Football 101: No. 18, Dick Butkus
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In so many ways, Dick Butkus is not a player who fits into a ranking like this. He is more legend than man. Ranking him against other football players is like ranking dragons against elephants or leprechauns against talk show hosts.
Nobody else is Butkus.
Nobody else can ever be Butkus.
A few years ago, Sean Lahman wrote The Pro Football Historical Abstract, and ranked Butkus 50th all-time … AMONG LINEBACKERS. It was, let’s just say, a bold move. There’s a very famous story about Butkus, the actor, playing a small role in a movie called “Mother, Jugs & Speed,” with a wild cast featuring Bill Cosby, Harvey Keitel, Larry Hagman, Bruce Davison and, especially, Raquel Welch, who played “Jugs,” as you probably guessed.
Anyway, at some point, Welch said to director Peter Yates: “I love everything about Butkus. He’s funny. He’s charming. Why do people say such mean things about him?”
To which the director responded: “Don’t pick up a football.”
So, yes, Lahman picked up the football. His arguments for ranking Butkus so low, as I understand them, are two-fold:
(1) Butkus’ career was very short; he played only nine seasons and he didn’t even play the full year in 1973, and …
(2) If Butkus was as good as everybody said, the Bears’ defense should have been a lot better than it was. After Butkus’ third year, the Bears’ defense was mediocre every year and often bottom-of-the-league bad.
There are pure football arguments to be made against both of those knocks, if you want to make them. As for the short career, Butkus played with a fury that few have ever had. He was not built for the long haul. He played football for TODAY, and when considering his greatness I think that’s what matters. Koufax had a short career too.
“Every time I play a game,” Butkus growled, “I want to play like it was my last one … and I wouldn’t want my last game to be a lousy one.”
As for the mediocre Bears’ defenses, well, without being cruel to his supporting cast, there’s only so much one man can do. Those were some shaky players they surrounded him with. “Butkus’ tackles,” Paul Zimmerman wrote when explaining why Butkus was the best middle linebacker who ever lived, “were nondescript guys such as Dick Evey and John Johnson and Willie Holman and Frank Cornish. He never played behind a Pro Bowl tackle in his entire career. And yet he could cut through whatever line scheme they had going against him in a flash and get rid of the blockers and gather himself for a thundering hit. Yeah, I’ll stick with him.”
Yes, there are plenty of football arguments to make.
But here’s what I’d say: Butkus is bigger than such arguments.
See, there has never in the history of professional football been a more exalted, more feared and more canonized player than Dick Butkus. He was simply his own category. My old friend Steve Sabol used to say: Butkus is like Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl.
“He went after you,” Paul Hornung said, “like he hated you from his old neighborhood.”
“Whenever they gave him the game ball,” Alex Hawkins said, “he ate it.”
“Unequivocally out of control,” Jim Brown wrote about him.
Everything about Butkus was larger than life. He was 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, big enough for a linebacker in his day, but he wore shoulder pads that made him look 6-foot-8, 495 pounds. And, though you’d never know it from his 40 times, he was blazing fast. Someone once asked his coach George Halas how fast Butkus was. Halas simply said: “Start running and find out.”
When Butkus was a rookie, Packers coach Vince Lombardi decided that he was much too big to be a linebacker. Lombardi wanted to beat the Bears more than any other team, and he decided he would build his offense that week — Halloween Day, 1965 — to take advantage of Butkus’ supposed lack of speed.
“He’s too slow,” Vince Lombardi barked as the Packers watched film. “He’s too slow to be a linebacker,” Lombardi said again. “He’s a defensive lineman. We can beat him to the edge every time. There’s no way he can get out there in time.”
“That week,” Bill Curry says, “I’ll never forget the play.