FRIDAY, October 24, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Football legend Mike Ditka is pointing straight at you, brow furrowed, looking as intense and as menacing as he did on the sidelines.
This time, it's not just the outcome of a game hanging in the balance, but staying healthy -- and staying alive.
As spokesman for a national men's health education campaign,Ditka is taking on a familiar role as tough coach -- on the Internet, in print ads and in public service announcements aired during NFL broadcasts and on video screens at football stadiums.
"Stay healthy and stay in the game," the former player and coach exhorts fans. "So here's how we're going to play it -- smart and aggressive. It's your body, your game. And you only get one shot."
The National Football League teamed with drug companies Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline to create the campaign, called "Tackling Men's Health." It provides advice meant to keep men healthy and includes detailed information and tips on cardiovascular health, diabetes, mental illness, prostate cancer, stress and erectile dysfunction (ED).
Ditka, 64, knows of what he speaks. Yes, he's a famous former player and coach, but he's also had some first-hand health lessons.
He says he could have avoided a heart attack if he'd seen a doctor in time. He takes medication for ED. And he has two artificial hips.
Ditka says he hopes the campaign helps men put aside their notorious aversion to going to the doctor.
"Men," he says, "are almost cowardly about going to the doctor. They don't want to admit there's anything wrong with them. It's almost universal."
To counter that, he's taking a tough-love approach in his message.
"To get the point across, sometimes you have to be a little bit stern," he says. "And that's what I'm doing. I am just a coach of men and I'm trying to make them more aware of health issues in their lives to be proactive and do something about it."
In the public service announcements, Ditka not only talks about, but also demonstrates, the importance of exercise -- by stretching, swimming, lifting weights and pedaling a bike.
The campaign also covers symptoms and treatments for common health conditions; risk factors such as smoking, obesity and poor eating habits; and the importance of regular check-ups and screenings.
Men's health expert Dr. Jean Bonhomme, an assistant professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, praises the campaign as a way to get the message across to men through a football hero whom fans admire.
"It's a very good medium by which to reach people," says Bonhomme, who is also founder of the National Black Men's Health Network and a spokesman for the Men's Health Network.
Bonhomme says he hopes the campaign helps counter some persistent perceptions that often keep men from taking care of their health.
"One of the first things we have to recognize is that the genders have been taught to deal with physical things differently from childhood," he says. "So when an 8-year-old boy skins his knee, he's told, 'Big boys don't cry. Take one for the team.' When he's 50 and having chest pains, what's he going to say? 'It's just indigestion' -- because he's been taught his whole life to ignore the physical symptoms of his body."
While women see physicians regularly, men typically are "very disconnected" from the health-care system, Bonhomme says. This reflects the stereotype that men are to be self-reliant. And this leads to serious problems such as high blood pressure, dangerous cholesterol levels or erectile dysfunction that are often overlooked, he says.
"ED may be a lifesaving sign," he says, because it could indicate serious circulatory problems.
Neglecting your health, Bonhomme says, threatens some of the very characteristics associated with being manly -- speed, endurance, sexual performance.
"By protecting your health, you're protecting your masculinity," he adds.
Underscoring the need for better care and healthier living among men, the Men's Health Network points to some sobering statistics: In 1920, women lived an average of one year longer than men; now, men die an average of almost six years earlier than women and are more likely to suffer cancer, stroke and heart disease.