Butkus, Dick (1942—)

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Butkus, Dick (1942—)

If a Hollywood scriptwriter were authoring a football movie and needed to conjure up an ideal name for a hard-nosed middle linebacker who breakfasted on nails and quarterbacks, he could do no better than Dick Butkus. Not only was Butkus, who played in the National Football League between 1965 and 1972, the dominant middle linebacker of his era, but he singlehandedly redefined the position. What made him extra-special was his well-earned reputation for being one of the toughest and most feared and revered players ever to play the game. Butkus also brought a high level of intelligence and emotion to the playing field, which only embellished his physical talents.

If the stereotypical quarterback is a pretty boy who comes of age in a sun-drenched Southern California suburb, Butkus' background fits that of the archetypal dirt-in-your-fingernails linebacker or tackle: he grew up on Chicago's South Side, as the ninth child in a blue-collar Lithuanian family. He attended the University of Illinois, where he won All-America honors in 1963 and 1964; in the latter year, he was a Heisman Trophy runner-up. In 1965, the 6[.minute]3[.second], 245-pounder was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. During his nine-year career with the Bears, which ended prematurely in 1973 due to a serious knee injury, Butkus had 22 interceptions, was All-NFL for seven years, and played in eight Pro Bowls.

On the football field he was all seriousness, and a picture of non-stop energy and intensity. Butkus would do whatever was necessary to not just tackle an opponent but earn and maintain everlasting respect. He was noted for his ability to bottle up his anger between Sundays, and free that pent-up fury on the playing field. Occasionally, however, he was not completely successful in this endeavor, resulting in some legendary alcohol-soaked escapades involving his pals and teammates along with tiffs with sportswriters and in-the-trenches haggling with Bears owner-coach George Halas. Of special note is his long-standing feud with Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, who wrote a piece in which he labeled Butkus "A Special Kind of Brute with a Love of Violence."

After retiring from the Bears, Butkus became a football analyst on CBS's NFL Today and went on to a career as a television and film actor. He would win no Oscar nominations for his performances in Hamburger… The Motion Picture, Necessary Roughness and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and no Emmy citations for My Two Dads, The Stepford Children, Superdome and Half Nelson. But his grid credentials remain impeccable. Butkus entered the Football Hall of Fame in 1979, and is described in his biographical data as an "exceptional defensive star with speed, quickness, instinct, strength … great leader, tremendous competitor, adept at forcing fumbles…. People [still] should be talking about the way Dick Butkus played the game," noted broadcaster and ex-NFL kicker Pat Summerall, over a quarter century after Butkus' retirement. Along with fellow linebackers Ted Hendricks, Willie Lanier, Ray Nitschke, Jack Hamm, Jack Lambert, and Lawrence Taylor, he was named to NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.

Ever since 1985, the Dick Butkus Award has been presented to the top collegiate linebacker. Herein lies Butkus' gridiron legacy. To the generations of football players in the know who have come in his wake—and, in particular, to all rough-and-tumble wannabe defensive standouts—Dick Butkus is a role model, an icon, and a prototypical gridiron jock.

—Rob Edelman

Further Reading:

Butkus, Dick, and Pat Smith. Butkus; Flesh and Blood: How I Played the Game, New York, Doubleday, 1997.

Butkus, Dick, and Robert W. Billings. Stop-Action. New York, Dutton, 1972.

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Butkus, Dick (1942—)

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