CHICAGO (AP) — The cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1970 NFL Preview featured a photo of Dick Butkus sneering behind a face mask with the headline “The Most Scared Man in the Game.” Opponents who have finished with his heartbreaking blows can attest that this is no exaggeration.
Butkus, the Chicago Bears middle linebacker whose speed and ferocity set the standard for the modern position at the position, has died, the team announced Thursday. He is 80 years old.
Butkus’ family confirmed that he died in his sleep while spending the night at his home in Malibu, California, according to a statement released by the team.
Butkus was a five-time first-team All-Pro selection and a Pro Bowl selection in eight of nine seasons before a knee injury forced him to retire at age 31. He was the quintessential Midway monster and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He became famous in 1979, his first year of eligibility. He is still considered one of the greatest defensive players in league history.
“Dick Butkus was a ferocious and passionate competitor who helped position linebackers as one of the greatest players in NFL history. Dick’s instincts, toughness and athleticism made him an exemplary linebacker, His name will forever be associated with this position and the Chicago Bears organization,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “We also remember Dick as a former player and a long-time advocate for players at all levels.”
Butkus enjoyed a lengthy second career as a sports broadcaster, film and television actor and popular salesman for products ranging from antifreeze to beer, thanks to his image as the toughest man in the room. Whether the script is a comedy or a drama, Butkus usually plays himself, his gruff exterior hiding a tender side.
“I would never intentionally hurt anyone,” Butkus responded, only half-jokingly, when asked about his reputation on the court. “Unless it’s, you know, important… like a league game or something.”
Butkus is the rare pro athlete who has played his entire career close to home. He was a star linebacker, fullback and kicker at Chicago Vocational High School and later played at the University of Illinois. Born on December 9, 1942, the youngest of eight children, he grew up on the city’s South Side as a fan of the Bears’ crosstown rivals, the Chicago Cardinals.
But after being drafted in the first round in 1965 by the Bears and the Denver Broncos (then a member of the now-defunct NFL), Butkus chose to stay in Chicago and play for NFL founder and coach George Halas. The Bears also used another first-round pick that year to add future Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers to the roster.
read more: Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers dies at 77
“He was a son of Chicago,” Halas’ grandson and Bears president George McCaskey said in a statement. “He embodies the essence of our great city and, not coincidentally, embodies the qualities that George Halas looks for in a player: toughness, intelligence, instinct, passion and leadership. He refuses to accept that of himself or his teammates. Anything less than perfect.”
Butkus inherited the middle linebacker position from Bill George, a Hall of Famer who is credited with popularizing the middle linebacker position in the NFL. In 1954, George abandoned his three-point position in the middle of the defensive line and started every play a few steps away from him, a vantage point that allowed him to watch the play unfold and then run to the ball. .
However, Butkus brings speed, agility and a scorched-earth attitude to the job that his predecessors could only imagine. He intercepted five passes, recovered six fumbles and was unofficially credited with forcing six more fumbles in his rookie year, his first of eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. But his reputation as a disruptor extends far beyond his ability to take away footballs.
Butkus would hit runners high, wrap them up, and then push them to the ground like ragdolls. “Playboy” magazine once described him as the “meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest” player in the NFL and “animal, savage, and subhuman.” Butkus wasn’t happy with that description. But they’re also hard to argue with.
Some opponents claimed Butkus poked them in the face or bit them during the pileup, and he admitted that during warmups, “I would make stuff that pissed me off.” When the Detroit Lions played the Bears at old Tiger Stadium Team, Butkus knocked every member of the “I” team — center, quarterback, linebacker and halfback — out of the game.
He doesn’t always stop there. On several occasions, Butkus hit the ball carrier well beyond the sideline. More than once he chased them on the track around the pitch and even into the stands.
“It’s not enough to just hit people,” teammate Ed Obradovich said. “He loved to crush people.”
Despite these efforts, the Bears lost far more games than they won during his tenure, going 48-74-4. Dealing with tendon problems that began in high school, Butkus suffered a serious injury to his right knee during the 1970 season and underwent preventive surgery before the next season. After missing nine games during the 1973 season, he considered a second surgery.
Butkus announced his retirement in May 1974 when a surgeon asked him, “How does someone of your size play football, or why do you want to play football?”
Soon after, Butkus sued the Bears for $1.6 million, claiming he didn’t receive adequate medical care and was owed back pay for the remaining four years of his contract. The lawsuit was settled for $600,000, but Butkus and Halas did not speak for five years.
Butkus, like Sayers, never made the playoffs. The Bears won the 1963 championship, and by the time they made the playoffs again in 1977, Butkus and Sayers were long gone.
The Bears reached the top again during the 1985 season with their only Super Bowl title. But they have only returned to the championship game once since. Butkus didn’t understand why.
“There’s no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t always be on top,” he said at the Bears’ 100th anniversary celebration in June 2019. “I know when you go through the draft, you’ve got these draft picks or whatever it is that’s always been No. 1. How do you explain New England being at the top all these years. That’s not right. It should have been the Bears.”
After leaving football, Butkus became an instant celebrity. In 1974, he starred in “The Longest Yard” and over the next 15 years appeared in more than a dozen feature films, as well as the sitcoms “My Two Dads” and “Hang Time.” He also returned to the Bears as a radio analyst in 1985 and in 1988 replaced Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder on CBS’ “NFL Today” pregame show .
Through the Butkus Foundation, he helped establish a program at a Southern California hospital to encourage early screening to detect heart disease. He started a movement to encourage high school athletes to train and eat well and avoid performance-enhancing drugs.
The foundation administers the Butkus Award, established in 1985 to honor college football’s top linebacker. In 2008, it expanded to include professional and high school players.
“Dick had a rough attitude, and maybe that kept some people away from him, but he was actually very gentle,” McCaskey said.
Flags at the Pro Football Hall of Fame were flown at half-staff in honor of Butkus.
“In an era when middle linebacker became one of the game’s glamorous positions—several of Dick’s contemporaries would eventually enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame—his name is most often cited first and foremost as the epitome of excellence at the highest level,” Hall of Fame Chairman Jim Porter said in a statement.
Butkus is survived by his wife Helen and children Ricky, Matt and Nikki. Nephew Luke Butkus has coached in college and in the NFL, including with the Bears.