Dick Butkus, a legendary Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker and Chicago native who many still consider the most ferocious defensive player in NFL history, has passed away. He was 80.
The Butkus Family released the following statement: “The Butkus Family confirms that football and entertainment legend Dick Butkus died peacefully in his sleep overnight at home in Malibu, Calif. The Butkus family is gathering with Dick's wife Helen. They appreciate your prayers and support.”
“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement. “He was Chicago's son. He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidently, what George Halas looked for in a player: toughness, smarts, instincts, passion and leadership. He refused to accept anything less than the best from himself, or from his teammates. When we dedicated the George Halas statue at our team headquarters, we asked Dick to speak at the ceremony, because we knew he spoke for Papa Bear.
“Dick had a gruff manner, and maybe that kept some people from approaching him, but he actually had a soft touch. His legacy of philanthropy included a mission of ridding performance enhancing drugs from sports and promoting heart health. His contributions to the game he loved will live forever and we are grateful he was able to be at our home opener this year to be celebrated one last time by his many fans.
“We extend our condolences to Helen, Dick's high school sweetheart and wife of 60 years, and their family.”
Butkus was the quintessential example of a local boy who made good. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he starred at Chicago Vocational High School and the University of Illinois before being selected by the Bears with the third pick in the 1965 NFL Draft, one spot ahead of longtime teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Gale Sayers.
Butkus played all eight of his NFL seasons with the Bears from 1965-73 and remains one of the most popular players in franchise history. He was an intimidating and relentless force who possessed talent, aggression and hostility.
“If I had a choice, I'd sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear,” Green Bay Packers running back MacArthur Lane once said. “I pray that I can get up after every time Butkus hits me.”
“Dick was an animal,” Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones once said. “I called him a maniac, a stone maniac. He was a well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”
Butkus was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight NFL seasons and was also selected as an All Pro in seven of his nine years. He won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 in his first year of eligibility.
Butkus was named to the NFL All-Decade Teams for both the 1960s and 1970s, had his No. 51 jersey retired by the Bears and was voted to the NFL's 75th and 100th Anniversary Teams.
Butkus also possessed extraordinary ball skills. He set an NFL record that has since been broken with 26 fumble recoveries and his 22 career interceptions are tied for 11th in Bears history with fellow Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
In the Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook that was published in 2019, Hall of Fame writers Dan Pompei and Don Pierson ranked Butkus as the second greatest player in franchise history behind only superstar running back Walter Payton.
Butkus told ChicagoBears.com in 2019 at the Bears100 Celebration in Rosemont that he felt fortunate to have starred in his hometown.
“It's kind of a unique position because I don't think many players actually have done that,” Butkus said. “I feel very lucky. My parents got to see probably 95 percent of the games that were in Chicago, so it was good for my family, and I liked it.
“Playing for someone who was involved in football since I can remember, who's better to play for than a guy like George Halas that started it all? I just felt that everything happened for a reason.”
Asked about the ferocity and intensity he was known for, Butkus said: “I thought that was the way that everybody should have played. But I guess they didn't because they were claiming that I had a special way of playing. You try to intimidate the person that you're playing against and hit him hard enough so that sooner or later he's going to start worrying about getting hit and forget about holding the ball. If it stood out, I guess no one else was doing it as much.”
Interestingly, one of the most memorable moments of Butkus' career did not occur on defense. It came late in a 1971 game against Washington when the Bears were attempting an extra point to snap a 15-15 tie. Bobby Douglass scrambled to recover a bad snap, rolled to his left and lofted the ball into the end zone to Butkus, who caught the pass to give the Bears a thrilling 16-15 victory.
After retiring from the Bears, Butkus became a popular actor who starred in dozens of movies and television shows —many alongside fellow former football star Bubba Smith. Butkus had recurring roles on TV shows such as “My Two Dads,” “Vega$,” “MacGyver” and “Hang Time.” His movie credits include “Brian's Song” (appearing as himself), “The Longest Yard,” “Johnny Dangerously,” “Necessary Roughness” and “Any Given Sunday.”
Butkus endorsed several products, most notably appearing in a series of commercials for Miller Lite alongside other former professional athletes.
Throughout his adult life, Butkus generously supported numerous charitable causes. He created and operated The Butkus Foundation, which instituted the Butkus Award to honor the nation's best linebacker in professional, college and high school football. The Hall of Famer also started the Dick Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness, a nonprofit organization based in Orange County, Calif., with a cardiac screening program that uses specialized testing to help identify those at risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac death.
In addition, the Butkus Foundation runs the “I Play Clean Campaign,” which educates and encourages high school athletes to train and eat well without resorting to illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing products.