Butkus, Dick

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Dick Butkus


American football player

Dick Butkus, in his nine seasons as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL), came to epitomize his position, team and community. His on-field meanness and loyalty to his team and native city reflected football of the 1960s. Butkus was elected to the pro and college football Halls of Fame, and the award for the top college linebacker in the United States bears his name. High school and college linebacking standouts are known to wear Butkus's pro number (51), which the Bears retired.

"More than a quarter of a century after his retirement, there remains the Butkus image: the middle linebacker wrapping up a running back and viciously slamming him to the ground like an unwanted toy," Larry Schwartz wrote on the ESPN Classic web site. "If I had a choice," said MacArthur Lane, a running back for the rival Green Bay Packers, "I'd rather go one-on-one with a grizzly bear. I pray that I can get up every time Butkus hits me."

Yearned for Football Career

Butkus, who grew up with his blue-collar, Lithuanian family on the South Side of Chicago, wanted to play pro football by the fifth grade. He traveled out of the way to attend Chicago Vocational High School because its football coach, Bernie O'Brien, was a University of Notre Dame graduate. He was an all-state fullback on offense and downright nasty on defense. "He learned to strip the ball from runners while making a tackle, an art that served him well in the pros," Larry Schwartz wrote for the ESPN.com Web site.

Enamored as Butkus was with Notre Dame, however, he opted instead for the University of Illinois. Notre Dame at the time banned married players, and he was considering marriage to his high school sweetheart, whom he eventually married. In Illinois, Butkus saw an up-and-coming program run by new coach Pete Elliott. Butkus made clear why he was at Illinois. "If I was smart enough to be a doctor, I'd be a doctor," he said. "I ain't, so I'm a football player. They got me in P.E. (physical education)."

All-American at Illinois

Butkus made first-team All-America his final two college seasons. In 1963, he made 145 tackles and forced ten fumbles as Illinois won the Big Ten championship and earned a No. 3 ranking nationally after a 17-7 victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl. In 1964, the National Football Coaches Association honored Butkus as the best player in the country; Butkus also finished third in the voting for the prestigious Heisman Trophy.

"If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus, all fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing soprano," Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated. "Dick Butkus is a special kind of brute whose particular talent is mashing runners into curious shapes."

The Bears, selecting third, took Butkus in the first round of the 1965 National Football League draft while the Denver Broncos of the upstart American Football League made Butkus their second pick. (The AFL and NFL merged a few years later). Playing in his home-town, in the more established NFL and with four-year,

$200,000 contract was too much for Butkus for refuse. It was a vintage draft for Chicago, which also had the fourth overall pick and took running back Gale Sayers , who also had a Hall of Fame career.

Ferocious Fixture for Bears

Butkus wasted no time making an impact. In his NFL debut in September, 1965, Butkus made eleven unassisted tackles against the San Francisco 49ers. Veteran Bill George, the Bears' middle linebacker the previous thirteen seasons, knew his Chicago days were numbered. "The second I saw him the field (at training camp), I knew my playing days were over," said George, who played but two games that season and ended his career with the Los Angeles Rams a year later.

The Bears in 1965 rebounded from three straight season-opening losses to win nine of their last eleven and finish 9-5. Butkus led Chicago in tackles, fumbles recovered and pass interceptions as the Bears allowed 104 fewer points over fourteen games than in 1964. Butkus's coach, George Halas , was one of the NFL's founders and liked the young player's primitive style.


1942Born December 9 in Chicago, Illinois
1962-64Two-time All-America in three seasons at the University of Illinois.
1964Helps lead Illinois to 17-7 Rose Bowl victory over the University of Washington.
1965Chicago Bears of National Football League draft him in first round (third overall); Denver Broncos of American Football League also draft him in second round. Butkus signs with Bears.
1965Makes 11 unassisted tackles in NFL debut against San Francisco 49ers.
1970Panel of NFL coaches vote Butkus as player they would start with if they were building a team from scratch.
1973Retires as player; was named all-NFL in seven of nine seasons and played in eight Pro Bowls
1974Sues Chicago Bears, alleging mistreatment of his knee injury; eventually settles out of court for $600,000
1997Undergoes knee reconstruction surgery
2002San Diego Chargers sign Butkus's nephew, Luke, who also played at the University of Illinois

He led Chicago in tackles for eight consecutive seasons, averaging 120 tackles and fifty-eight assists a year. He registered a career-best eighteen sacks in 1967. Over his nine seasons, he earned forty-seven takeaways-twenty-five fumble recoveries and twenty-two interceptions. Butkus even caught two extra points on offense after bungled snaps, one of them the winning play, a diving reception of a pass as Chicago defeated the Washington Redskins 16-15 in 1971. Butkus calls that the favorite play of his career. He never appeared in an NFL playoff game; the Bears were rebuilding during that era after their 1963 championship team had aged.

