NFL Legends: Dick Butkus

James WilliamsonSenior Writer IMay 30, 2009

NFL Legends is back! After a long hiatus, I'm finally inducted one of the NFL's most legendary figures into the NFL Legends Hall of Fame.

After my good friend, Angel Navedo, left a post on my board saying that I needed to get back in the game, I turned off the TV, iPOD, and any other miscellaneous distractions and decided to finish an article I had started long ago.

Now, unplug your phones, turn off those cells, and refrain from any other activities while Professor Williamson tells you the story of Dick Butkus.

The Chicago Bears are not just one of the oldest teams, but they are also the team with the most players in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Many of those members are definitely in the top 10 of their positions.

However, the purpose of this tribute to the Chicago Bears was to find out who was the best. The absolute best, not just one of the best. The answer came to me when I was talking to my father.

My father was born in Chicago, and he instilled in this Texan, a love for all Chicago teams. I asked him about linebackers one day, and if I remember correctly, the question was: “Who was the best middle linebacker ever?”

He said, “Butkus.”

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“Bupkis?” I asked.


“No. Butkus. Dick Butkus.”

I was stunned at how fast he said it. Usually my father always debates in his mind about these kinds of things. Yet, he said this in less than ten seconds.

For my father to be that certain about such a question, I knew Dick Butkus had to be special.

I decided to see if I could find any highlights of him on the web. After I watched a clip of him in action, I became—for the first time—frightened of a player.

I had seen Jack Lambert without his teeth. I had seen Deacon Jones's head slapping people. I had seen Lawrence Taylor threaten to kick a quarterback’s “f------ a--!!!”

His words, not mine. 

But I was never afraid of them. At least not in the way I was of Butkus. There was something about him in that dark blue uniform with the No. 51 on it.

Center, Bill Curry, of the Packers and Colts said, “Before you could begin to try to block on Dick, you had to overcome the mystique. And uh, he didn’t appreciate this, but I said it was almost like an odor. He exuded a kind of a presence.”

Why do I feel like I’m in a horror movie all of a sudden?

That No. 51 scared me more than all my exes and a Doberman Pincher combined. Jack Lambert was a kitten compared to this guy.

What am I saying?

No, the whole Steel Curtain was a basketful of mewing kittens compared to this guy!

Dick Butkus is, without a doubt in my mind, the greatest middle linebacker to ever play the game of football.

I listened to these interviews of NFL alumni and they all had something great to say about Dick Butkus.


In his nine-year career he only played on two winning teams. A lot of people give up and only do a so-so job, but Butkus never gave up. No matter how bad the team’s record was, he never lowered his standards.

Running back and former NFL Head Coach Dan Reeves said, “He tried to hurt you. You know, he was just so competitive, you know, not only did he not want you to gain a yard, he didn’t want you to gain an inch. You know, as soon as you had that football, you were the enemy.”

NFL coaches love players like that, because they know they can count on them no matter what the situation is.

He also could intimidate you as well. Not only did he have that “mystique” Curry mentioned, he also grunted and growled.

Head Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys remembered one particular game against Butkus. “We had a rookie center, uh, that was playing against him for the first time. And of course you remember Butkus grunted a lot, growled a lot, when he was backing up the line.

"We sent this rookie center in to play for us. And the first time he came off, his eyes were about like this (makes very big circles with his hands), and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing from Butkus. Butkus had him intimidated and he hadn’t even blocked him yet.”


Grunting and growling, hmmmm...that sounds like a bear all right.

Deacon Jones would agree, “He was an animal. And he was a well-conditioned animal. And every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”

Green Bay 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."

Dick Butkus came into the NFL as the third overall pick of the 1965 draft. He was the best linebacker out of Illinois and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1963. He finished third the following year.

It was a given that George Halas, owner of the Bears, was going to draft Butkus. Both were from the same school, first generation Americans, and both were natives of Chicago.

Yet, I don’t think that even Halas knew what Butkus would become after he drafted him.

Butkus was also drafted one pick before his fellow Hall of Famer, Gale Sayers. The back to back rookies became legends in Chicago. And while neither one ever won a Super Bowl ring, they are better than a lot of those who do have them.

Dick Butkus played only nine seasons, due to knee injuries. He was elected to the Pro Bowl eight times, All-Pro eight times, and his statistics are amazing.

He recorded 1020 tackles, 22 interceptions, 27 fumble recoveries, and if sacks were counted then, he'd have a ton of those, too.

This man was a beast on the field. He did all that in nine seasons, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.

