Skip to main content

'Nobody Thinks I Can Talk'

Fill in themissing word: Dick Butkus is the————football player in the world.

Nastiest?Fiercest? Smartest? Strongest? Quickest? Angriest? Coolest? Roughest? Thinkabout it for a while—maybe a moment or two. After all, Butkus (left) thinksabout it constantly.

O.K., time's up.According to those who know him most intimately—and you can count their bruisesto determine the degree of intimacy—Dick Butkus is all of the above and perhapsa bit more. In a sense, he is his own missing word in the act ofself-definition, though some may claim that he is merely the missing link. In agame as complex and specialized as pro football, where experts abound ateverything from placekicking to face-masking, it is impossible to determine a'"best player" in the overall sense. Yet if such a designation could bemade, Butkus would come close to filling it.

Listen to PhilBengtson, the Green Bay coach: "Butkus rates with any linebacker I've everseen—Bulldog Turner, Joe Schmidt, Ray Nitschke, George Connor. He has as muchenthusiasm as any player I've ever known, and you can always count on him beingsharp."'

Joe Schmidt, whosort of invented the middle linebacker position during his playing days atDetroit, where he is now head coach, feels Lion MLB Mike Lucci is the best—goodfor you, Joe!—but even his grudging praise of Butkus cannot conceal thecast-iron truth. "If he overplays, it's because he's so aggressive,"Schmidt says. "I've never seen him quit. Last year in our final game withthe Bears, when we went ahead 20-3, he got the ball on the kickoff with lessthan four minutes to go and ran down the field trying for a touchdown with thesame desire as if it were the opening kickoff." That 28-yard return, whichleft flattened Lions in its wake, brought a sullen Wrigley Field crowd to itsfeet in a rare standing ovation. Rare, that is, for last season, when the Bearswere 1 and 13. As Schmidt says, "Butkus has a quality that is instinctive,that all good linebackers have to have. That's the leadership ability thatstimulates a team."

God knows theBears need leadership—though His alter ego, George Halas, apparently doesn't.In the past Butkus has tried to provide leadership by example, and some ofthose examples proved painful to the objects in the leadership lesson. JohnnyRoland, the St. Louis running back, recalls a 1967 game in which Butkus washobbled by a wrenched knee but played his usual fierce game anyway. "I havea bruise under my lip to this day where he shattered my mask," says Roland."I was running up instead of low, as I should have been, and he met mehead-on—just like somebody he hadn't seen for a while. He actually embraced me,but he also put me down for a time."

Tight End CharlieSanders of Detroit has equally vivid memories. In the first Lion-Bear game lastyear Sanders caught a pass and Butkus gave him the old, rib-cracking Bear hug.Then Sanders caught a second pass and Butkus poked his fingers throughCharlie's face mask into his eyes. In the course of the afternoon's work theLions charged Butkus with provoking three fights and Detroit General ManagerRuss Thomas called him "an annihilating son of a bitch." Sanders,laughing, took it more coolly. "Dick's just a maladjusted kid," hesaid.

Still, theultimate appraisal of a middle linebacker must come from his opposite number,the quarterback. Green Bay's Bart Starr, a man not given to cheap superlatives,has this to say: "Since the day he came into the league Butkus has made theBear defense what it is. He's the finest example of hustle I've seen—" thenBart frowns, the old Lombardi loyalty surging up—"or one of the finest. RayNitschke is the epitome of hustle.

"All middlelinebackers are different, of course, and maybe some are a little better passdefenders than Butkus. I can't imagine anyone being any quicker or stronger.Lee Roy Jordan of Dallas is a good one, but Dallas' defense is sowell-coordinated that he can go right to a hole and fill. Butkus doesn't needthat team coordination to be great. He covers so much ground—you can complete apass downfield and, son of a gun. he makes the tackle."

Well, son of agun, quarterbacks sure talk nicer than middle linebackers. That's one ofButkus' major hang-ups—talk. In the public mind the quarterback is to themiddle linebacker as the surgeon is to the butcher. Yin and yang, mind andbody, human and animal. But—and of course there is a "but" inButkus—the real man exists in the tension between those opposites. Granted thatButkus is a bruiser (6'3", 245 pounds); granted that his defensive ferocitydraws fans to any Bear game nearly as effectively as his superb offensivecomplement, Gale Sayers; granted that Chicagoans get a kick out of calling him"Buttocks" and "Bupkis" behind his back. The man is somethingelse. Inner-directed, inarticulate, locked into an image he has outgrown andwould desperately like to change, Butkus is striving to overcome...what?

