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You're raising big bucks for a worthy cause and need a celebrity to help pass around the collection plate.

You figure a Hall of Fame football legend, winning Super Bowl coach and a persuasive guy is just the person to pull it off.

And he agrees, free of charge.

The inaugural Saint Joseph College Purple Tie Dinner honoring Mike Ditka was held Saturday at the Fair Oaks Farmhouse north of Rensselaer.

Individual tickets for the sold-out VIP event ranged from $127 to $7,500.

Proceeds from the dinner will support the renovation of Schwietermann Hall, which will be the first residence hall to be used on the Rensselaer campus if a proposed partnership with Marian University allows it to reopen as a two-year school in 2020.

Early last February, St. Joe's announced its closure at the end of the 2016-17 academic year as the school needed $100 million to continue operating.

"Iron Mike" was a natural headliner for the first of many fundraisers to come. The Bears held their training camp from 1944 to 1974 at Saint Joseph College, founded in 1889 and nestled among cornfields and narrow, winding farm roads.

This is where pro ball began for the punishing tight end from Pittsburgh. Ditka starred for the Bears from 1961 to 1966 and later coached them from 1982-92 before being fired.

"I can't remember what I did last night, but I can remember in 1961," Ditka said. "Rensselaer was good for us. If you were an athlete in those days, you could always find places to go that coach (George) Halas didn't know about."

The 1971 film "Brian's Song" — about Bears' running back Brian Piccolo who died from carcinoma in the 1970 season — was partially filmed on the SJC campus.

Ditka, 78, remains outspoken and painfully blunt about current social and political issues. But on this night, providing support for St. Joe's financial struggles were his focus.

"I went through a period when I was pretty full of myself," said Ditka. "But I'm happy with the person I am now."

Life in isolated Rensselaer was slow and boring when Ditka was a young Bear. But, oh, the stories he has and those ageless memories.

"Practices were hard in Rensselaer. When they were done, you headed to the beer gardens," he said.

At training camp one year, Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus was reportedly seen out on a tractor in the cornfield adjacent to the St. Joe campus.

In 1965, Ditka had dislocated his right foot, which never healed properly, and had to wear a cast during camp. He and teammates would frequent a Rensselaer bar and enter twist contests, with Ditka bouncing around like a spinning top — in a cast.

"Yeah, I did that, crazy as it was," Ditka said.

There were good and bad times in Rensselaer.

The Bears went 11-1-2 in 1963 and beat the New York Giants for the NFL Championship.

Gary native Ted Karras Sr., Willie Galimore, Rick Casares, Joe Marconi, Johnny Morris, Bo Farrington, Bob Wetoska, Herman Lee, Mike Pyle, Mike Rabold, Jim Cadile, Larry Morris, Rosie Taylor, Bennie McRae, Joe Fortunato and Ed O'Bradovich were teammates Ditka loved going "into combat with" as he put it.

On the night of July 27th, 1964, everything changed.

On their way back to campus, Galimore and Farrington were killed when Galimore's new Volkswagen "Beetle" convertible failed to make a sharp turn along Bunkum Road, on the west edge of town.

The police report stated that a road sign warning of the sharp turn apparently had been knocked down by a mowing crew and not righted.

Galimore, 29, was ejected. Farrington, 28, suffered a broken neck. Both men died at the scene.

"We never got over it," Ditka said. "Willie and Bo were two of the best football players we had and to lose them like that ..."

Halas called it "The saddest day in Bears history."

"They were great guys. I loved 'em," Ditka said.

The Bears never recovered and finished 1964 with an almost inexplicable record of 5-9.

The No. 5 pick in the 1961 draft, Ditka signed for $12,000 plus a $6,000 bonus. Rosters carried 36 players and the league had 12 teams.

Are current NFL players tougher, nastier?

Wait for it.

"Players today are bigger, faster, stronger and that's all I'll tell you," Ditka said, smiling. "And I don't think they're smarter."

Ditka walks with a limp because of a deformed foot resulting from a football injury with the Bears. He's had two hip replacement surgeries since he left coaching.

"I got a lot of pain, believe me," he chuckled. "Plus people think I'm a pain in the (butt)."

You'd get a real argument from St. Joe alumni.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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