Butkus was one mean Bear
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

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

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 -- perhaps 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 fumbles as a rookie. When he retired after the 1973 season, he owned the NFL record for opponents' fumbles recovered with 25.

Born Dec. 9, 1942, into a large Lithuanian blue-collar family on Chicago's South Side, Butkus 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."

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He chose his high school, his summer employment, his friends and his college with the goal of becoming a pro player. He traveled several miles more than necessary 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 even 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 (they eventually did marry) 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 said. "I ain't, so I'm a football player. They got me in P.E."

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 Sports Illustrated. "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 Nos. 3 and 4 picks in the first round of the draft and chose Butkus and Gale Sayers, setting a standard of 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. 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 when he saw Butkus perform for the first time. "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 fumbles recovered and pass 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. The surgery was only partially successful, and he played in pain for the next two seasons. Despite the discomfort, Butkus made 117 tackles and 68 assists, recovered three fumbles and intercepted four passes. He also made the favorite play of his career: a catch for a conversion point off a botched snap on an extra point 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, it all fell apart in 1973. 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 third on the all-time list, but Jim Marshall needed 20 years for his 29 recoveries and Rickey Jackson needed 15 seasons for his 28. If records were kept of fumbles forced, the big Bear undoubtedly would be one of the all-time leaders.

In a lawsuit, Butkus charged the Bears with improper handling of his injury. This grievance was eventually settled out of court. 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.

Butkus, who is in both the college and pro hall of fames, spends his time these days golfing and acting. Beginning in September, he will portray a head basketball coach on the Saturday morning show "Hang Time."