Dick Butkus, the hard-hitting quarterback for the Chicago Bears in the 1960s and 1970s and one of the team’s historic 100th selections to found the NFL, died Thursday at his home in Malibu, Calif., at the age of 80.
The Bears confirmed the death but did not say why.
At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, a good size for his age, Butkus plays midfield. He was also quick and mobile enough to drop back and thwart opposition passes. He was cited as a first-team All-Pro five times and was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times. He was entered He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.
Sacks didn’t become an official statistic until 1982, so the number of times Butkus smothered opposing quarterbacks remains unrecorded. But he counts 22 interceptions and 27 recoveries while playing for the Bears from 1965 to 1973.
“When I would go out on the court to warm up, I would do things that would drive me crazy,” the Hall of Famer quoted Butkus as saying. “If someone on the other team was laughing, I would pretend they were laughing at me or the Bears. It always works for me.”
Bill George, Butkus’ predecessor as the Bears’ quarterback, who was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career when Butkus was a rookie, believed he was destined for stardom. “The first time I saw Butkus, I started packing my gear,” George once told the Chicago Tribune. “This guy couldn’t have been cool.”
Until the early 1950s, players in the middle of professional defensive lines were known as middle guards. They were heavyweights primarily tasked with stopping opponents’ running games. George began to turn defenses around by occasionally dropping back for potential pass plays.
The middle linebacker position was brought to prominence in October 1960 when CBS aired “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” narrated by Walter Cronkite, a portrayal of the Giants star. Butkus was playing football at Chicago Vocational High School at the time as a linebacker, punter, and kicker.
He gained national recognition in his own right as an All-American playing linebacker and center for the University of Illinois for three seasons. As a junior, he led the Illini to an 8-1-1 record and a victory over the University of Washington in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day 1964.
In a 1964 cover story for Sports Illustrated, Dan Jenkins wrote that “if every college football team had a linebacker like Illinois’ Dick Butkus, all running backs would soon be three feet tall and singing sopranos.”
Richard Marvin Butkus was born into a large Lithuanian-American family in Chicago on December 9, 1942, the son of John and Emma (Well Done) Butkus. His father was an electrician for the Pullman Standard Railroad Car Company.
Butkus was selected by the Bears in the first round, third overall, in the 1965 NFL Draft and by the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in their second round. He went with his hometown team, an NFL franchise owned and coached by the Hall of Famer George Hillis. In his rookie season, he intercepted five passes and recovered seven passes.
But the Bears had a tough time during the Butkus years. They won 49 games, lost 74, tied four and never reached the playoffs. His last few seasons, Butkus played with a severe right knee injury despite undergoing surgery. In May 1974, after his retirement, he sued the Bears for $1.6 million, claiming that the team did not provide him with the medical and hospital care he was promised in a five-year contract he signed in July 1973. The case was settled in court.
After leaving football, Butkus pursued acting. In one series of Miller Lite television ads featuring athletes, he depicted a tennis player discussing the beer’s strongest point with Bubba Smith, before becoming a star defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts. The point of contention in the series has always been: “It tastes great!” Fill less!
Butkus has appeared in motion pictures, including Necessary Roughness (1991) and Any Given Sunday (1999). He was a character on television shows, including “My Two Dads” and “Hang Time.”
Butkus played himself in “Brian’s Song,” a 1971 television documentary about his teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer a year earlier. He also appeared in the ESPN series “Bound for Glory” which followed him for one season as he coached a high school football team.
Butkus and his wife, Helen, had three children — Matt, Nicky and Richard Jr. — and grandchildren. No information was immediately available about survivors.
Mike Pyle, the Bears’ center in the 1960s, came face-to-face with Butkus in team scrimmages. In Richard Whittingham’s book “The Bears in Their Own Words” (1991), Pyle told how “Dick would be as tough in practice as he was in the game.”
“I was spending all this money to buy dinner and beer and things like that so he wouldn’t get it from me in fights,” Pyle said. “It probably shortened my career by just a few years in training camp.”
Orlando Mayorquin Contributed to reports.
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