(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)
There are some names that could only be attached to men who played football.
Steve Stonebreaker. Johnny Blood. Bronco Nagurski.
And, Dick Butkus.
Could Butkus have done anything else?
Just say the name, and you instantly get taken back to a muddy Wrigley Field or Tiger Stadium or Lambeau Field. Images pop up of bloodied, taped knuckles and steams of breath billowing from behind face masks. Goal posts on the goal line. Straight-on kickers.
Oh, and clothesline tackles. And a deep, genuine intent to hurt the opponent. And to fluster him.
The Lions center Ed Flanagan had trouble with Butkus, the great Chicago Bears MLB from 1965-73. Specifically, Butkus would not only yap at Flanagan and the other Lions o-linemen prior to the snap, but no. 51 would sometimes spit — directly on Flanagan’s hand just before he hiked the football.
Butkus joined the Bears in ’65 out of the University of Illinois — a local kid who played football one way, and one way only: to search and destroy. Now, the colleges have an award named after him, celebrating the nation’s top linebacker.
But it wasn’t Butkus who gained the most notoriety among the Bears’ rookies in 1965. That was reserved for a jitterbug running back from Kansas named Gale Sayers.
Early in his pro career, NFL Films interviewed Butkus. Dressed in street clothes, sitting down in front of one of those black, infinite backgrounds, Butkus was asked about his penchant for violence. Until then, it was presumed that his tendencies were reserved for the football field. But maybe not, judging from his answer.
“I think one of my favorite scenes in movies was this one where this guy’s at the top of the stairs, and he gets his head cut off,” Butkus said, as his mouth curled into a smirk. “Watching that head rolling down the stairs…kind of gave me a jolt. I kind of liked that, watching that head roll down the stairs like that.”
From that point on, it wasn’t exaggeration to wonder about Butkus’s sanity — which gave him even more of an edge on the field, of course.
“Butkus didn’t just want to tackle you — he wanted to kill you. I really believe that,” former running back Alex Hawkins was caught saying on another NFL Films piece.
Butkus was perfect for the Bears, and for Chicago. He helped keep up the tradition of “The Monsters of the Midway” — Bears teams known for their tough-as-nails defenses. And Bears fans loved him, because he was one of them — an Illinois kid who they’d been watching for several years on campus. Since a lot of the Bears teams Butkus played on weren’t very good — the ’69 team went 1-13 — he (along with Sayers) was one of the few reasons to even watch the Bears play.
Portrait of a killer, er, middle linebacker: Dick Butkus
So it was eerily ironic that it was Butkus who was first on the scene in the only on-field fatality in NFL history.
I’m talking about the Lions’ Chuck Hughes, of course — on October 24, 1971 at Tiger Stadium. Shortly after Hughes collapsed, Butkus saw that something was wrong and frantically waved to the Lions’ sideline for medical help. Because of his surly, violent reputation, there were even some folks who initially thought Butkus himself had done something to Hughes to cause the receiver’s distress.
Like his draft mate Sayers, Butkus’s career was hampered by bad knees. The amount of time that Butkus played through pain late in his career was far more than when he was healthy. The pain and the poor condition of his knees finally forced him to retire after just nine years in the league.
I always wondered why Butkus, who pursued an acting career after playing, was never asked to be a part of Monday Night Football. Maybe he was, and turned them down. Regardless, I think he would have been terrific in the booth — a lot better than some of the boobs they put in there instead over the years.
A few years ago, Butkus coached a high school football team, the chronicle of which aired on an ESPN series called Bound for Glory.
Butkus has a website, which I highly recommend that you check out. Lots of good stuff. You can visit it by clicking HERE.