worth if I could find anything. So, I looked around the house, and in the basement of my home in Georgia was an old duffel bag I thought was filled with old hunting stuff. When I opened it up to look inside, however, I was really surprised because there was my last AFL jersey, as well as my ’69 helmet and shoes. I called the guy in Massachusetts back to tell him what I found. He offered me $5,000 for the lot. I said no thanks. A couple of days later, he called back and raised his offer. I said no again, and then I ended up donating that stuff to the Hall of Fame.”
Shaw also said he had some old football rings, but he was robbed over Christmas in 1983.
“The robber took 10 rings in all, including my AFL championship rings, my Georgia Tech ring and my NFL alumni rings,” Shaw said. “They found the guy who stole the stuff, and I got some of it back, but he had already fenced some of them and those were gone. Funny thing was, he knew exactly what he wanted. He only took the jewelry and left everything else in the house alone.”
At the end of the day, Brian Schwartz, whose company, Schwartz Sports, was helping the promoter – Tim Schulte, of Mid America Sports Management – run the show, felt it was a pretty good show.
“I suppose it could have been a little better in terms of merchandise sold, but a lot of people brought their own stuff,” Schwartz said. “The autograph tickets went really well, though. As you would expect, we did very well with Harry Carson and Roger Wehrli because they are the new guys in the Hall. And we always do well with Ditka and Sayers. This is really an old-timers show you know, so you get a lot of older collectors out for this one. Ditka, Sayers and Hampton are always nice to everyone. And then there’s Dwight Clark. He’s one of the best. I guess you just have to see it. This show works very well.”
Another reason for success was the reasonably priced autograph tickets. Most of the autographs at the Ditka show were priced at $30 or less, which in today’s market seems like a bargain, especially for a bunch of Hall of Famers.
Schulte, Schwartz and all of their respective colleagues seem determined to take care of their collector base at a reasonable level so that they will keep coming back. Schulte also tweaks the show a bit each year and adds a bit more value. The dealer area also seemed better lighted this year and looked like it attracted more people, even though they might not have been buying as much as in the past.
A lot of credit has to go to Ditka and the promoters for keeping this show fresh every year. There are always a bunch of regulars who return each year to the signing table, but there are also the new faces each year to replace guys who can’t make it. The main thing for collectors, however, is that if you have been coming to the Ditka show since the beginning, you are now likely to have a very impressive collection of football Hall of Fame autographs.