Dick Butkus: Lean and Mean, Still a Legend

By Lisa Welz

Dick Butkus is the stuff legends are made of. Although he was 6’3” tall, he seemed taller. While 245 pounds, he seemed bigger. Faster. Meaner. And, boy, could he jump higher. Maybe the resolve to be the best burned brightest in him.
Butkus once said, “”I want to be recognized as the best-no doubt about it. When they say all-pro middle linebacker, I want them to mean Butkus!”
According to ChicagoBears.com, “Players, coaches, journalists all struggled for years to come up with an appropriate nickname for the dynamic Butkus. But no one moniker—‘The Enforcer’… ‘The Maestro of Mayhem’… ‘The Robot of Destruction’… ‘The Animal’–could adequately describe his brand of football.”
Butkus was the youngest of nine children who grew up in a modest home on Chicago’s south side with parents who emigrated from Lithuania. He played collegiate football for the University of Illinois from 1962 to 1964, earning both MVP and player of the year titles. Since then he has been named sixth-best ever college football player by College Football News and 19 of the top 25 college players by ESPN.
When it came time for the 1965 draft, he was drafted in the first round by both the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears. Choosing the home team, he made 11 unassisted tackles in his spectacular first game, helping the team turn the tide from the first three game losses to winning nine of their last 11 games, with Butkus leading in both opponents’ fumble recoveries and pass interceptions.
ChicagoBears.com noted, “He won his first game ball in the season’s sixth game and Associated Press named him the all-NFL middle linebacker. His only challenger for Rookie of the Year honors came from his offensive counterpart with the Bears, halfback Gale Sayers, who burst onto the NFL offensive scene with the same impact Butkus created around the league defensively. Such honors were to be an every-season thing for Dick.”
According to ChicagoBears.com, statistics for his nine seasons on the turf show he stole the ball 47 times, a team record; recovered 25 opponent fumbles, an NFL record at the time, intercepted 22 passes, returned 12 kickoffs, once rushed 28 yards on a fake punt play, twice caught passes after fumbled snaps.
“If records were kept of fumbles forced, he would undoubtedly own all-time high mark…In fact, he calls his leaping catch for the extra point that beat Washington, 16-15, in 1971 the favorite play of his career,” they wrote, adding, “He had drive, meanness, a consuming desire to pursue, tackle, butt and manhandle-anything he could do to thwart the enemy on every play. Still he was a clean football player, fantastically devoted to his career, a man who by his own admission played every game as though it were his last one. He had the speed and quickness to make tackles from sideline to sideline and to cover the best tight ends and running backs on pass plays. He had instinct, strength, leadership, and, maybe most important of all, anger.”
In the end, it was a right knee injury in 1970 that began Butkus slide toward retirement. He had surgery in the off-season, but played while in pain the next two seasons. The 1973 season was a short one for him as he, for the first time, took himself out of a game because the pain was too much for him to handle. A few weeks later his career was over.
He later sued the Chicago Bears, alleging improper handling of his injury. The suit was settled out of court for $600,000 and, according to Gannett News Service and sports.jrank.org, in 1997 underwent reconstructive knee surgery.
In 1979, the first year he was eligible, Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Off the field, Butkus married his high school sweetheart, Helen, in 1963, and they had three children, Ricky, Matt and Nikki. Sometime after his induction he moved his family to Malibu, California.
It was from there he was able to enjoy a second career as an endorser, broadcaster, and actor. His film credits are rather lengthy, including the well-known movies of “The Longest Yard,” “Johnny Dangerously,” “Gremlins II,” and “Necessary Roughness.” Some of his many television credits include: “My Two Dads,” “Brian’s Song,” “Rockford Files,” “MacGyver,” and served as an analyst on “The NFL Today.”
Butkus also served as head football coach for Montour High School in McKees Rock, Pa. That was the same year the team made it to ESPN’s reality show “Bound for Glory.”
The Butkus Foundation includes several programs, from the “I Play Clean” program that encourages teens to train hard, eat well and play with attitude rather than drugs, to the Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness, and the premier Butkus Award, honoring linebackers at high school, college and pro levels.