Dick Butkus, Linebacker, 1965-1973
Trying to write an article about Dick Butkus and his impact on
the Chicago Bears is difficult. Presenting his statistics to the reader in no
way quantify the impact he had on the Bears, and his entire generation of
football in the NFL.
This article is not a story like the rest on this site, and is
not written in any proper news story format, as much as I strive to be
professional on this site. I was born in 1971, so obviously started watching
the Bears several years after Butkus retired. Much as I don't think a 20 year
old now could truly appreciate Walter Payton without being able to see a full
Payton game, I don't think there is any way I can truly appreciate the
dominance I hear Dick Butkus wreaked on the football field without having seen
a full Bears game with him at MLB myself.
Sure, I've see a thousand clips of Butkus nearly decapitating
an opposing running back, quarterback, offensive lineman, receiver, ballboy,
etc. But what I hear truly set Butkus apart was the absolute fear he put into
his opponents. And I wasn't there to see it personally, to see him take away
virtually every part of the field he could reach. So I'd instead like to share
some comments from those that did play with him or see him play.
Bears Linebacker Doug Buffone (1966-1979): "I always
say to play professional football, you have to have a neanderthal gene. Dick
Green Bay Packer Running Back Paul Hornung: "Dick
didn't just tackle you. He made just textbook tackles, but he didn't just
tackle you. He engulfed you."
In a draft that also produced future NFL Hall of Fame running
back Gale Sayers, Butkus was Chicago's first selection in 1965, with the third
pick overall. He was a far south side native of Chicago, and attended Chicago
Vocational Academy, a school that would later be attended by Bears defensive
tackle Chris Zorich.
After a consensus All American career at Illinois, who he led
to a 1964 Rose Bowl victory and #3 ranking in the national standings, Butkus
was selected by the Bears. He made an immediate impact on the Bear defense, and
went to the Pro Bowl in his first eight seasons with the team.
By the early 1970's, Butkus' ruthless play began to have an
effect on his own health, as he battled repeated and recurring knee problems.
According to Detroit Lion tight end Charlie Sanders, the linebacker's
reputation didn't help the situation. "It was known around the league that no
one wanted to take Dick on directly, so there was a lot of chop-blocking and
hits below the knees on him, which contributed to his demise."
The Chicago Bears' physician at the time was known around the
locker room as "needles", dispensing cortisone and painkiller shots routinely,
and Butkus felt his true knee condition was not being shared with the coaching
staff and organization. "Back in those days, if you didn't play, you were in
violation of your contract, no matter how hurt you were," Butkus said.
Prior to the 1973 season, the linebacker signed a
huge-for-the-era $575,000, five year contract, but he couldn't play to earn any
of the money. In his last games, according to writer William Nack, "Butkus was
like a wounded water buffalo on the Serengeti, with a flock of hyenas circling
him, picking off flesh.
So in 1974, unable to continue to play football, Butkus filed
a lawsuit against the Bears, contending that the knee problems caused by the
game wouldn't allow him to fulfill the terms of the contract he had signed.
George Halas and the Bears vigerously defended the charges, but in 1976 the two
sides settled for $600,000.
At this time, a bitter Butkus became depressed that the
Chicago hero could no longer be associated with the team and city he loved. A
family friend said "It broke his heart. This was his world, and he had it
yanked out from under him."
But the rift between Butkus, Halas and the Bears eventually
lessened somewhat. In 1979, upon the release of his autobiography, the
legendary founder was visited by Butkus at one of his book signings. Halas
signed Butkus' book "to the best football player I ever saw." Butkus would join
the Bears' radio team in 1985, and in 1994 had his number 51 forever retired
alongside his draftmate Gale Sayers.