In the history of sport, it’s doubtful there has ever been a more ideal melding of game, player and position than football, Dick Butkus and middle linebacker. It’s as if he were born to play the position, or the position were invented with Butkus in mind.
All-American, All-Pro, Hall of Famer … even the highest accolades don’t really capture the talent and intensity he brought to the game. Thirty-six years after hung up his cleats and limped off the field on his ravaged knees for the last time, the name Dick Butkus remains synonymous with a relentlessly fierce style of play that defines the signature position on a defensive team.
Fittingly, the Dick Butkus Award honors college football’s top linebacker each season.
Butkus wasn’t the first great middle linebacker: the ferocious likes of Sam Huff, Joe Schmidt, Bill George and Ray Nitschke were giving the position a special aura while “Richie” Butkus was discovering it as a two-way all-state standout at Chicago Vocational High School on the Windy City’s South Side.
But from the day he showed up at the University of Illinois, Butkus distinguished himself as a special player, one whose drive and determination matched his prodigious ability, creating an enduring legacy of excellence.
“Dick Butkus never had a loafing moment on the football field, in practice, warm-ups or games,” former Illinois coach Pete Elliott once said.
Butkus was a two-time consensus All-American at Illinois, playing center as well as fullback. He led the Illini to the Big Ten title and won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as conference MVP as a junior in 1963, making a school-record 23 tackles in a game against Ohio State. Fullback Jim Grabowski was the MVP of the Illini’s 17-7 Rose Bowl victory over Washington, running for 125 yards and scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown, but the Butkus-led defense limited the Huskies to seven points and 130 total yards, and Butkus sealed the win with a late-game interception.
He repeated as an All-American in 1964, and though Michigan QB Bob Timberlake supplanted him as the Silver Football winner, Butkus finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, a remarkable showing for a defensive player. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Butkus’ No. 50 and Red Grange’s No. 77 are the only football jerseys Illinois has ever retired.
It didn’t seem possible, but Butkus exceeded his college achievements and built on his legend in pro football with his hometown Chicago Bears. Blessed with two first-round picks in the 1965 NFL draft, the Bears hit it big with Butkus and Gale Sayers, a game-breaking running back from Kansas. Both players were immediate stars, Sayers setting an NFL rookie record with 22 touchdowns.
Butkus felt as if he’d been preparing for pro football all his life. “I worked hard to become a football player, just like society says you’re supposed to,” he said. “You had to be tough, and I was tough.”
Indeed, he packed a fierce wallop at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, and Butkus is synonymous with big, punishing hits.
“I’d rather go one-on-one with a grizzly Bear,” Packers running back MacArthur Lane once observed. “When Dick Butkus hits me, I pray that I get up.”
But Butkus’ well-deserved reputation as a hitter often overshadows his athletic ability. He had the speed and range to track down ball carriers from sideline to sideline, and an unerring nose for the ball, recovering 27 opponents’ fumbles and making 22 interceptions after dropping into pass coverage.
Although knee injuries limited him to nine NFL seasons, Butkus made a lasting impact. He was voted All-NFL seven times and played in eight Pro Bowls. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. The Bears retired his No. 51 in 1994. He was a member of the All-Time Team chosen by the NFL in 2000. He was listed as the ninth best player in NFL history by The Sporting News and the 70th greatest 20th Century athlete in ESPN’s “Sports Century” series.
Butkus lives in Southern California with his wife, Helen, his high school sweetheart. They have three grown children. He did some broadcasting after retiring as a player, and steady work as an actor kept him in the public eye. He remains involved in charity work through the Butkus Foundation. “I Play Clean” is a program close to his heart; it’s designed to encourage young athletes to excel in sports by eating right, training hard and avoiding performance-enhancing drugs.
That was Dick Butkus’ approach. It worked out pretty well for him.