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Tuesday, August 29, 2000
Updated: June 13, 4:22 PM ET
Butkus was one mean Bear

By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"To play this game -- and I've always said this -- you have to have a Neanderthal gene. Butkus had two," says former Chicago Bears teammate Doug Buffone on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

It is possible that Dick Butkus was the meanest, nastiest, fiercest linebacker to ever put on a helmet. More than a quarter of century after his retirement there remains the Butkus image, one of the middle linebacker wrapping up a running back and viciously slamming him to the ground like an unwanted toy. There is the famous photograph of No. 51 with his lips curled in contempt taken during a game in 1968.

Dick Butkus
Eight-time Bears Pro Bowl performer Dick Butkus (#51) terrorized NFL offenses.
After being a two-time All-American at Illinois, where he played center as well as linebacker, Butkus terrorized NFL offenses as the hub of the Chicago Bears' defense. The man who lived for contact was all-NFL seven times and played in the Pro Bowl eight times in a career cut short to nine years by knee injuries. In 1970, a panel of NFL coaches voted Butkus the player they would start with if they were building a new team from scratch.

He had the speed and quickness to make tackles from sideline to sideline and to cover tight ends and running backs on pass plays. He had instinct, strength, leadership and, maybe most important, anger.

"When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad," Butkus said. "If someone on the other team was laughing, I'd pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. I'd find something to get mad about. It always worked for me."

Teammates and opponents alike marveled at Butkus' ferocity. He intimidated players like nobody else. "If I had a choice, I'd sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear," former Green Bay Packers running back MacArthur Lane said. "I prayed that I could get up every time Butkus hit me."

The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder also had, as they say, a nose for the ball. He set a team record by recovering six opponents' fumbles as a rookie. When he retired after the 1973 season, he owned the NFL record for opponents' fumbles recovered with 25.

Butkus was born Dec. 9, 1942, into a Lithuanian blue-collar family in the Roseland section of Chicago's South Side. Growing up the youngest of eight children, he knew by the fifth grade what he was going to be. "A professional football player," he said. "I worked hard at becoming one, just like society says you should. It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough. I was tough."

He chose his high school, his summer employment, his friends and his college with the goal of becoming a pro player in mind. He took two buses to attend Chicago Vocation High School because the program was run by a Notre Dame graduate, Bernie O'Brien. An all-state fullback, he was ever fiercer on defense. He learned to strip the ball from runners while making a tackle, an art that served him well in the pros.

When it came to college, he chose Illinois because he liked the program that the new coach, Pete Elliott, was developing. The deciding factor, though, may have been one of the few non-football considerations in his life. Because he was contemplating marriage to his high school sweetheart Helen Essenhart (they eventually wed in 1963) and Notre Dame frowned on married players, he rejected the Fighting Irish.

Butkus wasn't a Rhodes Scholar at Illinois. "If I was smart enough to be a doctor, I'd be a doctor," he told Sports Illustrated. "I ain't, so I'm a football player. They got me in PE."

But what a football player. In 1963, his junior year, he made 145 tackles and caused 10 fumbles in leading Illinois to the Big Ten championship, a No. 3 ranking and a 17-7 victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl.

"If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus, all fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing soprano," wrote Dan Jenkins in a cover story for Sports Illustrated in October 1964. "Dick Butkus is a special kind of brute whose particular talent is mashing runners into curious shapes. . . . Butkus not only hits, he crushes and squeezes opponents with thick arms that also are extremely long. At any starting point on his build, he is big, well-proportioned, and getting bigger."

Elliott said, "Football is everything to him. When we have a workout canceled because of bad weather or something, he gets angry, almost despondent. He lives for contact."

Butkus, as mean as ever as a senior, repeated as an All-American in 1964. That November the Bears had the No. 3 and 4 picks in the first round of the draft and chose Butkus and Gale Sayers, setting a new standard for excellence in drafting.

In its scouting report on the Bears before Butkus' rookie season, Sports Illustrated wrote: "There is some mild apprehension that Butkus might be a step too slow to play center linebacker, his college position, and not experienced enough to wade right in at one of the outside posts, but a little seasoning should make him an outstanding defender."

But Butkus didn't need any seasoning. He was an instant hit.
Dick Butkus
Butkus, who is in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, led the Bears in tackles for eight straight seasons.
Bill George, who had played 13 years for the Bears and was the incumbent middle linebacker on his way to the Hall of Fame, didn't have any doubts. "The second I saw him on the field [at training camp] I knew my playing days were over," George said. "Nobody ever looked that good before or since."

In a sparkling debut, Butkus made 11 unassisted tackles against the 49ers. After allowing San Francisco 52 points, the defense improved dramatically. In going 9-5, a reversal of the previous season's 5-9, they yielded 275 points, a 104-point improvement over 1964. Not only did Butkus lead the Bears in tackles, he also led them in opponents' fumbles recovered and interceptions.

For eight straight years Butkus led the Monsters of the Midway in tackles, averaging 120 tackles and 58 assists a season. In 1967, he recorded a career-high 18 sacks. Three years later, he suffered an injury to his right knee and underwent surgery for reconstruction of loose ligaments in early 1971. The surgery was only partially successful, and he played in pain during his last three seasons.

Despite the discomfort, Butkus made 117 tackles and 68 assists, recovered three fumbles and intercepted four passes in 1971. He also made the favorite play of his career: a catch for a conversion point off a botched extra-point snap that turned out to be the difference in a 16-15 Chicago victory over Washington. And this was the season that Butkus DID NOT make all-NFL for the first time.

For Butkus, who signed a contract for $575,000 over five years in July 1973, it all fell apart that season. For the first time, he took himself out of a game because the pain was unbearable. A few weeks later, he limped off the field for the last time.

He retired with 1,020 tackles, 489 assists and 22 interceptions. His 25 recoveries of fumbles by opponents are now fifth on the all-time list, but Jim Marshall needed 20 years for his 29 recoveries, Rickey Jackson 15 seasons for his 28, Kevin Green 15 campaigns for his 26 and Cornelius Bennett 14 years for his 26. If records were kept of fumbles forced, the big Bear undoubtedly would be one of the all-time leaders.

In a lawsuit filed in 1974, Butkus charged the Bears with improper handling of his injury. This grievance was settled out of court for $600,000 in 1976. Butkus couldn't run or jump or stand any lengthy period without experiencing severe pain until he had his knee reconstructed in November 1997. The artificial knee has eased his suffering.

Here's how tough Butkus, who is in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, is: If he had to do it again, he wouldn't change much of anything.

Butkus did numerous commercials after retiring. He also went into acting -- in the movies and television. For several years in the late 1990s, Butkus played the head basketball coach on the Saturday morning TV show "Hang Time."

When the XFL started, he was going to be the head coach of the Chicago franchise in 2000. However, he changed his mind and took a job in the league's front office. To Butkus' surprise, the XFL folded after one season.