Dick Butkus is a name synonymous with toughness, whether that was on the field as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears or in his work off the field to raise awareness about the importance of health.
Butkus, a Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with the Bears from 1965-1973, established himself as one of the best to ever play linebacker and the game itself. He’s a 5-time First-Team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, a member of the 1960s and 1970s All-Decade Team and the list goes on.
We had a chance to talk to the legendary linebacker about his work with the NFL Alumni Association’s “Huddle Up: Let’s Talk Obesity” campaign, along with the current state of the Bears and reflecting on his playing days.
Butkus partners with NFL Alumni Association for “Huddle Up: Let’s Talk Obesity” campaign
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Butkus has partnered with the NFL Alumni Association for the “Huddle Up: Let’s Talk Obesity” campaign, which aims to spread awareness and educate fans and former players about obesity and the impact it can have on health.
Butkus recalled his moment of clarity about the importance of taking care of his health, and ultimately how it saved his life.
“I did this CT scan of my heart 20 years ago. Within 24 hours I had a five-way bypass,” Butkus said. “I didn’t know I was that close to having a problem. I felt fine. I might’ve been a little overweight. But when I came out of it, in the recovery room, the surgeon, who was from Chicago, came…I said, ‘What’s going on here, doc? I mean I felt fine. I’d never had no pain in my chest or anything.’ He said, ‘Dick, the best way I can explain it to you is that you had one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel. Because in 30 days it would’ve been over.'”
That was the moment everything changed for Butkus, who launched the Butkus Foundation in 2000 to help advance health and wellness through special initiatives. Looking back, Butkus has a unique perspective about the importance of maintaining your health. If not just for yourself, for your loved ones.
“I think back on that, 20 years ago, that how selfish of me,” Butkus said. “I never would’ve seen my five grandkids. So I’m joining forces with the NFL Alumni and this obesity program to try and share some of my experiences about why this is important that they work on their obesity. It’s a health issue, and I’m trying to take it from a point of being selfish. A lot of people rely on you, whether you know it or not – your spouse, your family, whatever. And if you’re not going to try and take the steps to improve your health and stick around for these people, I mean shame on you.”
For more information, please visit: www.HuddleUpObesity.com.
Roquan Smith reminds Butkus of himself
AP Photo/Jason Behnken
The Bears have a rich history of linebackers, which includes Butkus, Bill George, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. The hope is Roquan Smith will be the next in that long line of legendary linebackers in the NFL.
Smith has been playing at an All-Pro level over the last two seasons, where he’s among the top tacklers and one of the best young linebackers in the game. Butkus, who knows a little something about great linebacker play, loves what he’s seen out of Smith — particularly in his tackling — and he even sees a little bit of himself in Smith.
“He’s a great kid. He won our college award, and he’s just a go-getter,” Butkus said. “I like the way he tackles. When he has the opportunity, he likes to hit high and wrap these guys up and put them on their back. I think he’s kind of a quiet – reminds me of myself – just a quiet guy. But when he’s on the field, his play really comes out. I’m happy for him. Plus, he’s a good kid.”
Smith has been the Bears’ best defensive players over the last two seasons, and he’s well on his way to a contract extension that will keep him in Chicago for the foreseeable future.
But given the success of linebackers in Chicago, he’s still got a lot to live up to if he ever wants to be compared to some of the Bears greats.
Butkus believes Bears finally found their franchise QB in Justin Fields
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The Bears have a history of poor quarterback play, which has plagued the franchise for decades. But with the arrival of rookie Justin Fields, the hope is he’ll finally be able to rewrite the quarterback narrative in Chicago and give the Bears the franchise quarterback they’ve been longing for.
So far, so good.
While Fields is only in the beginning stage of his NFL career, there’s been plenty to love about his potential. Especially over his last two games, where he’s taken a big step forward in his development despite poor coaching and the talent around him.
And it might be early, but could Fields be the guy?
“I think they finally (found their franchise quarterback),” Butkus said. “Just the improvement over the last couple of weeks. Like I kiddingly say, that offensive line needs to be arrested for attempted murder. They just cannot – he cannot, for the life of him – do a dropback pass. I’m kind of wising Matt Nagy would get some of the old Andy Reid school for Patrick Mahomes and instill that so there’s rollouts and different things. Because he can throw on the run. He proved that (against the Steelers) and the week before. Good kid.”
While Fields has all of the talent and potential in the world, it hasn’t been an easy transition to the NFL. And that’s not just because of the expected rookie growing pains. There are questions with the coaching staff, the offensive line and even some of Fields’ weapons.
And one thing is perfectly clear: The Bears need to build around Fields. Especially, according to Butkus, with the offensive line.
“We’ve got to start getting some surrounding help for him,” Butkus said. “You can’t let him take those hits very often. I just hate to see him get hurt this early because he’s their answer. Now, you’ve just to work and fill in the spots around – and mostly in front – of him. I think he’ll do alright. I like him.”
Butkus reflects on Gale Sayers: 'He's unmatched'
Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
When you think of the best running backs of all time, you can’t leave out Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. In his seven-year career, which was shortened by a knee injury, Sayers totaled 9,435 combined net yards and 4,956 yards rushing. Sayers was a five-time All-Pro, made four Pro Bowls and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Sayers, the man they called the “Kansas Comet,” was one of the most elusive running backs of all time, and a part of a rich running back history with the Bears. Sayers was an electrifying runner, and Butkus credits Sayers with helping make him a better player.
