Dick Butkus: Legendary Chicago Bears Linebacker

From a Wall Street Journal obit by Andrew Beaton headlined “Dick Butkus, Legendary NFL Linebacker, Dies at 80”:

Dick Butkus, the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker who instilled fear into offensive players with his powerful blows, has died.

In his nine NFL seasons ending in 1973, Butkus became the archetype of the middle linebacker position. He led the Bears’ defense, delivered ferocious hits and became an icon in the same town where he was born.

“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.”

Butkus, who was inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, had a standout career despite playing on an unremarkable set of teams—the Bears never reached the playoffs during his tenure. Butkus, though, was widely recognized as a generational player: he reached the Pro Bowl in every season but his final one.

Butkus was the paragon of what NFL teams prized at the time. He was renowned for the sheer violence of his game, using his 6-foot-3 and 245-pound frame to pulverize anyone holding a football. For decades, middle linebackers aspired to play the game like Butkus and crush the bones of anyone in their path.

Today, that style of play is increasingly part of a bygone era as the NFL increasingly makes the safety of the game a priority amid rising concerns about concussions and other injuries.

The vigor with which Butkus approached the game may also explain the end of his career at 31 years old. Butkus suffered a serious knee injury in 1970, which eventually led to his retirement a few years later.

Those injuries also produced a bitter end to his playing days: in a lawsuit after he stepped away from the game, he alleged that the Bears were negligent in their medical care of him. Although the parties reached a settlement, it created an iciness between the team and one of its hallmark players that would slowly thaw over the ensuing years.

Richard Marvin Butkus was born on Dec. 9, 1942 in Chicago and he made the state his home for both his amateur and professional careers. He attended the University of Illinois, where he became a big enough star that the Bears and their legendary coach George Halas made him the third overall pick in the 1965 draft. Halas’s heirs still own the club.

It didn’t take long for Butkus to establish himself back in his hometown. He was named an All-Pro as a rookie, recording five interceptions and seven fumble recoveries.

Those statistics are indicative of how Butkus wasn’t simply an enforcer. He had a nose for the football, the intelligence to read opposing offenses and the quickness to excel in pass coverage.

“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement. “He was Chicago’s son. 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.”

Even though the Bears had a draft for the ages in 1965—the team also selected Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers that year—the team struggled during Butkus’s career. Chicago had just two winning seasons with Butkus roaming on defense.

After his playing days, Butkus went on to appear in television shows and movies, including the football movie “The Longest Yard” in 1974. He also spent time as an NFL analyst, including on the radio for the Bears. In 1994, almost 20 years after retiring, the team finally retired his No. 51.

“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,” McCaskey said.

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