Despite all of the praise, it meant nothing to him.

His roommate Ed O’Bradovich gave a lot of insight into Butkus’s personality and ability. Not only was Butkus big, he was also fast.

“For Dick to run a 100 dash, it would take him three days. But I wanna tell you something," continued O'Bradovich. "From that middle linebacker, 20 yards this way, 20 yards that way, and 20 yards that way, I mean nobody, nobody was quicker than he was.”

Okay. Imagine a fast, ravaging, animal-like, being chasing you. Has anyone started crying? Because I have.

O’Bradovich also said, “His whole damn life was football. Forget about it. It wasn’t driving a pretty car, it wasn’t going to the local bar, pounding your chest and say, ‘I’m the greatest,’ it was the opposite.”


What makes Butkus great is that he did it all without help. The Bears only posted two winning seasons with him, and that takes its toll on morale. When morale is low, you are going to decrease in results—maybe not put everything in that game.

Butkus was the opposite.

It was almost like the worse it got, the more ferocious and vicious he got. According to Ray Mansfield, a Pittsburgh center, Butkus knocked out L.C. Greenwood on a punt.

L.C. Greenwood was one of the best defensive linemen in the 1970s and a member of the Steel Curtain.

You have tackles, but with Butkus, there was no such thing.

Dan Abramowicz said, “Dick was not satisfied with just an ordinary tackle. He had to hit you, pick you up, drive you, and grind you into the ground.”

Ok. If I was a halfback, the Bears would be getting a safety after I run all the way back to my own end zone and out of the stadium to get away from this lunatic!

Doug Buffone, Butkus’s fellow linebacker and Chicago Bears radio analyst, remembered a time where the Bears were playing the Lions. There were 10 seconds left and Butkus called a timeout.

Now everybody is thinking, ‘Huh?’

As it turns out, Butkus called the timeout so he could get another chance to run full force and hit somebody.

When we think of NFL rivalries, what rivalries come immediately to mind?

The Redskins vs. the Cowboys, the Patriots vs. the Colts, and the Bears vs. the Packers are the most known.

But Butkus had his own rivalry.

He didn’t like the Packers, but he hated the Detroit Lions. Every time they played each other, Butkus unleashed pain, terror, and made it his personal job to beat the living daylights out of them.

Forget the tigers, Dorothy; you got Lions and Bears to worry about at those games.

Doug Buffone and Ed O’Bradovich recalled a time that should be Butkus’s defining moment as a player and a teammate.

“(Lions Tight End) Charlie Sanders tried to make a necklace out of my teeth," said Buffone. "I mean he just hit me so hard, cracked me all the way across there (makes a motion with his finger tracing his top front teeth).

"I’m back in the huddle, I’m bleeding like a pig and Dick looks at me, ‘What happened?!’ I said, ‘What do you think happened?’"


“Then a few plays later," added O'Bradovich, "Charlie Sanders went over the middle; Dick had him and caught him right in the chest, right in the head, and leveled him.”


Charlie Sanders also remembers it very well. “The hit was so hard that I actually didn’t feel it… I think he hit me so hard it actually numbed me.”


Butkus’s knee injuries kept him from doing what he loved.

He filed a lawsuit against the Bears because he believed they kept him on the field knowing he was injured, but didn’t want one of their main attractions missing from the field.

The Bears also would not let him, or other players, get a second opinion from a doctor outside the Bears organization.

This monster on the field had his heart broken when he was told he couldn’t play football.

Butkus settled for $600,000 and his relationship with the Bears, namely George Halas, was injured.

Despite his tragic retirement, he has been quite happy after his football life. He did some broadcasting, acting, advertising, worked in the XFL, and is still revered by all those who know his name.

The Butkus award was named in his honor and is given to the best collegiate linebacker. In 2008, the award was expanded to the high school and professional levels to help end steroid abuse by athletes.

I’m proud to say the first NFL winner of the Butkus award is my current favorite player, DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys.

To have that kind of award named after you, you have to be the best. No question about it.

I don’t think Butkus is the best middle linebacker, I know he is.

Ray Lewis can’t touch Butkus. Jack Lambert can’t touch Butkus. Willie Lanier can’t touch Butkus. Chuck Bednarik can’t touch Butkus.

No one can and no one ever will.

We shall conclude with the words of another one of the NFL’s most feared men of all time.

Deacon Jones: “Well the only thing I can say about the great Dick Butkus—I’ll say it in a poem. Roses are red and violets are blue, if you got any sense, you’ll keep Butkus away from you.”

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