Ditka giving portion of donations to Gridiron Greats fund

Updated: December 11, 2007, 5:57 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Ditka said Tuesday he would dissolve his Hall of Fame Assistance Trust Fund in the wake of a report that the charity had given only a small amount of money to needy former NFL players.

USA Today reported last week that Ditka's fund had collected $1.3 million since it was formed in 2004, but netted only about $315,000 after expenses and distributed just $57,000 to former players.

Ditka disputed part of the report, saying the trust has actually given away $159,000.

"This is not about me, and I didn't ask for this, really," Ditka said. "I've become a sitting duck for a lot of people who really don't understand what the problems are."

He said the fund's balance of more than $600,000 would be divided equally between Misericordia, a residential facility for developmentally disabled youth, and Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, another fund that helps former professional football players in need.

Gridiron Greats hosted Tuesday's news conference, which included several former Vikings stars and some current NFL players. Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman, said the infusion from Ditka's fund would "make a major impact" on her group's efforts.

Ditka's Take
ESPN NFL analyst Mike Ditka talks with ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago about dissolving his Gridiron Greats fund. Listen

Ditka, who donated an additional $25,000 of his own money to the fund, is among retired players who have feuded with the NFL Players Association over what they say is the union's refusal to award disability benefits to former players.

"I used to support the union because they were trying to take care of a majority of the players," Ditka said. "That has ceased to be the case. Until you take care of all the players, you're taking care of none of the players."

Spokesman Carl Francis said the system for awarding disability benefits "has never been a perfect system" and the union is working on improving it. He said the union is proud of new $17 million effort launched with the league and others to provide free or low-cost joint replacement surgeries to some former players.

Several people shared stories of former players who ended up physically disabled and often homeless, and said they weren't able to get the help they needed.

Several former Vikings joined Ditka, including Chuck Foreman, Jim Marshall, Ed Marinaro and Paul Krause. Also on hand were current pros Kyle Turley of the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, who hosted the news conference at his downtown restaurant.

Turley has been the most outspoken active player on the issue, and has pledged a single-game paycheck of $25,000 to the fund, which Birk matched. Two other Chiefs, Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez, the Houston Texans' Ephraim Salaam and the New York Giants' Kawika Mitchell also plan to donate to the fund, the organizers announced.

"As players today, we definitely stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us," Birk said. "We're reaping a lot of the benefits of the price that was paid by those players. We can't forget that."

Ditka is a studio football analyst at ESPN.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press