Perhaps no player in the Chicago Bears’ 104-year history better epitomized the team’s tough and determined identity than Dick Butkus.
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 entertainment 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.”
Butkus, 80, died “peacefully in his sleep overnight” at his home in Malibu, California, the Butkus family said Thursday.
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,” Bears Chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “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.”
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, in a statement, said Butkus “embodied the strength and the tenacity of his hometown with every snap he played on the gridiron.”
“He was a true Monster of the Midway, but also an actor, a commentator and a statesman for all things representing our beloved blue and orange,” Johnson said. “He was a giant of a player, and a man, and we will always remember his giant love and dedication to the City of Chicago.”
Born Richard Marvin Butkus on Dec. 9, 1942, he was the youngest of nine children of Lithuanian immigrants. His father, Don, was an electrician. 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 from 1962-64 and was a unanimous All-American in 1963 and ‘64. In 1963 Butkus won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the Big Ten’s most valuable player, and 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 ‘64, and he finished his college career with 374 tackles.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement that “the Greatest Living Illini has left us.”
“Dick Butkus was a giant in a land of giants,” Whitman said. “In a game built on toughness and tenacity, he stood alone. One of the most imposing figures to ever wear a helmet, away from the field, Dick was self-effacing, humble and generous. A cultural icon, Dick leaves a legacy on Americana that will never be forgotten.”
The Bears drafted Butkus in the first round of the 1965 draft with the No. 3 pick — one spot before they took another future Hall of Famer, running back Gale Sayers, 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 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 coverage, racking up 22 interceptions.
Butkus started all 119 games he played. He was named first-team All-Pro five times and second-team once and was voted to the Pro Bowl after his first eight seasons. He’s the Bears’ all-time leader with 27 fumble recoveries.
“Near universally, Dick Butkus, a hometown hero in Chicago, was considered the person who defined the position of middle linebacker,” Pro Football Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said in a statement. “He established a level of production and intensity few have matched. USA Today once called him the ‘gold standard by which other middle linebackers are measured.’
Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1978. The NFL named him to its all-decade teams for both the 1960s and 1970s as well as its 75th and 100th anniversary all-time teams.
In 1994, the Bears retired the jersey numbers of Butkus (51) and Sayers (40) during a stormy halftime ceremony at Soldier Field.
Butkus, whose playing career was cut short because of multiple knee injuries, left the Bears with bitter feelings.
He filed a lawsuit in 1974, 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 Halas.
The parties eventually reached an out-of-court financial settlement, and the relationship between Butkus and the Bears improved over the years.
Trading on his tough-guy image, Butkus enjoyed a second career as a sports broadcaster, actor and 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.
He appeared in “The Longest Yard” in 1974 and a dozen other feature films over the next 15 years, as well as the action series “Blue Thunder” and sitcoms “My Two Dads” and “Hang Time.” He returned to the Bears as a radio analyst in 1985 and joined CBS’ “The NFL Today” pregame show in 1988.
“Dick Butkus was a fierce and passionate competitor who helped define the linebacker position as one of the NFL’s all-time greats,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Dick’s intuition, toughness and athleticism made him the model linebacker whose name will forever be linked to the position and the Chicago Bears.
“We also remember Dick as a longtime advocate for former players and players at all levels of the game.”
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.
Butkus is survived by his wife, Helen, and children Ricky, Matt and Nikki.
Fred Mitchell is a former Chicago Tribune sports writer. Will Larkin, also formerly of the Tribune, and the Associated Press contributed.