Fred Mitchell | Chicago Tribune
Dick Butkus, the player who perhaps best epitomized the tough and determined identity of the Chicago Bears, has died, the Tribune confirmed Thursday. He was 80.
The Butkus family said Thursday he died “peacefully in his sleep overnight at home” in Malibu, California.
A product of Chicago’s working-class South Side and the University of Illinois, Butkus became a fierce Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker before embarking on a modest but enduring television and acting career in Hollywood.
“After football, it was difficult for me to find what I liked second best,” Butkus once told the Tribune. “Football was always my first love. That certainly didn’t mean I couldn’t find something else. And the proof of the pudding is where I have ended up today.
“I guess I could have been one of those guys who didn’t prepare to quit. But things happened and through hard work I found out that, hey, there are other things besides football.”
In 2019, the Tribune ranked Butkus No. 2 in a list of the 100 greatest Bears.
“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history. He was Chicago’s son,” George McCaskey said in a statement Thursday. “He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidently, 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. When we dedicated the George Halas statue at our team headquarters, we asked Dick to speak at the ceremony, because we knew he spoke for Papa Bear.
“Dick had a gruff manner, and maybe that kept some people from approaching him, but he actually had a soft touch. His legacy of philanthropy included a mission of ridding performance enhancing drugs from sports and promoting heart health. His contributions to the game he loved will live forever and we are grateful he was able to be at our home opener this year to be celebrated one last time by his many fans.”
Butkus, whose playing career was cut short because of multiple knee injuries, left the Bears with bitter feelings.
In 1974, Butkus filed a lawsuit, asserting that the Bears knowingly encouraged him to keep playing when he should have had surgery on his knees. The litigation caused friction between Butkus and Bears owner George Halas.
The parties eventually reached an out-of-court financial settlement and the relationship between Butkus and the Bears franchise improved over the years.
Born Richard Marvin Butkus on Dec. 9, 1942, he was the youngest of nine children of Lithuanian immigrants. His father, Don, was an electrician. And his mother, Emma, worked in a laundry. Butkus grew up in the Roseland neighborhood and played high school football for coach Bernie O’Brien at Chicago Vocational.
At Illinois, Butkus played center and linebacker (1962-1964) and was a unanimous All-American, in 1963 and 1964. In 1963 Butkus won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player. In 1964, he was named the American Football Coaches Association Player of the Year. Butkus finished sixth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 1963 and third in 1964. Butkus wound up his college career with 374 tackles.
He was a first-round draft pick (No. 3 overall) of the Bears in 1965. Another future Hall of Famer, Gale Sayers, also was selected in that first round by the Bears, making it one of the most productive drafts by one team in NFL history.
The Denver Broncos of the then-fledgling American Football League, also drafted Butkus in the first round in 1965.
Butkus’ status as one of the greatest of all time is remarkable considering he never made the playoffs and enjoyed just two winning seasons in his nine-year career.
He was just that good — and ferocious.
Butkus’ highlight reels still are shocking for their violence, tapping into a part of himself that even the most hardened football players find difficult to reach. He simply had no regard for his opponents.
Rams defensive end Deacon Jones, a Hall of Famer and one of the most feared defensive players ever, once said: “I called him a maniac. A stone maniac. He was a well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”
But Butkus was more than just a hard-hitting linebacker. He also was deftly skilled in pass covering, racking in 22 interceptions.
Butkus started all 119 games he played. He was named first-team All-Pro five times and second-team once and he was voted to the Pro Bowl after his first eight seasons. He’s the Bears’ all-time leader with 27 fumble recoveries.
Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1994, the jersey numbers of Butkus (51) and Sayers (40) were retired by the Bears during a stormy halftime ceremony at Soldier Field.
The Butkus Foundation was formed to focus on his charitable endeavors. His most passionate initiative was the “I Play Clean” campaign, which concentrates on educating young athletes about the dangers of using steroids.
The Butkus Award was established in 1985 to recognize the top linebackers in high school, college and the NFL each year. The award also uses service to the community as part of its criteria.
Fred Mitchell is a former Chicago Tribune sports writer. Will Larkin, also formerly of the Tribune, contributed.
Source: Berkshire mont