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Sports Fans Will Never Forget Bears Star Dick Butkus

Did Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus have to fly to the big football stadium in the sky to give the Chicago Bears life after 14 consecutive National Football League losses?


The legendary Butkus, who passed away in his sleep at his home in Malibu, California, on October 5 at age 80, was generally regarded as the greatest linebacker in NFL history when he played for the Bears from 1965 to 1973.


He also was a Hollywood movie star in a dozen feature films – including The Longest Yard in 1974 – as well as the action series Blue Thunder and the sitcoms My Two Dads and Hang Time. Butkus returned to the Bears in 1985 as a radio analyst and joined CBS Sports in 1988 on The NFL Today, a pregame show.


Although I never met Butkus in person, he has been in my thoughts off and on for more than six decades. As a high school teenager, reading the Chicago Sun-Times sports section daily in study hall at Lane Tech was considered part of a mandatory Windy City education. Butkus was the biggest star in the prep sports section.





In 1959, Butkus’ Chicago Vocational High School (CVS) team played my Lane Tech squad in the Chicago Public League high school championship football game. Butkus, a tough South Side kid from the Roseland neighborhood, was a two-way player who historians say made 70 percent of the CVS tackles on defense. On offense, he played fullback, averaging five yards a carry running the ball. He also was the punter and placekicker. Butkus was named Sun-Times’s Player of the Year in 1959.


(Left) Butkus on a 1969 Topps trading card.





The CVS vs. Lane Tech game ended in a bruising 6-6 tie. Lane was declared the winner on yardage statistics, then advanced to play Catholic League champion Fenwick in the 1959 Prep Bowl – the Super Bowl of high school football – at Soldier Field.


“Defensive star Bill Chmielewski was the only guy on our team who wasn’t afraid of Butkus,” recalled Chuck Logan, Lane’s star tight end. Logan later was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and actually played in the real 1969 Super Bowl with the Minnesota Vikings. Also on the field were several other Lane players who won scholarships to Northwestern, Purdue, Drake, and other major schools.


I cheered from the bleachers filled with 54,265 prep football fans while my team upset Fenwick 19-0 in a game marked by a blinding first-half blizzard.



Butkus went on to star as both center and linebacker from 1962 through 1964 at the University of Illinois. He was a unanimous All American in 1963 and 1964. He won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football award in 1963 as the Big Ten’s most valuable player. In 1964, when Butkus led the Fighting Illini to a victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl, he was named the American Football Coaches Association’s player of the year.


Butkus was third in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1964, an honor usually awarded to an offensive player. He finished his college career with 374 tackles. Illinois retired his number 50 and erected a statue (right) in his honor in 2017.





The Chicago Bears drafted Butkus in the first round of the 1965 draft with the number three pick – one spot ahead of another future Hall of Famer, Gale Sayers. It was the most productive draft by one team in NFL history. Ironically, Butkus never starred in a playoff game, and only enjoyed two winning seasons in his nine-year Bears career.


At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 245 pounds, Butkus started all 119 games he played. He was named first-team All Pro five times and was voted to the Pro Bowl in his first eight seasons.


He is the Bears’ all-time leader with 27 fumble recoveries. In pass coverage, he racked up 22 interceptions. In 1971, Butkus intercepted Pittsburg Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw twice in a 17-15 Bears win. Butkus made 1,020 bone-crushing tackles in his professional career.






Rams defensive end Deacon Jones (left), a Hall of Famer and one of the most feared defensive players ever, 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.”









Because of extreme knee injuries, Butkus retired with four years left on his $115,000 per season contract. When the Bears refused to honor the guaranteed contract, he sued the team in 1974, creating a five-year riff with head coach George Halas. Eventually, the Bears paid him. Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.


Stop-Action backstory


In 1972, Butkus co-authored Stop-Action, a pro football book with Chicago Daily News sportswriter Robert W. Billings, a former University of Illinois quarterback, a fine writer, and a literary scholar.


Billings co-authored the memoire, which describes Butkus’ frustrations and grievances during the final week of the 1971 season after the Bears lost their last five games. Billings also was a close friend who defended Butkus when Detroit Lions middle linebacker Mike Lucci called him a dirty player.


“I play as hard as I can,” Butkus said. “To me that’s what the game is all about.”


Billings also introduced Butkus to the finer literary things in life, including the plays and poems of William Shakespeare and the writings of James Joyce.


The co-author relationship was a partnership of two tough Chicago guys. Famed columnist Mike Royko described Billings as the toughest South Side Irishman he ever met.







“One memorable night at the Club Irene, Billings got into a bar room brawl and personally dispatched four ruffians by himself,” recalled Royko (left) in the mid-1970s.









Royko and Billings taught this writer how to play handball, the perfect winter sport for a 16-inch softball player, in the early 1970s. Billings, who once starred for the world champion Bobcats, played shortstop on the Daily News team, which in 2008 was inducted into the Chicago 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame.


The only time I ever saw Billings flinch was during a handball doubles match at the Downtown Court Club. While setting up a backwall kill shot, Billings hit Royko in the back of the head with the ball, causing the columnist’s mystery toupee to fly off.


Billings, a tall, muscular man with a ruddy complexion, turned white as a ghost. He thought he’d killed Royko. An embarrassed Royko said: “If anyone tells the toupee story, I’ll kill ’em.”



Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.

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