Butkus, Richard Marvin ("Dick")

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BUTKUS, Richard Marvin ("Dick")

(b. 9 December 1942 in Chicago, Illinois), football player considered one of the best linebackers of all time; he is a Pro Football Hall of Famer and was a University of Illinois All-American and Chicago Bears All-Pro.

Butkus was the fifth son and seventh child of Lithuanian Americans John Butkus, an electrician, and Emma Good-off. He came from a family of large people and weighed over thirteen pounds at birth. However, he was small and unathletic as a child, which was a relief to his mother, who did not want him playing football and risking injury the way his brothers did in high school. But Butkus had wanted to be a football player as long as he could remember, and he grew bigger and stronger. At Chicago Vocational High School, he played both fullback and linebacker well enough to be chosen the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year in 1959 and the 1960 Associated Press Prep-Football Player of the Year.

He selected the University of Illinois from all the colleges vying for him. Notre Dame wanted him, but did not want its players to be married, and Butkus already had married his high school sweetheart, Helen Essenberg, with whom he later had three children. At Illinois, Butkus at times played center but was better known for his play at middle linebacker, where he excelled in speed, strength, and toughness. In 1963, his junior year, he was credited with making 145 tackles and causing 10 fumbles. He was chosen All-American, and Illinois was ranked third in the country, winning the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl. His senior year, he repeated as All-American and was voted the College Football Player of the Year by the Sporting News.

In 1965 the Chicago Bears drafted Butkus, who was also drafted by the American Football League (AFL) Denver Broncos. Butkus was happy to sign with the Bears for $200,000, more than any defensive rookie had ever been paid. The Bears' incumbent middle linebacker, Bill George, had been a star for the team for thirteen years, but he later said that the first time he saw Butkus in practice he realized he was ready to be replaced. In the first game of the Bears' season, the six-foot, three-inch, 245-pound Butkus made eleven unassisted tackles against the San Francisco 49ers. That began a year in which he was chosen All-Pro, and the defense allowed over a hundred fewer points than it had the previous year.

Through 1970 Butkus was the preeminent middle line-backer. Every year he was voted All-Pro and selected to play in the Pro Bowl, and every year he led the Bears in tackles and assists, intercepting a few passes and recovering a few fumbles along the way. In 1969 and 1970 he was chosen Defensive Player of the Year.

Butkus showed his versatility in 1971 with a memorable play. Although he had not played on offense since college, he lined up as a blocking back whenever the team attempted to kick a field goal or extra point. National Football League (NFL) rules at the time stated that the point after touchdown could be kicked through the uprights or run or passed into the end zone, but because the team got one point either way, teams opted for the more certain kick. In a game against the Washington Redskins, however, the snap got away from holder Bobby Douglass. Douglass chased the ball down thirty yards behind the line and heaved a desperation pass to Butkus, who caught it and ran it in for the single point that turned out to be the Bears' margin of victory.

In another game during that season, this one against the Detroit Lions, the television audience saw another side, the human side, of Butkus. After a play, Lions' wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed on the way back to the huddle. From across the field, Butkus noticed, ran over to Hughes, and signaled desperately for medical attention. It was too late; Hughes was already dead of a heart attack. The alertness Butkus showed was typical of his play, but his compassion surprised many. For the most part he was accurately portrayed by the media as a fierce, angry linebacker.

It was also in 1971, however, that Butkus suffered the first major injury of his career, damage to the ligaments of his right knee. The surgery was not entirely successful, and for the rest of his career he played in pain. In 1973 Butkus reinjured the knee and retired. He finished his career with 1,020 tackles, 489 assists, 22 interceptions, and 25 recoveries of opposition fumbles. The fumble recoveries were a career record when he retired, but he was later passed by Jim Marshall and Rickey Jackson, both of whom had much longer careers than did Butkus. After his retirement, Butkus sued the Bears on the grounds that his medical treatment was inadequate; the case was settled out of court. In 1995 he had the knee replaced surgically.

Butkus announced Bears' games on the radio from 1985 to 1994 and humorously played off his violent, animalistic image in a series of light beer commercials in which he claimed to be "sensitive" and attended cultural events with fellow behemoth Bubba Smith. He played himself in Brian ' s Song, a 1970 television docudrama about teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer in mid-career. Butkus then went on from that role to a moderate-range acting career, usually portraying athletes. On television, he played Ed Klawicki in the sitcom My Two Dads (1987–1989) and high school basketball coach Mike Katowinski in Hang Time. He also joined the Internet, lending his name to dickbutkus.com, a successful site offering football news and tips.

In 2001 the World Wrestling Federation attempted to challenge the NFL's hegemony by setting up its own football league, the XFL. Butkus was hired to give the league some credibility as its director of competition (a title created for him), but he could not overcome the league's low quality and resulting low ratings, and the league folded after its first year.

Butkus was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. In 1985 the National Collegiate Athletic Association instituted an award for the best college linebacker of the year and named it after him. Butkus was also selected to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Butkus was among the most skilled in the many categories important to the success of a middle linebacker. He could sense and deduce where the play was going. He was fast enough to catch runners and sometimes to cover potential pass receivers, having the toughness and strength to tackle those he caught. He had the alertness and skill to intercept passes and quickly locate and take advantage of fumbles.

The main sources for Butkus's life story are the autobiographies Stop-Action, with Robert W. Billings (1972) and Flesh and Blood: How I Played the Game, with Pat Smith (1997). George Vass, George Halas and the Chicago Bears (1971), tells much about his contributions to the team. Butkus's website, <http://www.dick.butkus.com>, offers further information.

Arthur D. Hlavaty

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