Finding the proper motivation can sometimes be a tricky issue for a professional athlete. Some rely on pride. Others seek records or increased fame. But for Dick Butkus, the reason to play at an extremely high level came down to one simple thing: anger.
Butkus himself was first to acknowledge this in an interview during the early-1970s, with Chicago Bears historian Richard Whittingham.
"When I went out onto the field to warm up," Butkus said, "I'd make things up to make me mad. If somebody on the other team was laughing, I pretend it's me he's making fun of. Or perhaps I'd think he was ridiculing my team, the Chicago Bears. I'd manufacture things to make me mad. Just about any scenario would do. Believe me, I'd always find something, and it always worked for me."
Butkus' overwhelming desire to succeed was always balanced by his insistence that he would only perform "as a clean football player."
"I did what I had to do," Butkus would later recall, "but I always felt that I respected the game and that I stayed within the rules of that game. I was devoted to football. I lived it all day, every day, and I approached each contest as if it would be my last opportunity to be out there on the field."
But Butkus did admit to Life magazine in an interview for a cover story that at times he could get "overenthusiastic" on the field:
"I wouldn't ever set out to hurt anybody deliberately unless it was, you know, like a league game or something."
Most photographs taken of this formidable linebacker during his playing days from 1965 to 1973 show a scowling and intense player, a man who seemed to delight in intimidating opponents both on and off the field.
Former Green Bay running back MacArthur Lane once told Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com that lining up against Butkus was the personification of his worst nightmare.
"If I had a choice," Lane remarked, "I'd have sooner gone against a grizzly bear. I prayed that I could get up again every single time that Butkus hit me."
At 6-3 and 245 pounds, Butkus had a body made for football. The fact that he could augment his formidable size with keen intelligence, great instincts and blazing speed made him that much more effective on the field.
Butkus always knew he had the ability to play well. Becoming part of the professional league had been his goal since grade school.
"I knew where I was going as early as the fifth grade," Butkus told Whittingham. "I knew that to become a professional football player I would have to work very hard, just like society says you should. It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. It said you had to be tough. I was definitely tough."
Richard Marvin "Dick" Butkus was born in 1942, the seventh child of a blue-collar Lithuanian family residing in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood. Life wasn't easy in the Butkus family, and young Dick understood early on the value of setting goals and working to achieve them.
"I even went to a high school, Chicago Vocational, because the program was run by a tough Notre Dame graduate by the name of Bernie O'Brien," Butkus told Schwartz. "I felt that he could help me develop into a top player. I was right in that assessment."
Interestingly enough, Butkus was not a huge Bears fan growing up. He often attended Chicago Cardinals games at Comiskey Park and enjoyed watching the traditional Thanksgiving games between the Packers and Lions.
Butkus went on to play at Illinois for Pete Elliott. During his junior year, Butkus caused 10 fumbles and amassed 145 tackles, leading Illinois to a Big 10 Championship and an eventual win over Washington in the 1963 Rose Bowl.
Butkus realized most of his talents were sports-related and took a lighthearted view of that fact.
"If I was smart enough to be a doctor," Butkus said, "then I would have been a doctor. I clearly wasn't, so they put me in P.E."
Elliott was well aware of his linebacker's strengths and made the most of them. He was quoted in the local Champaign-Urbana paper talking about his star:
"Butkus feels that football is everything. When we have a workout cancelled because of weather or some other problem, he gets angry and almost despondent. He lives for contact."
Butkus told Elliott he had a good reason for being so concerned: "How can we expect to play on Saturday if we don't practice every day before that?" Elliott had no good answer for the question.
Elliott, who knew his player so well, would later serve as Butkus' presenter when the Bears legend was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Butkus continued his success at Illinois, repeating as an All-American in 1964. He finished sixth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 1963 and third in 1964, a notable achievement for a defensive player. Butkus also drew the attention of Bears scouts, although Sports Illustrated wrote in its 1964 draft preview coverage that "the Bears were concerned that Butkus would be too slow to play center linebacker."
Denver showed interest in the Illinois senior and drafted him in the first round of the American Football League's selection process. Butkus was then chosen by the Bears as the third pick of the first round in the NFL Draft. Of the two offers, Butkus chose to play in his hometown.
In his autobiography, Halas by Halas, George Halas remembered signing the burly player:
"In 1965, we drafted two great players: Gale Sayers, twice All-American at Kansas; and Dick Butkus, All-American at Illinois. I was initially concerned because Butkus was bow-legged. I learned later that he had knee injuries in high school and college. But both of these players had rare abilities, supported by courage, desire and spirit. And they both became some of our shining stars."
Butkus started as a rookie and soon led the Bears in tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
14-year veteran Bill George, who was the Bears' starting middle linebacker when Butkus joined the team, watched the young player on the field and later remarked, "I'd been having problems recovering from a knee operation, then Butkus arrived in camp. The second I saw him, I knew my playing days were over. Nobody ever looked that good, before or since."
