In the 1960s, Dick Butkus made himself one of the most feared defensive players in professional football and synonymous with the rugged, blue-collar ethos of the Chicago Bears. Born in the Windy City, he built a reputation as a ferocious linebacker at the University of Illinois and was drafted by the Bears in 1965. Demonstrating an agility belied by his 6'3" 245-lb. stature, he briefly helped revive the Bears' fortunes as he terrorized quarterbacks and blew up running plays. Butkus was selected to eight Pro Bowls, but by the early 1970s, a nagging knee injury slowed him and the recurring pain forced him to retire in 1973. He began an acting career as a frequent television guest star and, in tandem with fellow NFL-vet Bubba Smith, a high-profile pitchman for Miller Lite in its long-running "Tastes Great, Less Filling" campaign. He periodically landed regular gigs on television, as per his supporting cast roles on "Blue Thunder" (NBC, 1984), "My Two Dads" (1987-1990) and "Hang Time" (NBC, 1995-2000). In 2008, ESPN built a reality-TV show, "Bound for Glory," around the premise of Butkus coaching a struggling high school football team. A first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Butkus remained an archetype of the game's pre-frills, no-holds-barred smash-mouth era.
Richard Marvin Butkus was born Dec. 9, 1942, the last of eight children of Emma and John Butkus, the latter a Lithuanian survivor of German concentration camps. It was a cluttered blue-collar household in which Richard shared a bedroom with four brothers. Butkus' father supported the family working as an electrician with the Pullman Palace Car Company, while his mother worked in a laundry. Though initially an inward child, Richard grew up a fan of the Chicago Cardinals football team and, as early as his elementary school days, decided he was going to play football for a living. He attended Chicago Vocational High, where he played multiple sports but he took it to another level on the gridiron. He proved a bruising runner at fullback, anchored a stifling defense as a linebacker and accounted for so many of his team's tackles the Chicago Sun-Times named him the city's "High School Player of the Year" his junior year. Despite his success on the field, he was not immune to injury, suffering a first knee injury his senior season. Also during his high school years, he began a relationship with fellow student Helen Essenberg, whom he would marry in 1963.
In 1961, Butkus took his defensive prowess to the University of Illinois. Playing middle linebacker, Butkus stunned offenses with his ferocity as he hurdled opposing blockers, wielded the speed to both jump passing lanes, covered ground laterally to stanch running plays, and rattled opposing skill players with monster hits. His junior year he was credited with 145 tackles and 10 forced fumbles as he played a key role in the Illini's Big Ten championship, Rose Bowl win and No. 3-ranked finish for the 1963 season. The Chicago Tribune that year tapped him as the Big Ten's MVP. He earned consensus All-America honors in both 1963 and 1964, and the American Football Coaches Association named him its Player of the Year in 1964. He returned to Chicago after the Bears selected him in the spring 1965 NFL draft. Though the team had fallen out of their championship ways of recent years, Butkus proved an immediate sparkplug for legendary coach George Halas's defense, while fellow rookie Gale Sayers put some punch in their offense. The team recorded a 9-5 record and both rookies were selected to their first Pro Bowl. In an era when the NFL did not keep a record of tackles and sacks, Butkus became one of the league's most fear-inspiring, game-changing defenders, renowned for an NFL-iteration of the Viking berserker rage on the field - though he later admitted to engaging in some showmanship to gain a psychological edge.
During the 1970 season, however, another knee injury put the kibosh on his game. He underwent surgery and returned the next season to record a phenomenal 117 tackles and 68 assists, but the knee never healed right and he would play with severe pain and cortisone shots the rest of his career. In 1971, he took his first job as an actor and played himself in the gut-wrenching made-for-TV movie "Brian's Song," the story of the friendship between Sayers and tragic Bears back Brian Piccolo. Butkus signed a four-year re-up with the Bears in 1973, but by the ninth game of that season, his ailing right knee could no longer take the punishment of NFL play. Doctors confirmed the prognosis but Halas, now the Bears' owner, filed suit against Butkus and media and fans aped the organization's line that he was malingering. Feeling like a pariah in Chicago, Butkus moved his family to Florida. He eventually was paid the balance of his contract in an out-of-court settlement.
Not surprisingly, Butkus's tough-guy ethos translated well to show business. He initially found a groove playing goons or amicable lugs in guest shots on the detective and action shows of the 1970s and '80s. He saw his highest-profile screen time when he paired with fellow imposing NFL vet Bubba Smith in a series of ads for Miller Lite beer. The two initially were shown wrapping up a genteel game of tennis as a demonstration of their post-gridiron civility, which they lose in the ongoing debate as to whether Lite is better because it "tastes great" or is "less filling." While Miller populated its campaign with similarly macho Guy's Guys, Smith and Butkus became a regular comic duo in a rotation of Lite regulars as the campaign stretched well into the 1980s. In 1984, Butkus and Smith were even paired as cop partners on ABC's short-lived small-screen adaptation of the action film "Blue Thunder" (1983). Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, Butkus returned to gridiron work in 1985 as he buried the hatchet with the Bears and took on game analyst duties on their radio broadcasts. Also that year, his family foundation established the Butkus Award to be given to the best college linebacker in the country at the end of each season.
In 1987, he landed a cast job as the lovable operator of the local café hangout of the central characters on the NBC sitcom "My Two Dads" (1987-1990). In 1994, the Bears retired both Butkus's No. 51 and Sayers' No. 40 jerseys. Four years later, he did a short stint as an in-studio analyst for CBS' Sunday NFL coverage. That same year, Butkus returned to serial television on NBC's Saturday morning juvenile sitcom "Hang Time," taking over as the new coach of the high school basketball team central to show. He played the role through end of the show's run in 2000. In 2005, Butkus signed on to be the central personality in the ESPN reality show "Bound for Glory." The premise of the show saw him taking on "coaching" duties for Montour High School in suburban Pittsburgh, PA in attempts to turn around its football team's fortunes - though Butkus never supplanted the team's actual coach and his "inspirational" consulting failed to foment a winning season. Butkus' legacy also included a gridiron family: his son Matthew played for USC, and his nephew Luke Butkus followed him to Illinois and in the 2000s went on to a series of offensive line-coach jobs with the Bears, the Seattle Seahawks and their alma mater.
By Matthew Grimm