It is fitting that Richard
Marvin “Dick” Butkus hails from Chicago, Illinois; the city and state
with which he will always be identified. He was born December 9, 1942, to a blue-collar
Lithuanian couple living in the Roseland section of Chicago's South Side. The youngest
of eight children, Dick learned early on to compete hard for what he wanted. By
the fifth grade he had already decided to become a professional football player.
"I worked hard at becoming one, just like society says you should,” Dick
recalled. “It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough. I was tough."
Dick’s ferocious intensity first came to the public’s attention when
he attended Chicago Vocational High School, where he was a star football player,
and then with the University of Illinois, where he enrolled in 1961. In 1963, his
junior year, Dick made 145 tackles and forced 10 fumbles, leading Illinois to the
Big Ten championship. The team finished the season ranked third in the nation, and
went on to defeat Washington in the Rose Bowl, 17-7.
Dick was a unanimous All-American, playing center and linebacker, and repeated as
an All-American in 1964. Despite not carrying the ball, he was a top contender in
the Heisman Trophy balloting both years, finishing sixth in 1963, and third in 1964.
His jersey number, 50, was one of only two ever retired by the University of Illinois,
the other being 77, worn by the legendary Harold “Red” Grange. Eventually,
Dick would be named to the
College Football Hall of Fame (1983). He is generally considered one of the greatest
college football players of all time.
In 1965, Dick Butkus was drafted by his NFL home team, the Chicago Bears, and suddenly
the Midway had a brand new Monster! Picking up where he left off in college, he
made 11 solo tackles in his first game and served as the catalyst for dramatically
reversing the fortunes of a Bears defense that had been struggling. He was a top
contender for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, but was edged out by his teammate and
fellow first-round draft pick, the spectacular Gale Sayers, drafted by the Bears
the same year.
Ranging from sideline to sideline with speed, quickness, and instinct, the 6-3,
245-lb. Butkus terrorized opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks. His mauling style
of tackling was worthy of a grizzly bear. Adept at forcing fumbles, he recovered
27 in his nine-year career. He also excelled at pass coverage against tight ends
and running backs, and finished his career with 22 interceptions. Most of all, he
was the undisputed leader of the Chicago Bears defense, epitomizing the clean, hard-nosed,
brutal athleticism that set the standard for every NFL middle linebacker who followed.
Part of Dick’s
success, by his own admission, was his ability to play with anger. “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. It always worked for me." No doubt, many an opponent of
his era would grudgingly concur.
Dick suffered the first of a series of knee injuries in 1970, which resulted in
surgery that was never fully successful. For the last three years of his career,
Dick played in pain, yet continued to dominate from his position, registering 117
tackles and 68 assists, recovering three fumbles, and intercepting four passes in
1971 alone. By the time he retired in 1973, Dick had been named first-team All-NFL
six years, and played in eight consecutive Pro Bowls. His career totals include
1,020 tackles and 489 assists. Dick underwent reconstructive knee surgery in 1997,
which relieved much of the pain he had endured since his playing days.
For Dick Butkus, the end of his football career meant the
beginning of a new one: acting. His outgoing personality and rugged persona served
him well in many a movie role and TV commercial. In the first of what would become
a long-running series of Miller Light ads, Dick played against type, portraying
a gentlemanly tennis player who cheerfully debates the beer’s merits with
fellow ex-NFL defensive star Bubba Smith. Almost over night, the campaign’s
tag line “Less Filling! Tastes Great!” was a household phrase. He has
also appeared in motion pictures such as Necessary Roughness and Any Given
Sunday, and as a regular character on TV shows such as My Two Dads
and Hang Time.
Most recently, Dick appeared in the ESPN Original Entertainment series titled Bound
For Glory. The series followed Dick as he coached a real-life high school
football team for an entire season.
Outside of professional endeavors, Dick is a family man. Helen, his wife since 1963,
was his high school sweetheart. Their children include one daughter, Nicole, and
two sons, Richard and Matthew. Matthew followed in his father’s footsteps
in college football, playing defensive line for the University of Southern California
and their 1990 Rose Bowl winning team.
As time goes by, Dick’s legacy has only grown. He was selected the 70th greatest
athlete of the 20th century by ESPN, the 9th best player in league history by The
Sporting News, and the 5th best by the Associated Press. The National Football League
named him to their all-time team in 2000. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall
of Fame in 1979.
On October 31, 1994, Dick received what may have been the highest honor for a hometown
Chicago boy. At halftime of the Monday night game at Soldier Field against the Bears’
arch rivals, the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears retired Dick Butkus’
jersey number. Joined by teammate Gale Sayers, who was likewise honored the same
night, Dick could take deep satisfaction in knowing something any fan of NFL Football
already knew -- there will never be another number 51 for the Chicago Bears!