Born on December 9, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois, Dick Butkus became an All-American football player at the University of Illinois. As a linebacker with the Chicago Bears of the NFL, Butkus was feared for his strength, aggression and athleticism until his career was cut short by knee problems. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, he went on to enjoy success as an actor and broadcaster.
Early Life and College
Richard Marvin “Dick” Butkus was born on December 9, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of eight children raised by an immigrant Lithuanian father on the city’s South Side, Butkus knew by the fifth grade that he wanted to be a professional football player.
He traveled far to attend Chicago Vocational High School because its football team was coached by Bernie O'Brien, a graduate of the powerhouse University of Notre Dame program. Butkus was an all-state fullback in high school, where he learned the tackling skills that would serve him well at the game’s highest levels.
Butkus contemplated enrollment at both the University of Illinois and the University of Notre Dame. He ultimately chose Illinois because of two factors: He approved of the program being organized by the new coach, Pete Elliott, and Notre Dame banned married football players at a time when Butkus was considering engagement to his girlfriend, Helen Essenhart (they married in 1963).
In college, Butkus stood out as a center and linebacker. He became a two-time all-American, won the American Football Coaches Association's Player of the Year award and placed third in the 1964 Heisman Trophy voting.
Pro Football Success
In 1965, Butkus was drafted by both the Chicago Bears of the National Football League and the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. He chose to stay in his hometown to play for legendary Bears coach and owner George Halas, signing an estimated four-year, $200,000 contract.
An instant star in the NFL, the 6’3”, 245-pound middle linebacker became known for his instinct, strength, leadership, aggression and toughness. Butkus revealed, “When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad. If someone on the other team was laughing, I'd pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. It always worked for me."
Butkus’ extraordinary career was shortened by a serious right knee injury suffered in 1970. Although he underwent surgery after the season and regained his fearsome form, he played in pain until limping off the field for good in 1973. Butkus filed a lawsuit in 1974, charging the Bears with improper handling of his injury. Two years later the team settled out of court for $600,000.
Butkus was named All-NFL in seven of his nine seasons, and he played in eight straight Pro Bowls. His impressive career stats include 1,020 tackles, 489 assists, 22 interceptions and 25 opponents' fumble recoveries. In 1979, Butkus was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Butkus moved to Malibu, California, in 1982 to pursue acting in commercials, movies and television. He also became active in sports promotion and carved out a niche as a respected broadcaster. In 2000, Butkus passed on a head coach position with the XFL, a new football league, in lieu of working in the front office. The XFL folded after one season.
His relationship with his old team remained strong despite the initial hard feelings over the lawsuit. The Bears retired his No. 51 in 1994, and in 2004 the team unveiled a sculpture of Butkus, Halas and seven other Chicago Hall of Fame players at Soldier Field.
After his football career, Butkus dealt with a multitude of health issues, finally receiving a replacement for his troublesome right knee in 1997. Despite the pain, Butkus fondly reflected on his career.
"Few people get to earn a living at what they like to do and there are hazards in any profession," he contemplated. "Football is something I was made for. I gave the game all I could for as long as I could. I guess my only regret was that my career was too short."
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