“He had the ability to run almost full speed and stop on a dime and then go in another direction with speed,” Butkus said. “I practiced against him every day of the week, and I attribute some of my success to that because he was such…I’d never encountered a back as elusive. When you see any current backs run back punts or run back kickoffs, everything is so specialized now, and that guy did everything.”
The one game everyone remembers about Sayers is his six-touchdown performance against the 49ers, where he scored four rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown and another punt return for a touchdown on, mind you, some terrible field conditions at Wrigley Field.
Butkus believes Sayers could’ve had seven or eight touchdowns if George Halas hadn’t pulled him from the game with Chicago down on the 1-yard line.
“I often wondered if that was a ploy by the old man (Halas) that, come negotiations, ‘Hey, I scored eight touchdowns in one game.’” Butkus said. “Maybe it’s a little different when you could say I only scored six. But it wasn’t all about records back then like it is today.”
It’s hard to believe that the Bears were able to land Butkus and Sayers both in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft, a feat that will never be topped. And, naturally, they’ve been linked ever since.
Butkus and Sayers developed a nice friendship, and they were close up until his passing in September 2020 after Sayers’ battle with dementia. Still, to this day, Butkus remains in awe of Sayers.
“I miss him,” Butkus said. “He was a real quiet guy, and we both came in together. Yeah, he’s unmatched.”
Butkus on today's NFL: 'I probably would've been arrested'
Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
The NFL has and will always be a violent game, that’s what happens when you have grown men colliding. But a lot has changed since the brutal days of the Butkus era in the NFL during the 1960s and 1970s. Especially for defensive players.
There have been a lot of new rules that aim to protect players but also makes it more difficult for defensive players to do their jobs without fear of drawing a flag.
If Butkus was playing in this era, how many personal fouls he would have in today’s game?
“I probably would’ve been arrested,” he joked.
While Butkus misses the tough game of the past, he understands why the league has gone in the current direction, which is more offensive friendly. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his criticisms.
“I can understand some of the changes, it’s for the health,” Butkus said. “By disallowing hitting high, because you might get a helmet to helmet and that’ll be 15 yards, but you start going lower and now we’re going to have more knee injuries and stuff. Because the way the teams are now, do they even wear pads during training camp. You can’t wear pads two days in a row. Heaven forbid if we have to have a scrimmage.
“This may sound stupid, but how do you learn to tackle if you don’t tackle people? I mean, I can tackle a dummy all day long, it’s stationary, but tackling a person who can move like Gale (Sayers) could…Defense, the backs, they’re all throwing their shoulders, it’s either a hit or miss. I just don’t understand it. What I like about the Titans is their defensive backs knock the heck out of the receivers. Our guys, please. There’s a couple of guys on (the Bears) defensive backfield that are allergic to tackling.”
One of the controversial new rules this season is the taunting penalty, which the Bears were victims of in their Week 9 loss to the Steelers. Outside linebacker Cassius Marsh sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and did a little celebration, as most do, and then took a few steps in the direction toward the Steelers sidelined and was flagged — and later fined — for taunting.
Count Butkus as someone who’s not a fan of the taunting penalty.
“This taunting stuff? Please,” Butkus said. “That was bulletin board stuff. We see a guy jumping around hotdogging it and we were like, ‘We’ll take care of him next week.’”
Butkus reflected one example from his rookie season, where the Bears faced the 49ers and tight end Monty Stickles, who Butkus called “the dirtiest guy in the league at that point.”
“We were watching film, and we got the 49ers my first rookie game, and he comes and hits the back of the head of a Bears lineman from behind,” Butkus said. “No calls or nothing. So Bill George or somebody says, ‘Run that back.’ They run it back. ‘Take a look at that.’ ‘Okay,’ we all look at it. So now we go to San Francisco and get beat (52-24). We look at the game film and there’s Stickles starting and then the next thing you know, he’s not playing anymore. Somebody took care of him. And that’s what would happen. If you did something to us, we have a memory like an elephant.”
Things were different back in the day, where it was about winning, not making nice with the competition.
“But I don’t see that. I see the hugging and everything,” Butkus said about the difference between then and now. “What I admired about (former NFL coach) Bud Grant was that he told his players, after the game is over, you get your a** off the field. Don’t be shaking hands and patting everyone on the butt. Oh, it’s good to see you again. Because these guys are trying to take money out of your mouth. And I always respected that. Nowadays, I’m not surprised if they both have dinner together before the game. Like I say, it’s all different. I’m just having trouble accepting it.”
A lasting legacy
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Butkus is a huge part of NFL history, where he’s among the best to ever play the game. He’s a Hall of Famer, member of the 1960s and 1970s NFL All-Decade teams and a member of the NFL 75th and 100th All-Time teams.
But when Butkus thinks about his own legacy, he wants to be remembered for what he did after he hung up his cleats.
“I just think the things I’ve done since then with the Butkus Award,” Butkus said. “I tell the kids, ‘First, you’re recognized as the best of the best linebackers in the country. And second of all, and probably more important, it takes on the responsibility that you have to give back and serve others.’”
The Butkus Award, established back in 1985, recognizes a player at the high school, college and professional level for their athletic achievement and service to the community. And it has a special place in Butkus’ heart.
“I just want to be recognized as the award made people more aware of the old tradition of giving back and serving others,” he said. “If that happens, either through the Takes Heart initiative or the foundation with the Butkus Award, fine.”