But ferocity, not statistics, defined Butkus, who stood at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. "When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad," he said. "If someone on the other team was laughing, I'd pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. I'd find something to get mad about. It always worked for me." "Butkus was in the eye of the football hurricane on every play, and his primary intention was barbaric, but simple: Hurt somebody, anybody," Anthony Holden wrote on the Web site CBS SportsLine.com. "As long as Butkus gave you a teeth-rattling shot, he was happy." Butkus cashed in on his tough-guy image, endorsing antifreeze and shaving cream, among other products, on national TV.

Sues Former Team

Injuries took their toll on Butkus later in his career. After surgery on his right knee following the 1970 season, he played painfully for two years. In a 1973 game against the Atlanta Falcons, Butkus took himself out of the game. Several weeks later, he retired, having earned 1,020 tackles, 489 assists and twenty-two interceptions.

In 1974, Butkus sued the Chicago Bears' team doctor, alleging mistreatment of his injuries, and settled for $600,000, according to Gannett News Service. He underwent knee reconstruction surgery in 1997.

In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando (Florida) established the Butkus Award for the best college football linebacker. Butkus presents the award annually.

Butkus's nephew, Luke Butkus, was an offensive center at the University of Illinois from 1998-2001, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. He signed with the San Diego Chargers in November, 2002, after they had cut him earlier in the fall.

Butkus's 1974 lawsuit against the Bears resurfaced in the news in November, 2002, when the media refocused on the treatment of injured football players after Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Donovan McNabb reportedly played part of a game with a broken ankle. "Almost 30 years after Dick Butkus sued the Bears over the damage caused when his knees were treated as pincushions for pain shots, it is time for the league and the union to revamp the system," Selena Roberts wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

Butkus Legacy

While other linebackers such as Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants and Jack Lambert of the Pittsburgh Steelers have been dominant in their eras, Butkus is still the measuring stick at that position. Promising players are described as "a high school Butkus," "a Canadian Butkus," "an Ivy League Butkus."

Butkus and his wife, Helen, live in Malibu, California. They have three children: Rick, Mathew and Nikki. He still does television commercials and small movie parts, often reflecting his "tough-guy" persona, and manages the Dick Butkus Football Network, a Web site. He also announced for the National Broadcasting Corporation during its XFL telecasts. That league folded after one season, in the winter of 2002.

Career Statistics

CHI: Chicago Bears.

Awards and Accomplishments

1963Silver Football Award as Big Ten Conference Most Valuable Player after leading Illinois to conference championship
1963-64College All-America at linebacker position while playing for University of Illinois; all Big-Ten selection as linebacker and center
1964Selected National Football Player of the Year by National Football Coaches Association
1965Selected NFL Rookie of the Year
1971In rare offensive play, caught leaping pass for winning extra point as Bears defeated Washington Redskins, 16-15
1979Selected to Pro Football Hall of Fame
1983Selected to College Football Hall of Fame
1985Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando establishes Butkus Award for nation's top college football linebacker
1986University of Illinois retires his jersey number (50)
1994Chicago Bears retire his jersey number (51)
1995Selected to Rose Bowl Hall of Fame

"I want to be recognized as the bestno doubt about it," Butkus once said. "When they say all-pro middle linebacker, I want them to mean Butkus!" Still, Butkus, for all his talents, might have trouble in today's NFL, which often fines and suspends players for extreme hits. "Headhunting is declasse in the NFL these days," Charles Bricker wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas said he grew up enjoying Butkus on television, but added, "Nowadays, the NFL doesn't want to show that. They just want to show all the touchdowns."


(With Bob Billings) Inside Defensive Football, Regnery, 1971.

(With Robert W. Billings) Stop-Action Dutton, 1972.

(With Pat Smith) Butkus: Flesh and Blood, Doubleday, 1997.



"Athletes Behind the Tradition: Butkus Award." http://graphics.fansonly.com/photos/schools/ill/sports/m-footbl/auto_pdf/butkus-award.pdf. (November 30, 2002).

"Butkus Was One Mean Bear." ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00014131.html (November 30, 2002).

"Chicago Bears Tradition/51: Dick Butkus." www.chicagobears.com/history, (November 30, 2002).

"Despite League's Crackdown on Illegal Hits, Trend Increasing in NFL," Sun-Sentinel.com. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/ (November 23, 2002).

"Middle Linebackers." SportsLine.com, http://www.sportsline.com (December 2, 2002).

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Butkus profile, http://www.profootballhof.com/players/mainpage.cfm?cont_id=100177 (November 30, 2002).

Sketch by Paul Burton

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