Dick Butkus, a Pro Football Hall of Famer widely regarded as one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, has died at the age of 80, the Chicago Bears announced.
Butkus passed away “peacefully in his sleep overnight” in his Malibu, California, home, according to the team.
“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement. “He was Chicago’s son. He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidently, what George Halas looked for in a player: toughness, smarts, instincts, passion and leadership. He refused to accept anything less than the best from himself, or from his teammates. When we dedicated the George Halas statue at our team headquarters, we asked Dick to speak at the ceremony, because we knew he spoke for Papa Bear.
“Dick had a gruff manner, and maybe that kept some people from approaching him, but he actually had a soft touch. His legacy of philanthropy included a mission of ridding performance enhancing drugs from sports and promoting heart health. His contributions to the game he loved will live forever and we are grateful he was able to be at our home opener this year to be celebrated one last time by his many fans.
“We extend our condolences to Helen, Dick’s high school sweetheart and wife of 60 years, and their family.”
Butkus was born in Chicago and played his entire football career in the state of Illinois — first as a star at Chicago Vocational High School, then as a two-time All-American at Illinois, and finally as an all-time Bears legend.
In his nine-year career with the Bears, Butkus was a five-time first-team All-Pro selection and an eight-time Pro Bowl honoree. He totaled 22 career interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries, one of which was run back for a touchdown. Butkus’ 49 total career takeaways rank second in franchise history, and he even kicked extra points and ran back kickoffs occasionally.
Known as one of the fiercest tacklers in the NFL, Butkus epitomized football in his rugged era with relentless effort. He also was regarded as one of the most intimidating linebackers in professional football history and was considered rather massive for middle linebacker at the time at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds.
The Bears made Butkus the third overall choice in the 1965 NFL Draft, during which they also selected fellow Hall of Famer Gale Sayers with the fourth overall pick. Although the Denver Broncos also drafted him the same year in the AFL’s draft, Butkus told reporters when he signed that he “always wanted to be a Bear,” a franchise led at the time by legendary coach George Halas.
As a result, Butkus became one of the most beloved players in Bears history, carrying on the franchise’s middle linebacker legacy established by Bill George and later maintained by Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher and others.
Butkus was an instant star, leading all rookies in interceptions (five). Despite his stellar start, Butkus was beat out for Rookie of the Year by Sayers (back when there was one award for offensive and defensive players).
Despite Butkus’ greatness on the field, the Bears did not qualify for the playoffs once during his career, as Chicago struggled after Halas stopped coaching in 1967, failing to finish above .500 for the remainder of Butkus’ playing days. Butkus’ tenacious style also took a toll on his health. A right knee injury forced him to retire at the age of 31 following the 1973 season.
Butkus was named to Hall of Fame All-Decade Teams for the 1960s and 1970s, despite playing only 37 total games from 1971 to 1973. Only Singletary (10) and Walter Payton (nine) have more Pro Bowl appearances for the Bears franchise. Butkus also was a member of the NFL’s 100 All-Time Team, and his jersey No. 51 was retired by the Bears.
Butkus was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He was also named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
His legacy also carries on through the Butkus Award, which was founded in 1985. It is awarded every year to the best linebacker at the professional, college and high school levels.
Following his playing career, Butkus remained in the spotlight mostly as an actor and announcer. He appeared on TV shows such as “Hang Time,” “MacGyver,” “My Two Dads,” “Half Nelson,” “Blue Thunder” and more, and was the Bears’ radio announcer for many years and a panelist on CBS’ pregame show “The NFL Today.”
In many ways, Butkus, whose nephew Luke is on the Packers coaching staff, remained the face of the Bears’ old guard, frequently appearing at games and team-sponsored events. He also joined Twitter (now X) in recent years and never lost his hatred of his rivals — or his sense of humor.
There likely will never be another linebacker in the game’s history who impacted the game in quite the same way Butkus did.
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