The animal image.There was a time when Dick Butkus truly believed he was an animal, and thetransmogrification was nearly perfect. Now he is not so sure. In Chicago, wherehe exercises his territorial imperative to the fullest. Bear fans still thinkof him as the ultimate in ursine violence. Take the folks at a bar calledChances R on a recent afternoon. Chances R is one of those quasi-Westernhangouts on the plastic, northwestern fringes of Chicago, where 19th-centurynudes adorn the walls and the patrons are-asked to throw peanut shells on thefloor to give the place that crackly, Big Shoulders atmosphere. The barkeep isa mountainous Irishman named Larry Mahoney, equally adept at bouncing a drunkenhouse painter or trilling a ballad in his fine tenor.

"Hey, let'splay a word game," Mahoney chirps to his assembled parishioners on thisparticular day. "What do you think of when I say 'Dick Butkus'?"

"Killer,"say a young long-haired couple named Bill and Dee, whose motorcycle had justbeen blown over by a line squall. The wind is still rattling the roof overhead,and the chink of beer glasses is comforting. "Bull," says anotherpatron. Others chime in: "Wild boar." "King Kong." "MayorDaley." "Mean and nasty." "Elizabeth Taylor." ElizabethTaylor? "I can see it," says Mahoney. "Butkus has the same kind ofego, the same self-dedication or cruelty or something."

Not far away, atNorthwestern University's Dyche Stadium, Dick Butkus is doing a veryun-Elizabethan thing. He is filming a breakfast-cereal commercial. A giantamong mere advertising mortals, he even towers over the out-sized extras hiredto simulate real football players. One scene requires him to blitz through aline of extras, who crumble in slow motion. Butkus then charges the cameraman,arms outstretched in true King Kong fashion. He can't do it. Every time theextras fall down, Butkus breaks up. And when that button-nosed, wide-eyed SouthSide kisser cracks into a smile it looks about 12 years old and fresh out ofMass after Holy Communion. Then he points a finger at the camera and giggles,"Get with it!" Finally, after a dozen takes, Butkus the actor meetsButkus the animal, and he snarls the words. The script girl, a tough Chicagocookie who has been complaining of the heat all day, actually shivers at theline. "Gee," she says with a little thrill in her voice, "he'llscare all those cereal-eating kiddies to death!"

It just sohappened that a couple of cereal-eating kiddies were standing on the sidelineswhen Butkus came in from the take. Mike McHugh, 11, and Mike Rogers, 10, hadbeen planning to sneak into a nearby circus for the day's entertainment whenword flashed through their Wilmette neighborhood that a Bear was loose at DycheStadium. Since the two young Mikes love the Bears more than anything else inthe world (except, perhaps, the Cubs, the Black Hawks, the Bulls and JohnnyLightning cars), they biked over to the stadium. Now they circled Butkuswarily, like a couple of Paleolithic hunters on the prod for cave bear."Hey," snarls Butkus in his meanest voice, "you kids come overhere." They do. "Wadya want?" "Your autograph." "Mywhatagraph?"—kidding them and the kids know it, so they get cocky. "Youknow, your NAME! Like write it down." Butkus takes the proffered pen anddrafts the usual message in a neat hand. The kids' eyes bug out: Butkus didn'tgrab the pen as if it were a dagger, he hadn't scrawled a blotchy X, heis...human!

"It makes mesad sometimes," Butkus said later. He was sitting at a table in the PumpRoom, surrounded by the muted tap of solid silverware on bone china, disguisedin a well-tailored suit of tropical worsted that made him look no larger, nofiercer than the rest of the entrepreneurs and con men eating in that deluxe,candlelit chow hall. "Nobody thinks I can talk, much less write my name.Why, last year I cut a record of Shakespeare quotes—you know, a parody, like'Once more unto the bench, dear friends.' The record company said it was toogood. Not enough deese, dem and doses. What the hell is this society doing topeople? I did what it told me I could do. I wasn't any freak. I didn't have anyidentity crisis. In the fifth grade I knew what I was going to be: aprofessional football player. I worked hard at becoming one, just like societysays you should. It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough. I wastough."

Butkus pickeddaintily at his shrimp salad, parodying in advance his next thoughts. "WhenI got to college I discovered that you always have to study. Which I did, eventhough it wasn't easy at Illinois. It hurt, let me be honest about it. But Ididn't do too bad." He flashed his 12-year-old's grin at the grammar."But the main thing was I knew my trade. And it wasn't all that grim. WhenI got to the Bears, I made it and I made it beyond the Bears. I made it toAll-Pro, whatever that means. But I made it. And then what happens? They callme an animal."

