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Ditka's new Gridiron Greats setup aids former players

Mike Ditka used to run his own charity event for retired players. Now he's teamed up with Gridiron Greats, and the format couldn't be any better.

For a number of years, Mike Ditka, the volatile former head coach of the Chicago Bears, has been hosting an NFL Hall of Fame autograph show in the Chicago suburbs to raise money for the benefit of needy former players. Each year, about 40 Hall of Famers would gather at a hotel in Itasca, Ill., under a large white tent and sign autographs for the fans during alternating two-to-three-hour shifts throughout the day.

This event was so popular that fans would drive in for the day from all around the Midwest. And some, like attorney Craig Donoff, a major memorabilia collector, would fly in from as far away as South Florida to be there. The reason was that, other than the Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canton, Ohio, the Ditka event offered collectors the best shot at filling in those voids in their NFL Hall of Fame autograph collections, including, in most cases, the newest inductees.

Earlier this year, however, Ditka got tangled up with the late Gene Upshaw, who as the executive director of the NFL Players Association, took umbrage at Ditka’s allegations that he and the union were not doing enough for needy former players, and as a result, Upshaw made his own allegations that the money being raised by Ditka might not have been going where it was supposed to go.

Just as the earlier Ditka events did, the newly
configured Gridiron Greats show pulled in legendary
NFL greats (from left) Jan Stenerud, Bobby Bell and Tom Nowatzke.

Because the Ditka event also included a VIP dinner and a golf tournament each year, considerable sponsor money was being collected in addition to the fees paid at the autograph show, and Upshaw alleged that the controls imposed on the collection and use of these monies were not as stringent as they should have been.

After a few back and forth skirmishes over these issues, Ditka finally decided that it was not worth having a bareknuckle brawl with Upshaw because it distracted everyone from the real task at hand.

So instead, Ditka decided to fold his organization and transfer his fundraising operations to Gridiron Greats, an organization started some time ago for a similar purpose by Ron and Jerry Kramer.

Jerry, a Hall of Famer himself, no longer had any involvement with Gridiron Greats, but Ron still did, and he and Ditka were good friends, so the connection made a lot of sense. One of the casualties of this new affiliation, however, was the annual Ditka Hall of Fame autograph show, which left more than a few collectors lamenting the situation. Word of the collector dismay must have reached Ditka and the folks at Gridiron Greats, because soon after their affiliation they began making plans for a new show, similar to Ditka’s, that would be held in conjunction with a dinner and golf event to be sponsored by Gridiron Greats at a different hotel in the Chicago suburbs.

This time the autograph show was not set up under a huge tent, however. Instead, it was held in the ballroom of the hotel, with player signing tables set up in several rows that allowed the fans to roam through the aisles nabbing signatures from the specific players they wanted. And this time, perhaps because there were fewer players involved, all of the players were in the signing area at the same time. This meant that collectors could get what they wanted over a relatively short time interval instead of having to hang around all day waiting for the different players to show up at their appointed times. In fact, the entire show was set to run for only three hours instead of all day.

Another difference this year was that only about 30 players were scheduled to be at the show, instead of the 40 or so who usually came, and not all of the players were members of the Hall of Fame, although every player there was easily recognizable by the fans. So you could get signatures not only from Hall of Famers Gale Sayers, Dave Casper, Bobby Bell, Dante Lavelli, Don Maynard, Jan Stenerud and Marv Levy, but you could also get them from such other desirable players as Steve McMichael, Conrad Dobler and Ty Detmer.

In fact, Detmer was a new face in Chicago, as were Lynn Dickey, Jim Marshall, Billy Kilmer and Mercury Morris, all of whom were very popular with local collectors, who stocked up on their signatures.

And, interestingly enough, the biggest draw of the day was not even a football player. It was the lone hockey player in the room, former Chicago Blackhawk and current member of the NHL Hall of Fame, Stan Mikita. His line was so long that he had to remain at his table signing autographs long after everyone else had departed.

Mikita is a good friend of Ditka’s, and often donates his time for charitable causes like the one Ditka has been championing. So, for him, it was a no-brainer to help out at the Gridiron Greats show, and to also indulge his own desire to mix with his legion of fans.

When asked if had encountered any difficulty in getting the players to commit to the new setup this year, Ditka said, “No trouble at all. We took as many as we could this year, but within the limitations of the venue and giving consideration to the current economy. It really depended on the number of foursomes who signed up for the golf. That really dictated what our needs were.

“My personal feeling is that the new setup is better for the fans. I think the whole weekend extravaganza is working out well and everyone seems to be having a great time. We will just have to see how it all works out in the long run.”

Casper also chimed in by reminding us that it used to be just a Hall of Fame show. “But now it is open to anyone, and the proceeds will go to help any player in need,” he said. “We may not be the entire answer here, but I do think we are part of the solution.”

Gale Sayers added, “Gridiron Greats is willing to help anyone who needs help. We all belong to the same fraternity, so to speak, and there are a lot of players in trouble. The money we raise here is for those players.”

Ditka noted that the players who come to this show do receive a small stipend and their weekend expenses are covered from the proceeds. However, the autograph show relies to a great extent on volunteer help, including a number of high school football players who sit with the players to collect tickets and such, which does help keep the overall weekend expenses at a minimum.

In fact, Lavelli commented on how well he thought the organizers had done in planning this year’s event, although he had hoped that use of the hospitality room could have been expanded so that the former players would have had a better chance to sit around and reconnect with each other.

“Let’s face it,” he said, “besides raising the money for the organization, one of the key reasons we come every year is to see all the guys again and catch up with what’s going on in their lives. So, we really need a place where we can go and do that.”

As for the collectors, overall it looked like they were happy and satisfied with the way the show had gone. They were able to score some key signatures for their collections, and they had ample time to chat with the players and pose themselves and their kids for some great photos. No one seemed to be in a hurry, and even when some dealers clogged up the lines with requests for dozens of signatures at a time, most folks seemed to take it all in stride.

Even the players, like Bobby Bell in particular, seemed to enjoy themselves. At one point, Bell was observed getting up from behind his table and going over to a small group of guys and challenging them to a game of hand slapping. Most of those guys were too smart to get snookered by Bell, but one guy did get hustled and found, to his dismay, that Bell is very, very good at the game.

One thing that was a bit unusual about this show was the dearth of collectibles for sale. There were no dealers set up, as such, and if you wanted something signed, other than the few photos placed on sale by Gridiron Greats itself, there was nothing available.

So, if you wanted something signed, you basically had to bring your own stuff in from the outside. One exception were the event caps given to the high school athlete volunteers. From time to time during the show, the high school players were allowed to take their caps around and get them signed by the former NFL players, which the latter were happy to do for the kids.

Also in attendance at the show were members of the Gridiron Warriors Alliance, which was formed in the local area to help youngsters who may have suffered debilitating injuries as a result of playing football. It was nice that Gridiron Greats provided the Gridiron Warriors with a place to set up and inform the attendees about their organization and its mission.

At the end of the day, Ditka expressed his thanks to the players and the many collectors who showed up for his new event, and, based on the apparent results, his inclination was to start planning for another show next year. That will be music to the ears of most local collectors.