NFL Network ranked the most feared tacklers in league history in 2009. No. 1 on the list was Dick Butkus. There could have been no other choice for the top spot.
Butkus’ name has become synonymous with the violent side of football: fear and intimidation. Butkus was also synonymous with greatness at middle linebacker, and in many ways the NFL itself.
Butkus, the longtime Chicago Bears star, died at age 80. A statement from his family, via the Bears, said he died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Malibu, California.
Bears chairman George McCaskey released a statement honoring Butkus.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement on Thursday night, too.
“Dick Butkus was a fierce and passionate competitor who helped define the linebacker position as one of the NFL’s all-time greats,” Goodell said. “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 long-time advocate for former players, and players at all levels of the game. The Dick Butkus Award and his foundation honored achievement on the field and service to the community among high school, college and NFL linebackers. Dick was a champion of clean sports as his ‘I Play Clean’ campaign helped raise awareness about the dangers of steroid use among high school athletes.
“We send our deepest condolences to the Butkus family, the Bears organization and the many fans and people he impacted throughout his life.”
Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. It was an easy pick, because it’s hard to imagine writing the history of the game without Butkus.
Dick Butkus was a star at every level
Butkus started to become a household name at the University of Illinois. Playing center and linebacker, he led the Illini to a 17-7 win over Washington in the 1964 Rose Bowl. That is Illinois’ last Rose Bowl win. The Dick Butkus Award is now given to the top linebacker in college football each year.
Butkus was a high draft pick of the AFL’s Denver Broncos (ninth overall) and the NFL’s Chicago Bears (third overall), but the allure of playing for his hometown Bears was strong. He signed with the Bears, and was a star from the start.
Butkus was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie in 1965, as was teammate Gale Sayers. Butkus and Sayers were the first rookie teammates in NFL history to both be named All-Pro, and that record wasn’t matched until 2018.
Butkus was the epitome of violence in football
Butkus was more than just a fierce hitter. He had five interceptions as a rookie and finished with 22 picks in his career. He was a fantastic all-around player.
But everyone remembers him as a vicious tackler.
By the time Sports Illustrated put Butkus on the cover of the 1970 NFL preview, and touted him as “The Most Feared Man In The Game,” his reputation was set. In a 1971 feature, Playboy described Butkus thusly: “To a fan, the story on Butkus is very simple. He’s the meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest son of a bitch in football. An animal, a savage, subhuman.”
“Dick was an animal,” Hall-of-Fame defensive end Deacon Jones said, according to NBC Sports Chicago. “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.”
Butkus would play into that reputation at times. That Playboy story in 1971 said Butkus once told a television reporter, “I sometimes have a dream where I hit a man so hard his head pops off and rolls downfield.” And every football fan has seen the well-worn NFL Films clips of Butkus destroying running backs who crossed his path.
In NFL Network’s “A Football Life,” Butkus’ family laughed at the notion of him being mean, saying they never saw that side of him. Butkus would show a softer side during his post-football acting career, even spending two seasons on the sitcom “My Two Dads” in the late 1980s.
But the reputation of Butkus’ ferocity never died. And during his storied career, he earned it. He will always epitomize the physical nature of professional football.
Butkus’ legend grew over time
In each of Butkus’ first eight seasons, he was named to the Pro Bowl. He was a five-time All-Pro. He was the greatest middle linebacker in the game despite knee injuries that plagued him for much of his career. Finally, after the 1973 season, Butkus retired. Despite his individual greatness, the Bears never made the playoffs during Butkus’ career.
Butkus had a long acting career after football, with 53 credits according to IMDB. He became a popular pitchman for commercials, too.
Despite success off the field and the decades that passed after he played for the Bears, Butkus’ football legend continued to grow. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade team for the 1960s and 1970s. Butkus was an obvious choice for the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team. In 2001, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman named Butkus the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history. When NFL Network ranked the 100 greatest players ever in 2010, Butkus was No. 10. He and Jim Brown were the only players in the top 20 who played fewer than 10 NFL seasons.
Decades after his retirement, Butkus was still remembered reverentially by NFL fans. His legend will last forever.