Of course, heencouraged it. There is the celebrated incident last August in Miami of Butkusbiting a referee in a melee. (He denies it: "If I'd of been dumb enough tobite a referee I'd have bitten his arm off.") Or of Butkus punching out acop in the Chicago Federal Building last December, when halted on his way tothe passport bureau. ("I didn't hit him. Maybe my friend Rick Bertetto did.We'd had a couple of beers and they got snotty. They locked us up for a whilebut let us out after a few hours. All a mistake. But I keep thinking: what ifI'd been an immigrant like my old man, who couldn't talk so good the English. Imight still be there.") And, of course, there is the famous—or infamous, ifyou will—photograph of Butkus with his lips curled (his whole face curled!) incontempt that was taken during a Minnesota game in 1968. That picture hangs inDick Butkus' basement along with his gilded trophies and the more civilizedglossies of him smiling with teammates, coaches, biggies, etc. Perhaps theformer is a reminder of the Butkus that his fans demand, or an indication thathe is more than that.

A man's home andhis homelife reveal far more about his character than his job performance, andButkus is no exception. He lives in one of those development areas near ChicagoHeights—an hour south of the Loop—that are not quite split-level but a few cutsabove miniranch. The neighborhood is new; there are still some working onionfarms in the vicinity. From his backyard one can see the tan, turbulent wall ofsmog rising above Gary and Hammond, Ind. A few lightplanes circle in and out ofthe crud. "That's where Tony Lema went down," Butkus is wont to say,indicating the Hammond airport with a lugubrious wave of the paw.

His house ismodest by football-star standards—a tidy yellow-brick, single-story,nondescript he bought for around $50,000 in 1966, his second year with theBears. In 1968, with his fortunes vastly improved, Butkus expanded the house,adding a workout complex. In it stands Dick's pride and joy: a Universal Gym,$2,400 worth of muscle-building machinery on which he manufactures the strengththat makes him the game's best linebacker. "My weakest point is the benchpress," Butkus allows during an impromptu tour. "I only lift about 200,and the weights go up to 220. But I don't want to get muscle-bound. I need thatmobility." On the military press, which goes up to 200 pounds, Butkusregularly lifts 170 or more—the weight of a minuscule running back. "Incompetition," he explains, "you can do things that no gym can teachyou."

Leg weights, asit-up machine and many other Charles Atlas adaptations are available on theUniversal, and starting in May of every year Butkus begins using them. He worksout with two football-playing neighbors, Marty Schottenheimer of the Bills andJohn Johnson of the Broncos. After a few sit-ups the trio takes off in sweatsuits for a half-mile airplane runway belonging to a neighboring farmer. Theyrun for an hour or two, mixing the action up with competitive sprints andhandicapped distance races, then return to the gym for a few friendly leglifts. ""Working out by yourself can be deadly boring," saysButkus, "'but with Marty and John it's all a lot of fun. Sometimes, atparties, after we've had a few beers, some of us guys come down here andcompete on the weights but I try not to overdo it. This machine is supposed tokeep me from injuries, not inflict them."

Back of the gym,past his daughter's toy cookstove, is Butkus' sauna, which he and a few of hispals built. "'One of these days," says Dick with a wicked grin,"I'm going to pour a couple of gallons of vodka on the stones and see whathappens. Nice for a party."

Butkus has warmrelations with his neighbors. His mother lives two doors to the west and theintervening neighbor, a hardhat named Jessam Buck, has given the Butkuses freeaccess across his neat front lawn. (After all, who would start a spitefence-feud with a Butkus?) Dick's own yard is chockablock with kids' toys,swings, bikes and chinning bars. His driveway provides the only clue thatsomething more than a middle-income suburbanite dwells within. In the drivewayare parked a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a Corvette Stingray and a Pontiac stationwagon. Dick drives the Caddy and the Stingray; his wife Helen drives thewagon.

Helen Butkus, 27,is an outspoken, loyal little housewife and mother. Short, blonde, blue-eyedand just a shade plumpish, she conveys that sense of puzzled matronhood thatcomes across so poignantly in Midwestern women of her age. It's as if they hadsuddenly been switched by time machine from their high school days to aposition of moral and diaper-changing authority in some very important nursery.And they wonder: What the heck, how did I get here and should I do like Mommy?Inevitably, they do.

