From 1965 through 1973, the Chicago Bears’ Dick Butkus wreaked unprecedented havoc on the offensive units of all other National Football League teams. Possessed with a desire to excel that few others have ever known, the 6-3, 245-pound middle linebacker played with only one goal in mind-that was, simply, to be the best.
“I want to be recognized as the best-no doubt about it,” Dick would admit. “When they say all-pro middle linebacker, I want them to mean Butkus!”
Who is the best at any position is always debatable. But there never was an argument even among those who favored a rival defensive star that the Chicago Bears ace was something exceptional every time he took the field.
Confirmation that this was a universally accepted belief came in 1979 with the election of Butkus to membership in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility following a mandatory five-year retirement period.
Butkus joined quarterback Johnny Unitas, offensive tackle Ron Mix, and defensive back Yale Lary in receiving formal induction rites at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 28, 1979.
Right from the moment he finished his collegiate career at Illinois, where he was a two-time all- American, the American Football Coaches Association’s Player of the Year and a third place finisher in the 1964 Heisman Trophy voting, Dick’s pro football adventure was off to a high note.
With the pro football war heating up to full-scale proportions in the middle 1960’s, Butkus was drafted by both the Bears and the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. Although the Broncos made an offer supposedly “too good to turn down,” Butkus opted for the more respected NFL, a chance to play in his home town and an estimated four-year $200,00 contract.
Chosen to play in the Chicago All-Star game, Dick enjoyed a sensational post-graduate debut. He made or assisted on 35 tackles, blocked a Cleveland Browns field goal attempt and finished second in the MVP voting.
Since he would be challenging 14-year veteran Bill George for the middle linebacker job, Butkus had fretted that the time he spent in the All-Stars camp might hinder his chances with the Bears. Dick’s fears were groundless.
“The minute the guy walked into camp,” George, now a Pro Football Hall of Fame Member himself, will tell you. “I started packing my gear. There was no way he wasn’t going to be great!”
To be sure, Butkus did have some adjustments to make. In college, he more or less relied on his exceptional football instincts to put himself always into the right place at the right time. With the Bears, who had one of the most complicated defensive alignments in pro football, Dick has to learn to read offensive formations and to improve on his pass defense coverage.
Just before the 1965 regular-season opener against San Francisco, he admitted, “It’s all I can do to figure out where I am supposed to be.” Still he contributed 11 unassisted tackles in a sparkling debut. Although he continued to make typical rookie mistakes, it is said he never made the same mistake twice.
The Bears that year rebounded from three opening losses to win nine of their last 11 games and the defense, led by Butkus, performed the tradition of “The Monsters of the Midway” of old. The rookie from Illinois led the Chicago team in both opponents’ fumble recoveries and pass interceptions.
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. He was named all-NFL teams seven of his nine seasons and he played in the Pro Bowl after his first eight campaigns. In 1970, a panel of NFL coaches voted Butkus the player they would prefer to start with if they were building a new team from ground up with no other players on the roster.
Butkus also figured significantly in the statistical columns. In his nine seasons, he took the ball away from opposition 47 times, a Chicago Bears team record. He recovered 25 opponents’ fumbles, an NFL record at the time of his retirement, and he intercepted 22 passes. If records were kept of fumbles forced, he would undoubtedly own all-time high mark.
He even returned 12 kickoffs and one-rushed 28 yards on a fake punt play. Twice he caught passes for extra points after fumbled snaps had aborted the intended kicking attempts. In fact, he calls his leaping catch for the extra point that beat Washington, 16-15, in 1971 the favorite play of his career.
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.
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.
“When I went out on the field to warm up,” Butkus acknowledged, “I would manufacture things to make me mad. 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.”
Everyone, teammates and opponents alike, marveled at what they saw and or felt when Butkus played.
“If I had a choice, I’d sooner go one on one with a grizzly bear,” running ace MacArthur Lane of the Green Bay Packers said. “I pray that I can get up everytime Butkus hits me.”
Or as former Los Angeles Rams head coach Tommy Prothro said: “He is a legendary football player. I never thought any player could play as well as writers write that he can, but Butkus comes as close as any I’ve ever seen.”
Born December 9, 1942, into a large Lithuanian family on Chicago’s South Side, Dick became obsessed with the idea of a pro football career while still in grade school. He devoted his entire adolescence and young manhood toward achieving his goal. He chose his high school, his summer employment, his friends, his college with that one thought in mind.
He traveled several miles more than necessary every day to attend Chicago Vocational High School because the program was run by a Notre Dame grad, Bernie O’Brien. An all-state fullback in high school, it was there he learned to strip the ball from runners while making a tackle, an art that served him so well in the pro ranks.
When it came to college, he chose Illinois because he liked the program the new coach, Pete Elliott, was organizing. The deciding factor, however, may have been one of the few non-football considerations in his life. Because he was contemplating marriage, he eliminated Notre Dame when he learned that school banned married players. Today he and his wife Helen, his high school sweetheart, live in Deland, FL. Dick continues to stay in the public eye through television commercials, movie bit parts and running the Dick Butkus Football Network.
It was inevitable that injuries would eventually come to someone who threw himself so completely into a contact sport such as football. In Dick’s case, it was a right knee that was injured first in 1970. Off-season surgery was only partially successful and he played in pain for the next two seasons. But for Dick Butkus, it all fell apart in 1973. For the first time in a game that year against Atlanta, Dick took himself out of a game because the pain was to great to bear. A few weeks later, he limped of the NFL field for the last time.
A famous lawsuit that charged the Bears with improper handling of his injury followed. This grievance was eventually settled out of court. Today Dick can’t run or jump or stand any lengthy period without experiencing pain. He may eventually need an artificial knee.
Still, if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t change much of anything, Butkus told assembled newsmen when his Hall of Fame election was publicly announced.
“Few people get to earn a living at what they like to do and there are hazards in any profession,” he pointed out. “Football is something I was made for. I gave the game all I could for as long as I could. I guess my only regret was that my Career was to short.”
His career was long enough, however, that the Dick Butkus brand of defensive football will always command a special niche in pro football history!