Defensive genius George Allen designed strategies that would maximize Butkus' skills. His schemes were complex, and Butkus later admitted that learning them had been difficult.
Allen in his autobiography characterized Butkus as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
"If I had to construct a model for a professional linebacker," Allen wrote, "I would start with Dick Butkus' dimensions and playing disposition, which was decidedly unfriendly."
Allen's system utilized Butkus effectively, and soon No. 51 led the Bears in solo tackles and assists, with 120 and 58 per season, respectively. In 1967, he had 18 sacks, a career high.
Butkus, in his Hall of Fame speech, recalled his early days at the pro level:
"Finally, after eight years of solid preparation, I was there. I had reached my goal. Yes, I was secretly afraid that I would stumble, and I did so many times. There were times I needed more energy and strength and more vitality to do all that I felt I must do. Anxiety and apprehension would fill my mind."
"But I knew that my family, coaches, fans and, also, first of all, my God, was counting on me. I felt that there was something so great in me that nothing in this world could deflect me or hold me back if I kept myself humbly in contact with these people. So I tried to meet each problem intelligently and each problem courageously while I played as a Chicago Bear. I was so very proud to be a Chicago Bear."
In his short time with the Bears, Brian Piccolo experienced a tougher side of Butkus than the one the former linebacker presented to the Hall of Fame crowd.
"Scrimmaging against Butkus wasn't exactly tranquilizing," Piccolo said. "When Dick is on the other side of the scrimmage line glaring at you with those boiling eyes, even though you play for the same team, it makes you wish that you could change places with the equipment boy."
Butkus' overall philosophy was to "find the enemy, make contact and let them know you were there."
Bob DeMarco, a center for the Chicago Cardinals, remembered encounters with Butkus with less than complete fondness:
"Once we were in a pileup, and I was looking up. There was Butkus staring at me, close as can be. He told me he was going to knock the mustache right off of my face. He was definitely the kind of guy who, if you got into a fight with him, you'd have to kill him because he'd never stop coming at you."
Butkus led the linebacking corps from 1965 to his retirement in 1973. He was All-Pro seven of nine seasons and played in eight Pro Bowls. His 25 interceptions was an NFL record for a linebacker at the time, and his 47 takeaways stood as a team record until safety Gary Fencik eventually broke it.
But for all of Butkus' strength on the field, even he was unable to escape the wear and tear that comes with a job in professional football. Initially, his right knee went out in 1970, soon followed by problems with the left knee. The pain became so intense by the middle of the 1973 season that Butkus asked to be taken out of a game – the only time he ever made such a request.
The player Sports Illustrated had named "The Most Feared Man in the Game" in 1970 finally found something he was unable to handle. Butkus retired in 1973 after unrelenting and extreme pain made him unable to play at the high level he expected of himself.
Butkus ended up filing a lawsuit against his former team, claiming that he was kept on the field when the Bears medical staff should have recommended surgery over playing time. Butkus also claimed that players were denied the right to a second opinion in medical matters and could not be treated by medical professionals other than the team's own doctors. He further asserted that painkillers were freely distributed to the team, both on and off the field, in order to keep marquee players active that might otherwise have requested medical attention.
Needless to say, Butkus' allegations did not find favor with Halas or any of the Bears' coaching staff.
According to Halas, "Butkus was given every opportunity for full medical attention and that Butkus himself always had the final say as to whether or not he was fit to play on any given Sunday."
As time passed, he noted in his book, Halas pressed for a settlement:
"We had an early breakfast meeting. I came up with a sum of $600,000, and he came down to $750,000. That broke the ice. After longer negotiations, we finally settled for $600,000. All mention of malpractice was eliminated from the documents."
Eventually, any remaining ill will between the two dissipated. When Butkus later heard that he had been selected to the Hall of Fame, the first man he called was Halas, asking him to be his presenter.
"I accepted with pleasure," Halas wrote. "Dick Butkus was well worthy of such an honor. He had a rare ability. He played with dedication. He possessed the old zipperoo."
Unfortunately, when it came time for the actual ceremony, Halas was confined to a hospital bed and unable to make the trip to Canton. In his acceptance speech, Butkus mentioned his former coach in his opening statement and wished him well.
After his football career ended, Butkus went on to be a force in his hometown as a broadcaster, celebrity endorser, foundation administrator and actor. He became actively involved in philanthropic endeavors, including the Butkus Foundation, I Play Clean and the Dick Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness.
The Butkus Award was established in 1985 to honor the country's top high school, college and professional linebackers for their achievements in athletics, scholarship and service to their communities. This award is viewed by many as one of the most prestigious in all of football.
"It's rare in life to have the opportunity to do what you love," Butkus said during his induction ceremony. "I cherished every moment. Now that football is over, my desire is to simply be a better husband, father and a better person. I will always try to be a proud representative of football and of the Football Hall of Fame."
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Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for eight years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
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