If Joe Namath andDick Butkus, as the optimum men at their opposite positions, represent poles ofdifference in football character, then their women are important indications ofthat character. Helen Butkus is no Namath nifty. Born Helen Essenberg ofSwedish-American background, she started dating the Lithuanian kid who becamethe animal that is called Dick Butkus when she was only 14. At that time shewas attending Fenger High on Chicago's South Side and Dick was at ChicagoVocational, a few miles away. CVS was—and is to this day—one of those technicalschools where the corridors smell of sawed wood and burnt steel from the shops,where the lockers bear two-inch-deep dents from tough kids punching out theirfrustrations and where you can always find bloodstains from fistfights in theJohn. Butkus was already marked for greatness: as a hard-running fullback hedoubled his ferocity on defense. The kid had his coaches agog. By the end ofhis high school career he had pro scouts goggling as well. How did he hook upwith teeny little Helen? "I don't know," says Dick today, with hislittle boy half-smile, "she was kinda cute."

Apart from that,Helen is a dedicated Hausfrau in the best Midwestern tradition. She worriesincessantly about the ineradicable rust spots on the backyard patio, moansmildly with that touching wifely self-martyrdom when she stoops to extirpate aweed from a garden abrim with tuberoses. "Oooh, there's a lot to dooo"she sighs, licking a bead of sweat from her dainty upper lip.

There is, indeed.Apart from handling the hearty appetites of her outsized husband, Helen musttake care of two children, both cut in Daddy's mold. Daughter Nikki, who justturned 4, is a robust little blonde who could middle lineback for any nurseryschool (she attends a Montessori school, however, where traditional physicalactivity is considered "inadequate"). Son Ricky, who celebrates his 3rdbirthday this month, rides a tricycle like Custer his cavalry mount. On arecent evening the Butkuses were preparing to go out for dinner and Dick'smother had accepted the baby-sitting assignment. "O.K.., kids," pipedHelen, "you're going to go over by Grandma's for supper!" Instantdeafness. Butkus growled low in his throat, more to himself than the kids. Justas instantly, perfect hearing. The three of them, gigantic Daddy and his twokids, lurched across neighbor Buck's front lawn like a Fearsome Threesome.Helen bit her lower lip as she watched Nikki go. '"Oh, golly," she saidat last, "Nikki walks just like Dick. I hope she loses that."

Like most proathletes in the long-seasoned sports, Butkus spends very little time with hisfamily. During the season, even when he is physically present, his head isusually off somewhere else, rewinding cerebral game films and psyching up fornext weekend. During the off season there is a semiweekly radio show (yes,Butkus speaks!), dinner appearances, endorsements, meetings with other players(until this season he was Chicago's rep to the Players' Association) and withhis coaches (as a defensive co-captain he exercises a weighty leadershipfunction). Understandably, then, Butkus feels guilty about not fulfilling thetraditional father role. This summer when Brian Piccolo, the young Bear runningback, died of cancer, Butkus felt that guilt all the more. "I kept thinkingabout what Brian said when he was dying, that maybe football hadn't really beenworth it. that it had kept him from being with his wife and kids, and now hewasn't going to be with nobody no more."

Thus motivated,Butkus rented a camper and took off with Helen and the kids for a rollingvacation. "Like the hippies say, it was a bum trip," Dick recalls."We bit off more than we could chew—2,000 miles in a week, from Ogallala.Neb. through Wyoming and down to Colorado. We were following the ruts in theOregon Trail part of the way. I kind of liked that—the mountain men, you know,Bridger and Fitzpatrick, they always appealed to me, tough and hard-nosed. Butthe kids got bored with history." He imitates a child's voice, all whinesand tremolos: " "Daddy, who cares about a stinky old fort, we wanna goswimming.' So I took 'em down to this lake in the mountains. I'm going downthis mountain in this huge camper—I'm shifting into second, into first, I'mbraking, I'm scared foofless that we're going to go over the edge. Then we getthere and swim. It's colder than a welldigger's feet and the rocks cut you. Icouldn't wait to get to Denver, where there were people and buildings and TVsets. I tied down all the gear in the camper and, man, we went. Like I say, abummer."

By contrast to allthose chilly mountains and empty plains, dinner tonight is to be in the realworld of Dick Butkus. John's Pizzeria in Calumet City, Ill. Wicked old CalCity, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Lake Michigan steel belt, infamous sincethe early 1950s for its hookers and pushers and fabulous clip joints. Drivingpast the onion ranches toward Cal City, Butkus plays rock on the Caddy'sstereo. "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got tillit's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.... " Cal City haschanged. Cozy little discoth√®ques stud the main drag, their freaked-out coloredlights casting the shadows of bouffant B girls in miniskirts on the pavements.One of the old-time night clubs—boarded up now—points a telling contrast. Thefaded facade invites one and all to witness "All Girl Revues—Venus and HerJungle Beast." Butkus smiles secretly when the sign is pointed out to him.Yeah, the Jungle Beast! All those lower-middle-class high school girl fantasiesabout being carried off by a lustful gorilla. Helen, too, is smiling.

