Dick Butkus, fearsome Hall of Fame linebacker, dies at 80
By Richard Goldstein
Dick Butkus, the Chicago Bears’ famously hard-hitting Hall of Fame middle linebacker of the 1960s and ’70s and a selection for the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team, died last Thursday at his home in Malibu, California. He was 80.
The Bears confirmed the death but did not give the cause.
At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds — a good size for his era — Butkus stuffed running plays up the middle. He was also speedy and mobile enough to drop back and foil opponents’ pass plays. He was cited as a first team All-Pro five times and was chosen for the Pro Bowl game eight times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.
Sacks did not become an official statistic until 1982, so the number of times Butkus smothered opposing quarterbacks remains unrecorded. But he was considered to have intercepted 22 passes and recovered 27 fumbles while playing for the Bears from 1965-73.
“When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad,” Butkus was quoted as saying by the Hall of Fame. “If someone on the other team was laughing, I’d pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. It always worked for me.”
Bill George, Butkus’ predecessor as the Bears’ middle linebacker, who was nearing the end of his own Hall of Fame career when Butkus was a rookie, believed Butkus was destined for stardom. “The first time I saw Butkus, I started packing my gear,” George once told the Chicago Tribune. “There was no way that guy wasn’t going to be great.”
Until the early 1950s, players in the middle of pro defensive lines were known as middle guards. They were hefty sorts charged mainly with stopping opponents’ inside running games. George began transforming defenses by dropping back at times for prospective pass plays.
The middle linebacker position was glamorized in October 1960 when CBS aired “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” narrated by Walter Cronkite, a portrayal of the New York Giants’ star. Butkus was playing football for Chicago Vocational High School at the time as a fullback, linebacker, punter and place-kicker.
He gained national recognition in his own right as an All-American playing at linebacker and center for the University of Illinois for three seasons. As a junior, he led the Illini to an 8-1-1 record and a victory over the University of Washington in the 1964 New Year’s Day Rose Bowl game.
In a 1964 cover story for Sports Illustrated, Dan Jenkins wrote that “if every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus of Illinois, all fullbacks soon would be three feet tall and sing soprano.”
Richard Marvin Butkus was born into a large Lithuanian American family in Chicago on Dec. 9, 1942, a son of John and Emma (Good-off) Butkus. His father was an electrician for the Pullman-Standard railroad car company.
Butkus was chosen by the Bears in the first round, third overall, in the 1965 NFL draft and by the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in its second round. He went with his hometown team, a storied NFL franchise owned and coached by future Hall of Famer George Halas. In his rookie season, he intercepted five passes and recovered seven fumbles.
But the Bears fell on hard times during Butkus’ years. They won 49 games, lost 74 and tied four, and never reached the playoffs. In his last few seasons, Butkus played on with a badly injured right knee despite having undergone surgery. In May 1974, having retired, he sued the Bears for $1.6 million, contending that the team had not provided him with the medical and hospital care it had promised in a five-year contract he signed in July 1973. The case was settled out of court.
Upon leaving football, Butkus pursued acting. In one of a series of Miller Lite television advertisements featuring athletes, he portrayed a tennis player who debated the beer’s strongest point with Bubba Smith, formerly a star defensive end with the Baltimore Colts. The point of contention in the series was always “Tastes Great! Less Filling!”
Butkus appeared in motion pictures, including “Necessary Roughness” (1991) and “Any Given Sunday” (1999). And he was a character in TV shows, including “My Two Dads” and “Hang Time.”
Butkus played himself in “Brian’s Song,” a 1971 television docudrama about his teammate Brian Piccolo, a running back who had died of cancer a year earlier. He also appeared in an ESPN series, “Bound for Glory,” which followed him for one season as he coached a high school football team.
Butkus and his wife, Helen, had three children — Matt, Nikki and Richard Jr. — and grandchildren. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Mike Pyle, a Bears center in the 1960s, faced Butkus head on in the team’s scrimmages. In Richard Whittingham’s “Bears in Their Own Words” (1991), Pyle told how “Dick would be just as intense in practice as he was in a game.”
“I’d spend all this money buying him dinner and beer and stuff like that so that he wouldn’t take it out on me in the scrimmages,” Pyle said. “He probably did shorten my career by a couple of years just in training camp.”