Dick Butkus, a famed Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker and Chicago native who many still regard as the NFL’s most fierce defensive player, has died. He was 80.
“The Butkus Family confirms that football and entertainment legend Dick Butkus died peacefully in his sleep overnight at home in Malibu, Calif.,” the family said in a statement. The Butkus clan has gathered with Dick’s wife Helen. They are grateful for your prayers and support.”
“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” said Bears chairman George H. McCaskey. “He was the son of Chicago.” He embodied everything our wonderful city stands for, as well as what George Halas sought in a player: toughness, smarts, intuition, enthusiasm, and leadership. He wouldn’t settle for anything less than the finest from himself or his colleagues. We requested Dick to speak at the event to dedicate the George Halas monument at our team headquarters because we knew he spoke for Papa Bear.
“Dick had a gruff demeanor, which may have deterred some people from approaching him, but he had a soft touch.” His philanthropic legacy includes a drive to eliminate performance-enhancing substances from sports and promote heart health. His contributions to the game he loved will live on forever, and we are pleased he was able to attend our home opening this year to be remembered by his many admirers one final time.
“We extend our condolences to Helen, Dick’s high school sweetheart and wife of 60 years, and their family.”
Butkus was the ideal example of a hometown hero who rose to prominence. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, he excelled at Chicago Vocational High School and the University of Illinois before being drafted third overall by the Bears in the 1965 NFL Draft, one place ahead of lifelong colleague and future Hall of Famer Gale Sayers.
Dick Butkus was a legend who embodied what it means to be a Chicago Bear. Our hearts go out to his family and friends. pic.twitter.com/8UEVuuZLwi
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) October 5, 2023
Butkus spent all eight of his NFL seasons with the Bears from 1965 to 1973, and he remains one of the franchise’s most beloved players. He was a formidable and unyielding force with skill, anger, and hatred.
“If I had a choice, I’d rather face a grizzly bear one-on-one,” Green Bay Packers running back MacArthur Lane once declared. “I pray that I can get up after every time Butkus hits me.”
“Dick was an animal,” Deacon Jones, a Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end, once remarked. “I referred to him as a stone maniac.” He was a well-trained beast, and if he struck you, he sought to put you in the cemetery rather than the hospital.”
Butkus was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight NFL seasons and was an All-Pro in seven of his nine years. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility, after winning two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Butkus was selected to the NFL All-Decade Teams in both the 1960s and the 1970s, and his No. 51 jersey was retired by the Bears. He was also named to the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary Teams.
Butkus also had exceptional ball skills. With 26 fumble recoveries, he established an NFL record that has since been broken, and his 22 career interceptions are tied for 11th in Bears history with fellow Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Butkus was placed second in the Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook, released in 2019, by Hall of Fame authors Dan Pompei and Don Pierson, behind only legendary running back Walter Payton.
Butkus told ChicagoBears.com in 2019 at the Bears100 Celebration in Rosemont that he was grateful to have had the opportunity to play in his hometown.
“It’s kind of a unique position because I don’t think many players actually have done that,” said Butkus. “I consider myself really fortunate. My parents saw probably 95 percent of the games in Chicago, so it was beneficial to my family and I enjoyed it.
“Who better to play for than someone who has been involved in football since I can remember, someone like George Halas, who started it all?” “I just had the feeling that everything happened for a reason.”
When asked about his reputation for fury and passion, Butkus said, “I thought that was the way everybody should have played.” But I assume they didn’t since they said I had a unique style of play. You aim to terrify the player you’re playing against by hitting him hard enough that he starts thinking about being hit and forgets about gripping the ball. If it stood out, it’s probably because no one else was doing it as much.”
Surprisingly, one of Butkus’ most famous moments did not occur on defense. It happened late in a 1971 game against Washington, when the Bears attempted an extra point to break a 15-15 stalemate. Bobby Douglass recovered a botched kick, rolled to his left, and lofted the ball into the end zone to Butkus, who grabbed the pass for a dramatic 16-15 Bears triumph.
Butkus went on to become a successful actor after leaving the Bears, appearing in dozens of films and television series, many of which he co-starred in with another former football star Bubba Smith. Butkus appeared in episodes of “My Two Dads,” “Vega$,” “MacGyver,” and “Hang Time.” “Brian’s Song” (as himself), “The Longest Yard,” “Johnny Dangerously,” “Necessary Roughness,” and “Any Given Sunday” are among his film credits.
Butkus supported various brands, most notably Miller Lite, in which he appeared among other former professional players in a series of ads.
Butkus financially sponsored several philanthropic projects during his adult life. He founded and ran The Butkus Foundation, which established the Butkus Award to recognize the nation’s finest linebacker in pro, collegiate, and high school football. In addition, the Hall of Famer founded the Dick Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness, a nonprofit organization situated in Orange County, California, with a cardiac screening program that employs sophisticated testing to detect persons at risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac death.
The Butkus Foundation also administers the “I Play Clean Campaign,” which educates and encourages high school players to workout and eat properly without the use of illicit steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.