John's Pizzeria ismore than the name implies. A vast, dark, multiroomed restaurant, it hums withnasal Chicago accents and sings with bursts of mellifluous Italian. Butkusinhales the odor of pastas and wines and spicy sausages, his chest expanding tothe size of the Goodyear blimp. "Yum, yum," he sighs. John Bacino, sonof the owner and top chef, comes up to advise on the goodies. "How's itgoing to go this year with the Bears, Dick?" "Better," snarlsButkus. "Can't get no worse." The dinner begins to pour in from thekitchen: fragrant orangines, crisp calamari, steamed shrimp, mushrooms the sizeof kids' hats, chicken, salad, snails. "They get them from the ditches inHammond," guffaws Dick. Helen won't touch the snails. She sips a Bacardiand drags deep on one of her Kools. Oh, this jungle beast! Butkus eats with thefinger-licking, sensuous abandon of that scene in Tom Jones, none of that pickystuff he had parodied so well at the Pump Room. Food and the eating of food arebig items with Dick Butkus. A couple of guys at the bar request hisautograph—"For the kids, you know," and Dick smiles knowingly—theninsist on buying a round of beers. Butkus permits it with a resigned shrug. Letthem tell all their friends how they were drinking with Butkus, and how theBears are going to do this year and all the lies sports fans are capable of—no,compelled to tell. "Sometimes it gets tough, going out to dinner,"Butkus confides. "Always there are guys wanting to buy you beers. If youwon't let them do it, then they want to fight you. I suppose a broken nose fromDick Butkus is some kind of status symbol. Haw, haw."

The Cal Cityatmosphere, the Italian food, the awed and envious stares of the patronscombined to produce yet another definition of indefinable Dick Butkus. He is alatter-day condottiere—a mercenary captain of the sort that led RenaissanceItaly's armies through wars that were as much sham as bloodshed. To thecondottiere cleverness was as important as strength, and this facet of Butkushas never been fully appreciated. Words like "strength,""abandon" and "recklessness" abound in any definition ofButkus' playing style, yet those qualities are guided by a first-rate footballintelligence. Though most of the Bears' defensive signals are now called byCoach Jim Dooley, Butkus is perhaps better equipped to do the calling. "Ican see it all about to happen," he says. "At the key moment—theinstant of the snap—I somehow know, most of the time, just how the flow patternwill develop. It's all there in the backdrop. I stare—I don't know—rightthrough the center and the quarterback, right through their eyes. I watch forthe keys, and they are very tiny keys, believe me. Tiny little twitches oftheir shoulders and their heads and their feet and eyes. There's just thissplit second, before it all starts to move, when you put those keys togetherand you know—you damned well know—how it's going." Opposing coaches likeMinnesota's offensive assistant Jerry Burns realize Butkus' greatness in thisseminal defensive role. "He's uncanny on audibles," says Burns."That helps him considerably on the blitz—Butkus probably blitzes andgambles more effectively than Nobis or Nitschke."

This season Butkuswill have the opportunity to broaden his instinctive leadership qualities. As adefensive co-captain (along with Cornerback Bennie McRae), he will beresponsible for shoring up the riddled Bear morale. Last year's disastrousseason has left the Bears in a growling mood, one which could result in evenmore disaster if the team's leaders permit it. On the other hand, it couldserve as a psychological launch pad for a fine season.

"Leadershiphas always kind of scared me," Butkus admitted as he mopped up the remainsof John Bacino's cooking. "I've always figured that by playing my best andkeeping my mouth shut I'd be showing the guys a good example. Ugh, what acheesy idea: good example. But now I know that it's going to take more thanperfect football to make this club move again. I want to try to be more than asuperior football player. I'd like to be a real leader." He blushed a shadeof delicate pink and then devoured a pear slice left over from dessert. "Idon't know, I guess a lot of talking and inspirational stuff goes against myimage. The Animal. Maybe it goes against the real me, whoever that is. But I'mgoing to give it a try."

Helen Butkusstared into the ruins of her meal and said quietly: "He's stillgrowing." It was an incisive insight, perhaps a frightening one to the highschool sweetheart who had married the football hero, but it had the ring oftruth. The next time they play the Butkus word-game in Chances R, perhapssomeone will answer: "Human being."