At an event long ago, someone made the mistake of saying to Vince Lombardi, “Football is a contact sport.” The great coach fixed this naïf with a cold stare and said, “No. Dancing is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport.” Just so. And no one exemplified this better than Chicago Bears all-everything linebacker Dick Butkus, who died peacefully in his sleep Thursday in Malibu. He was 80.
Whodda thought Malibu would be Dick’s kind of town? And whodda thought that this Monster of the Midway, an agent of ferocity of the field (though by all reports a gent off of it), would die peacefully in his sleep? For 60 minutes between the lines on Sunday afternoons, he was the antithesis of peaceful.
Butkus was a maniacal defender. Fierce even by the standards of football’s black-and-blue era. With the new softly, softly football rules today, if anyone played the way Butkus did, not only would they draw penalty flags and ejections, but they’d probably be arrested. Coach Mike Ditka, another football-as-street-fight guy (Ditka’s idea of counseling a player was banging his head on a locker), points out the obvious that players on other teams were afraid of Butkus. Hell, some of the Bears were probably afraid of him.
On fall Saturdays, before teams sentenced to play Da Bares the following day during Butkus days, offensive players reported in droves to medical centers and emergency rooms, presenting with night sweats, inability to sleep or concentrate, panic attacks, erectile dysfunction, urges to flee, and large bowel complaints. Some moaned that they had clearly made the wrong career choice. Is it too late to become an accountant?
Sportswriter Jim Murray, a Butkus contemporary, said that when Butkus came to town, Fay Wray locked herself in her room. He once asked one of Butkus’ teammates if after the games Butkus showered or just licked himself clean. A comedian back in the day said he, the comedian, came up in a neighborhood that was so tough that Dick Butkus was the Avon Lady.
Too bad the Bears couldn’t put some winning teams around Butkus. In his nine-year NFL career, 1965 to 1973, the Bears only played above .500 twice. After a bad knee put an end to his career, Butkus went on to play in some bad movies, as so many famous ex-jocks did, and featured in some amusing TV commercials for Miller Lite beer with former NFL defensive end Bubba Smith. The beer is weaker than Joe Biden’s foreign policy, but the ads were amusing. Dick could be charming when he wanted to be. In the beer ads he seemed almost cuddly. But don’t say this to offensive players who were obliged to line up against him.
I hope all of this doesn’t leave the impression that I admire the more brutal aspects of the gladiator sport that is football. Like so many others, I’m aware of the huge physical price football players pay for entertaining us. Smashing into huge bags of bone and muscle at speed over and over is not what God had in mind when the created the human nervous system. Clearly the butterfly Dundees of journalism exaggerate the anti-football case. (They do overstate things in their rush to cleanse themselves of anything masculine. If you’re being mugged, who to you want to come to your rescue, Dick Butkus or Justin Trudeau?) But the problems are real enough and are concerning. Many former players are living in pain, answer phones that aren’t ringing, and have trouble remembering their children’s names.
Football is trying to eliminate some of the game’s more dangerous aspects, but this won’t be easy. How many adjustments to make a kinder gentler sport can be made before football is no longer football? Butkus seemed to have escaped the worst aspects of ex-NFL syndrome. For this we can be grateful. Butkus may remind many of what they consider to be the more brutal and atavistic aspects of America’s most popular sport. But he played the game by the rules and standards of his day. And he played it magnificently. He’s rightly revered by Bears fans of a certain age. I hope he now enters on a more peaceful rest than he allowed his opponents on those long-ago Sunday afternoons.
Read More: RIP #51