Dick Butkus, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1960s and ’70s and a selection on the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team, died Thursday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He is 80 years old.
The Bears confirmed the death, but did not give a cause.
At 6 feet 3 inches and 245 pounds, good size for his era, Butkus plays a stuffed running middle. He was quick and agile enough to break back and break up opponents’ pass plays. He was named first-team All-Pro five times and was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times. He absorbed 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 sacked opposing quarterbacks isn’t recorded. But he was credited with intercepting 22 passes and recovering 27 fumbles while playing for the Bears from 1965 to 1973.
Butkus was quoted by the Hall of Fame as saying, “When I went out on the field to warm up, I would do things that would drive me crazy.” “If someone on the other team is laughing, I’ll pretend they’re laughing at me or at the bears. It’s always worked for me.
Bill George, Butkus’ predecessor as the Bears’ middle linebacker who was nearing the end of his own Hall of Fame career when Butkus was a freshman, believed he was destined for stardom. “The first time I saw Butkus, I started packing my gear,” George once told The Chicago Tribune. “There’s no way that guy could be better.”
Until the early 1950s, players in the middle of defensive linemen were called middle linebackers. They were of the tough variety, mainly in stopping opponents’ inside running games. George began to switch defenses by sometimes dropping back for future pass plays.
When CBS aired “The Violent World of Sam Huff” in October 1960, Walter Cronkite, a portrayal of the Giants star, made the middle linebacker position fascinating. Butkus was playing football at the time for Chicago Vocational High School as a fullback, linebacker, punter and place-kicker.
He earned national recognition as an All-American at 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 victory over the University of Washington in the 1964 New Year’s Day Rose Bowl game.
On the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1964, Dan Jenkins wrote, “If every college football team had a linebacker like Illinois’ Dick Butkus, all the fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing sopranos.”
Richard Marvin Butkus was born on December 9, 1942 in Chicago to John and Emma (Good-off) Butkus in a large Lithuanian-American family. His father was an electrician for the Pullman-Standard Railway Car Company.
Butkus was selected in the first round of the 1965 NFL Draft, by the Bears in the third round and by the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in the second round. He went with his hometown team, a storied NFL franchise and coached by future Hall of Famer George Halas. In his freshman season, he intercepted five passes and recovered seven fumbles.
But the Bears fell on hard times during Butkus’ years. They won 49 games, lost 74, tied four and never made the playoffs. In his last few seasons, Butkus played with a badly injured right knee despite undergoing surgery. In May 1974, after retiring, he sued Pierce for $1.6 million, arguing that the team had not provided him with the medical and hospital care promised in the five-year contract he signed in July 1973. The case ended. Court.
After leaving football, Butkus continued acting. In a series of Miller Lite television commercials featuring athletes, he was portrayed as a tennis player debating the beer’s strengths with Bubba Smith, a star defensive end with the Baltimore Colts. The always controversial point in the series: “The taste is great! Less filling!”
Butkus appeared in motion pictures including “Necessary Cruelty” (1991) and “Any Given Sunday” (1999). He also had a role in TV shows including “My Two Dads” and “Hang Time”.
Butkus starred in the 1971 television documentary “Brian’s Song,” about his teammate Brian Piccolo, who had died of cancer a year earlier. He appeared in an ESPN series, “Bound for Glory,” which followed him for a season coaching a high school football team.
Butkus and his wife, Helen, have three children — Matt, Nicky and Richard Jr. — and grandchildren. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.
Bears center Mike Pyle of the 1960s faced Butkus head-to-head in a team scrimmage. In Richard Whittingham’s “Bears in Their Own Words” (1991), Pyle said, “Dick was as serious in practice as he was in sport.”
“I’ll spend this money buying him dinner and beer and stuff like that so he won’t take it from me in a fight,” Pyle said. “He probably shortened my career by a couple of years in training camp.”
Orlando Mayorquin Contributed report.