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Outside the Game: Long after his retirement, Dick Butkus shows more heart than ever

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

Former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus was one of the all-time toughest guys to ever set foot on an NFL field. But 28 years after his retirement from the league in 1973, Butkus faced an opponent that gave him more serious pause than any before -- quintuple bypass surgery. The Hall of Famer used to study the game so obsessively, he'd be able to read what opposing offenses were doing, and would get what he calls "premonitions" about what was going to happen on the field.

That wasn't the case when it came to his own health. Twelve years ago, Butkus was advised by a friend to undergo a new kind of cutting-edge heart scan, and he was in no way prepared for what happened next.

"I said, 'Yeah, what the heck? I haven't seen a doctor in a long time,'" Butkus recently told Yahoo! Sports. "When you're playing, it's routine and everything is taken care of -- as far as health and meeting doctors and testing. Once you retire, you kind of forget about it. And that's what I had done. So, I come in here and do the scan, and I'm sitting out here in the office, and this guy comes in with a white coat. It happened to be Dr. Santora."

[Also: NFL overturns Ravens safety Ed Reed's suspension]

That's Dr. Lawrence J. Santora of the Orange County Heart Institute, and he had to break some very serious news to the big man.

"When Dick came in with his scan, I knew it was bad,"  Dr. Santora said. "I'd seen thousands of scans, and his was the worst of just about anybody's I'd seen. You have to tell somebody with his reputation -- a guy you've heard tears the heads off of people! It wasn't fun, but I had to tell him that."

Butkus, the prototypical tough guy, remembered his reaction to his physical vulnerabilities.

"They flipped [the scan] on, and it was five big blotches, and I said, 'What's that?' They said that they were blockages. I felt fine, but they did an angiogram, and the next day, it was a five-way bypass.

"What was baffling about it was that I didn't have any signs. So, [the scan] really saved my life."

After his life-saving surgery, Butkus went on to write a book, "The OC Cure for Heart Disease," with Dr. Santora. And now, the Butkus Foundation, which also campaigns against steroid use, sets up free heart scans for former NFL players.

In the very same building where his own heart scan took place, the NFL legend has given his name to a new enterprise -- the Dick Butkus Heart and Vascular Screening Center.

"Whether you like it or not, you have to make an effort to give back," Butkus said. "Without football, who knows where I would have been? Football's been good to me, so it's time to give something back. With this heart center here -- I understand that a lot of people can't afford to have these scans done. But they should have some kind of tests, and see their doctors regularly.

"Everybody thinks they're invincible -- I thought I was. I was proven wrong ... big time."

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