West News Wire: The 1970 NFL preview from Sports Illustrated included a picture of Dick Butkus sneering behind his facemask, with the heading “The Most Feared Man in the Game.” That wasn’t an exaggeration, as witnesses who suffered his bone-rattling blows could attest.
Butkus was a middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears whose ferocity and speed set the bar for the position in the modern era. The team confirmed his passing on Thursday. He was 80.
Butkus’ family verified that he passed away at his Malibu, California, home in his sleep, the team said in a statement.
Butkus was a first-team All-Pro five times and made the Pro Bowl in eight of his nine seasons before a knee injury forced him to retire at 31. He was the quintessential Monster of the Midway and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. He is still considered one of the greatest defensive players in league history.
“Dick Butkus was a dedicated and intense competitor who contributed to making the linebacker position one of the best in NFL history. Dick was a model linebacker whose name will always be associated with the position and the Chicago Bears because of his instinct, tenacity, and athleticism, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. We also remember Dick as a steadfast supporter of current players and athletes at all levels of competition.
On Thursday night, before the Bears took the pitch at the Washington Commanders, there was a minute of quiet to remember Butkus.
Trading on his image as the toughest guy in the room, Butkus enjoyed a long second career as a sports broadcaster, an actor in movies and TV series, and a sought-after pitchman for products ranging from antifreeze to beer. Whether the script called for comedy or drama, Butkus usually resorted to playing himself, often with his gruff exterior masking a softer side.
“I wouldn’t ever go out to hurt anybody deliberately,” Butkus replied tongue-in-cheek when asked about his on-field reputation. “Unless it was, you know, important … like a league game or something.”
Butkus was the rare pro athlete who played his entire career close to home. He was a star linebacker, fullback and kicker at Chicago Vocational High who went on to play at the University of Illinois. Born on Dec. 9, 1942 as the youngest of eight children, he grew up on the city’s South Side as a fan of the Chicago Cardinals, the Bears’ crosstown rivals.
But after being drafted in the first round in 1965 by both the Bears and Denver Broncos (at the time, a member of the now-defunct American Football League), Butkus chose to remain in Chicago and play for NFL founder and coach George Halas. The Bears also added future Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers to the roster that year with another first-round pick.
“He was Chicago’s son,” Bears chairman George McCaskey, Halas’ grandson, said in a statement. “He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidentally, what George Halas looked for in a player: toughness, smarts, instincts, passion and leadership. He refused to accept anything less than the best from himself, or from his teammates.”
Butkus inherited the middle linebacker job from Bill George, a Hall of Famer credited with popularizing the position in the NFL. In 1954, George abandoned his three-point stance in the middle of the defensive line and started each play several paces removed, a vantage point that allowed him to watch plays unfold and then race to the ball.
Butkus, however, brought speed, agility and a scorched-Earth attitude to the job that his predecessors only imagined. He intercepted five passes, recovered six fumbles and was unofficially credited with forcing six more in his rookie year, topping it off with the first of eight straight Pro Bowl appearances. But his reputation as a disruptor extended well past the ability to take away the football.
Butkus would hit runners high, wrap them up and drive them to the ground like a rag doll. Playboy magazine once described him as “the meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest” player in the NFL and an “animal, a savage, subhuman.” Descriptions like that never sat well with Butkus. But they were also hard to argue.
Several opponents claimed Butkus poked them in the face or bit them in pileups, and he acknowledged that during warmups, “I would manufacture things to make me mad.” When the Detroit Lions unveiled an I-formation against the Bears at old Tigers Stadium, Butkus knocked every member of the “I” the center, quarterback, fullback and halfback out of the game.
Butkus is survived by his wife, Helen, and children Ricky, Matt and Nikki. Nephew Luke Butkus has coached in college and the NFL, including time with the Bears.