In 1986, when the Super Bowl champions the Chicago Bears sold out Wembley Stadium, Britain’s favourite players were the silky smooth runner Walter “Sweetness” Payton and the lovable lineman William “the Refrigerator” Perry. But that belied the American football team’s historical identity, born in the 30s when Bronko Nagurski led the feared “Monsters of the Midway”. And no Bear was more of a monster than Dick Butkus, who has died aged 80.
In 2009 the NFL proclaimed Butkus the most feared tackler of all-time. “Tackling wasn’t good enough … Dick loved to crush people,” said his teammate Ed O’Bradovich. Deacon Jones, a Hall of Fame defender for the Los Angeles Rams, called Butkus “a well-conditioned animal. A stone maniac. Every time he hit you he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” Steve Sabol, with typical NFL Films hyperbole, described Butkus as his favourite player. “His career was the most sustained work of devastation ever committed, anywhere … he mauled and tore ball-carriers apart.”
His image, scowling behind his helmet’s face mask, became iconic; in the movie Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s bull mastiff is named Butkus.
Butkus joined the Bears in 1965, taken with the third pick of the annual draft of college players. George Halas was owner and coach of the team he founded in 1920, fiercely committed to physicality, but growing ever further behind offensive innovations; in Butkus’s nine-year career the Bears never qualified for the post-season playoffs for the Super Bowl.
He was, however, voted first-team All-Pro six times, second team twice, and played in eight Pro Bowl all-star games. He was twice named the league’s defensive player of the year, including after the 1969 season when the Bears won only one game against 13 losses.
His play reflected the gritty nature of Chicago, where he was born. His father, John, a Lithuanian immigrant, was an electrician in a Pullman railway carriage factory; his mother Emma (nee Goodoff) worked in a laundry. Butkus was the youngest of eight children, and weighed 13lb 6oz (6kg) at birth. Raised on the tough South Side of the city, he was Chicago’s football player of the year as a junior at Vocational high school.
He stayed in state to play at the University of Illinois, where again his junior season was his best: Illinois won the college football Big Ten conference in 1963 and beat the University of Washington in the subsequent Rose Bowl. He played centre on offence as well as linebacker, and in 1964 he was named college lineman of the year.
Butkus, second right, in Blue Thunder (1984). Photograph: Columbia TV/Kobal/Shutterstock
When he joined the Bears, their middle backer was Bill George (later elected to the Hall of Fame), with whom the Bears had created the position: moving a lineman usually aligned on the line of scrimmage opposite the offence’s centre to a stand-up role a yard or two behind the scrimmage. This made it harder for the opposing blockers to reach him, and provided better vision of plays developing and easier routes to chase them down.
At 6ft 3in and 111kg (17st 7lb), Butkus was big enough to plug holes between the linemen in front of him, but fast enough to move sideline to sideline and also cover pass plays downfield. According to George, “the first time I saw Butkus, I started packing my gear. I knew my days were numbered.”
In 1971, Butkus had knee surgery; he had played for years on partially torn knee ligaments. Before the 1973 season he signed a fully guaranteed five-year contract for $115,000 per year, but although he scored the only touchdown of his career that year, recovering a Houston Oilers fumble in the end zone, his knees gave out, and he played only nine games. After the season, he retired, but the Bears refused to pay him if he could not play. He sued the team doctor for $1.6m in compensation and punitive damages; Halas settled out of court. They did not speak again for two years.
By this time Butkus had launched a second career as an actor. He played himself many times, most notably in the classic TV movie Brian’s Song (1971), about the relationship between Sayers and his blocking fullback Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer in mid-career, but also in The Last Boy Scout (1991) and Teddy Bears’ Picnic (2002).
He took part in advertisements, starting with one for anti-freeze during the 1970 Super Bowl; then he and the huge Baltimore Colts defender Bubba Smith became a popular double act in a series of beer commercials fronted by the hard-boiled writer Mickey Spillane. “I learned from those commercials,” he said. “Who cares if you blow a line? I could play off Bubba and add something. It didn’t matter if I got the laugh.”
He and Smith reprised their act in the TV movie Superdome (1978), as the ground crew in the TV helicopter series Blue Thunder (1984), in the agonising Half Nelson (1985), working with Joe Pesci and Dean Martin, and in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
Butkus was good in small parts in Peter Yates’s Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976) and Johnny Dangerously (1984), and in Hamburger (1986), as the hard-nosed professor at a college for fast-food franchise owners. He owned his own cafe in the TV series My Two Dads (1987-89) and was a basketball coach in Hang Time (1998-2000). He was one of the convicts in the football team in Necessary Roughness (1991) and the coach of the California Crusaders in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999). He also did numerous radio and television commentary gigs.
He went into the Hall of Fame in 1979, the first year of his eligibility. He was named in the NFL All-Decade teams for both the 1960s and 70s, as well as the NFL 100th anniversary all-time team in 2019, and he ranked the 10th greatest player of all time in a 2010 NFL Network poll. His charity foundation presents a Dick Butkus award to the nation’s top collegiate linebacker.
Butkus is survived by his wife, Helen (nee Essenberg), his high-school sweetheart whom he married while they were both at university, and three children, Richard Jr, Matt and Nikki.
Richard Marvin Butkus, American football player and actor, born 9 December 1942; died 5 October 2023