Hall of Famer Struck Fear Into NFL

Dick Butkus developed a reputation for ferocious tackles
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 5, 2023 7:25 PM CDT
Fearsome Dick Butkus Altered His Position
Dick Butkus is surrounded by football memorabilia at his home in Malibu in January 2000.   (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, considered by many the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, has died. He was 80 and died in his sleep at home in Malibu, California, his family said Thursday. He played nine seasons for the Chicago Bears, starting in 1965, and was named to eight Pro Bowls, USA Today reports. His vicious tackling once earned him a Sports Illustrated cover, showing the Butkus sneer under his helmet, with the headline, "The Most Feared Man in the Game." Few offensive players argued with that assessment. His presence and reputation were so intimidating that some opponents were on their heels when the ball was snapped, per ESPN.

"I wouldn't ever go out to hurt anybody deliberately," Butkus once answered tongue-in-cheek. "Unless it was, you know, important ... like a league game or something." Butkus brought speed, too. That, combined with his ferocity and agility, altered the standards for his position, per the AP. "Dick Butkus was a fierce and passionate competitor who helped define the linebacker position as one of the NFL's all-time greats," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "We also remember Dick as a long-time advocate for former players, and players at all levels of the game," he added.

In his rookie year, Butkus intercepted five passes, recovered six fumbles, and was unofficially credited with forcing six more. But his reputation as a disruptor extended well past the ability to take away the football. Butkus would hit runners high, wrap them up, and drive them to the ground like a rag doll. Playboy magazine once described him as "the meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest" player in the NFL and an "animal, a savage, subhuman." Descriptions like that never sat well with Butkus, per the AP. But they were also hard to argue. Several opponents claimed he poked them in the face or bit them in pileups, and he acknowledged that during warmups, "I would manufacture things to make me mad."

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When the Detroit Lions unveiled an I-formation against the Bears, Butkus knocked every member of the "I"—the center, quarterback, fullback, and halfback—out of the game. And he didn't always stop there. Several times Butkus crashed into ball carriers well past the sidelines. More than once he pursued them onto running tracks and even into the stands. "Just to hit people wasn't good enough," teammate Ed O'Bradovich said. "He loved to crush people." Butkus capitalized on his tough-guy image after retiring from football, working as a sports broadcaster, actor, and pitchman for products including beer. Through the Butkus Foundation, he helped establish a program at a Southern California hospital to encourage early screenings to detect heart disease. He promoted a campaign to encourage high school athletes to train and eat well and avoid performance-enhancing drugs.

(More obituary stories.)

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