Quite possibly the meanest, nastiest, fiercest, most competitive son of a bitch ever to strap on a pair of shoulder pads and don a football helmet. From what I know of Mr. Butkus, he’d consider that a compliment.
For those of you who follow or are familiar with American football, when you think of a middle linebacker what image comes to mind? For me, and maybe I’m showing my age here, it will always be Butkus. (The name even sounds tough!). I can still see the films and recall the days when my Giants played those Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears and Butkus would line up on defense with his arms waving and fingers pointing and screaming like some kind of lunatic. Then the ball would be snapped and it was like unleashing a caged lion. The intensity and his ability to battle through blockers and pursue the ball remains unmatched to this day.
The Early Years
Richard “Dick” Butkus was born into the blue collar world on the south side of Chicago. By the time he hit the 5th grade, he already knew that he wanted to grow up to play professional football. By his own self admission, Butkus was not the brightest light in the bulb. When asked about his academic abilities at the University of Illinois, here’s what he has to say for himself…
"If I was smart enough to be a doctor, I’d be a doctor. I ain’t, so I’m a football player.”
In college, you have some teams that seem to be perpetual doormats in one sport or another. Illinois is not exactly known for its prowess on the football field but in Butkus’s junior year in 1963 everything came together. They won the Big Ten championship, were ranked third in the nation and managed to beat Washington in the Rose Bowl.
Dan Jenkins, a writer for Sports Illustrated probably summed it up best when he wrote of Mr. Butkus…
If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus, all fullbacks would be three feet tall and sing soprano. Dick Butkus is a special kind of brute whose particular talent is mashing runners into curious shapes.
Welcome to the Pros
Following his senior year, Butkus was ready to make the jump to the pros. It just so happened that his hometown team, the Chicago Bears, had two first round draft picks that year. They chose wisely, making Dick Butkus and future Hall of Famer Gale Sayers their players of choice.
There was some talk amongst Bear fans that Butkus was too slow to play in the pros. That was dispelled the minute training camp opened. Butkus took to the field with his usual fury and wreaked havoc on anything that got in his way. The man whose job he was competing for, Bill George, another future Hall of Famer had this to say..
”The second I saw him on the field at training camp, I knew my playing days were over. Nobody ever looked that good before or since.”
Butkus lived up to the rookie hype by leading the team in tackles, fumbles recovered and interceptions. For the next eight years, he was the mainstay of the Chicago Bears defense. He would lead them in tackles for all of those years and his mere presence on the field was enough to intimidate his opponents.
By the time 1973 rolled around, injuries began to take their toll. You could almost see the frustration etched on his face when he failed to make a tackle or somebody blew by him. At one point, he did something nobody ever thought they would see him do. He took himself out of a game. The pain was just too much.
A few weeks later, realizing that he still had that fire in the heart but his knees had turned to jelly, he limped off the field for the last time. What he left behind was a legacy.
Even though Dick Butkus retired after only nine years of profession ball, he left behind some staggering numbers and achievements.
1020 solo tackles
489 assisted tackles
College Football Hall of Fame
Professional Football Hall of Fame
Finished 3rd in voting for the Heisman Trophy – unheard of for a linebacker
Consensus All-American 1963 and 1964
All Big Ten, 1962, 1963 and 1964
NFL All –Pro Seven times
Each year, college football hands out an award to the best linebacker in the country. Fittingly, it’s now called the Butkus Award.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute bestowed upon Butkus came years after he left game. A poll was taken among NFL coaches that asked the following question.
"If you had to start a team from scratch, who would be the first player you would choose?”
The answer, Number 51, Dick Butkus…