Sunday, October 21, 2001
Updated: October 29, 8:41 AM ET
Butkus was ferocious for struggling Bears
By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com
Dec. 13, 1970 -- When Chicago met Green Bay at Wrigley Field in the next-to-last game of the season, both teams were also-rans. They may have been fighting for nothing more than one notch above the NFC Central Division cellar, but the rivalry was fierce.
The game plan by the 4-8 Bears was to stop Bart Starr. Enter Dick Butkus. With Chicago leading 14-0 in the first quarter, Butkus and defensive end Willie Holman dropped Starr so fiercely that the quarterback lost his helmet and began walking toward the wrong bench.
While Starr regained his composure sufficiently to take the field for the Packers' next possession, he was soon helped from the field after a play in which Butkus blitzed but never touched him. The quarterback looked, said the Chicago Tribune, "like Oscar Bonavena after Cassius
Clay had finished with him."
With rookie Frank Patrick replacing Starr, Butkus led the defense on repeated blitzes that resulted in six sacks for 55 yards lost. Butkus' terminator tactics had accomplished their goal as the Bears won 35-17, their first victory over a division opponent in two years.
Odds 'n' Ends
Butkus' father, John, had come over to Ellis Island from Lithuania and spoke broken English. In Chicago, he worked for Pullman Standard, which made railroad sleeping cars.
Butkus' mother, Emma, worked in a laundry when she wasn't taking care of the eight children.
An older brother, Ron, played ball for three colleges and had a
tryout with the old Chicago Cardinals before quitting because of a bad knee.
In Butkus' first year of varsity high school football, Chicago Vocation allowed only 55 points in eight games.
In 1959, the Chicago Sun-Times voted him Chicago's High School Player of the Year, the first junior ever so honored.
Also as a junior, Butkus was arrested and spent two nights in a juvenile detention center after being caught red-handed stealing the rear-fender skirts off a hot rod. The judge sentenced him to a year of probation.
As a senior at Chicago Vocation he hurt his knee for the first time.
Before his junior season at Illinois in 1963, Playboy referred to his ferocity as "primitive."
That year, he appeared on Ed Sullivan's and Bob Hope TV shows.
Midwestern sportswriters voted him the 1963 MVP in the Big 10.
As a senior, Butkus was angry about a Dan Jenkins cover story in Sports Illustrated that characterized him as a "brute" with a "love of violence."
Butkus finished third in the 1964 Hesiman Trophy balloting, behind quarterbacks John Huarte of Notre Dame and Jerry Rhome of Tulsa.
Butkus, a first-round draft choice, signed a five-year contract with the Chicago Bears for $204,000 -- a little more than half of what he had been offered by the AFL Denver Broncos.
A bad sprain that had never healed properly gave Butkus an uncanny
ability to curl his thumb around a football. The resulting grip was one
of the main reasons he could rip the ball from opponents' hands.
Stealing a theory from the playbook of military psychology, Butkus
always maintained that the best way to overcome fear is with anger.
During the 1969 season, Butkus took two shots of hydrocortisone in his
knee every week.
Butkus' first acting experience was in the 1971 made-for-TV movie Brian's Song, based on the death of former teammate Brian Piccolo. Butkus played himself.
In 1971, two botched operations forced Butkus to alter his style of
play. Instead of hurdling over blockers he had to sidestep them or fend
them off with his hands. This slowed him down some and cost him
Butkus' first book, "Stop Action," described a week of the 1971 season.
His second, "Butkus: Flesh and Blood" by Pat Smith, is a more conventional autobiography.
When Butkus' knee had finally deteriorated to the point where he
couldn't play, Bears owner George Halas refused to honor his contract
unless a necessary operation was performed by the team doctor and not a
In the middle of the ensuing legal battle, Butkus won the Halas Award for the most courageous NFL player of 1973.
In Butkus' nine seasons, the Bears only had two winning seasons (9-5 in 1965 and 7-6-1 in 1967) and never reached the playoffs.
Since retirement he has appeared in Miller Lite commercials, made testimonial films on Nautilus equipment and become an actor.
Among his TV acting credits: Wonder Woman, Bronk, Simon & Simon, Magnum PI, and My Two Dads; Rich Man, Poor Man, a mini-series; a spaghetti Western called The Onion Man; and a movie called SuperDome.
From 1985-87, Butkus was reunited with his Bears as a radio analyst.
On Halloween night 1994, the Bears retired Butkus' No. 51. They also retired Gale Sayers' 40 that evening.
Butkus and his wife Helen have three children: a daughter Nikki and sons Matt and Rick.