By Shayne Lee

Barack Obama would not be president today without the help of one person. Surprisingly, the media and pundits continue to ignore this story line.

Who is the person without whom Obama would not be president? George W. Bush? No, but good guess. His incompetence enhanced Obama's brand as a sorely needed change agent.

David Axelrod? No, but that's a good guess, too. He was no less instrumental as the chief strategist for Obama's presidential campaign.

Hillary Clinton? Nope. Bill Clinton? Nope. John McCain? Nope. Sarah Palin? Nope.

Refusing to abandon the competitive challenge, you offer more guesses: Shirley Chisholm? Nope. Tom Daschle? Nope.

Oprah? Michelle? Nope.

You are getting restless, so I must now reveal the name of the person without whom Barack Obama would not be president: Mike Ditka.

Huh? Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka? You suppose you've been had, hoodwinked, bamboozled. To reassure you of my sincerity, I will make my case.

Let's go back to 2004. National Democratic leaders strategize feverishly in an effort to win enough seats to control the U.S. Senate. They have their eyes on Illinois, a state with no incumbent running for reelection. Obama wins the Democratic nomination for the open seat, and the Republican nominee, Jack Ryan, drops out of the race due to the embarrassing details of his divorce records.

Obama is looking down a clear path to the Senate - until Mike Ditka begins flirting with the idea of running on the Republican ticket.

Some Democrats are champing at the bit for their Harvard-educated lawyer to pit wits against the charismatic but nonetheless inarticulate jock. But others fear that the former NFL coach, who brought Chicago its first and only Super Bowl championship, enjoys instant name recognition, while Obama is still establishing himself with Illinois residents. They find the prospect of a young politician with a weird name running against one of the state's greatest sports legends somewhat daunting.

So, to raise Obama's visibility, they grant him the great privilege of addressing the 2004 Democratic National Convention in prime time. Ironically, Ditka announces he will not enter the race shortly before the convention. But Obama's name is already carved in stone on the schedule.

Almost 10 million Americans watch Obama deliver a riveting speech that changes his life and American politics. Before long, Obama is the new face of the party, criss-crossing the nation in fund-raising efforts for struggling candidates, building strategic alliances, and thereby taking steps toward a viable presidential candidacy.

I sum things up with a sort of syllogism: Obama's presidential run is unimaginable without the political power and rock-star status bestowed upon him by his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His speech never happens without a sports legend threatening to run against him for the vacant Illinois Senate seat. Therefore, Barack Obama would not be president today without Mike Ditka.

There is a lesson to be learned from the president's remarkable journey. Even an immensely gifted, highly competent, Ivy League-trained talent such as Obama needs a bit of luck to achieve great success in America. How much more of it do the rest of us need?

Shayne Lee is an assistant professor of sociology at Tulane University. He can be contacted at