Dick Butkus is a name synonymous with football. Famous for his days as a feared anchor of the Chicago Bears defense, Butkus was a football player since childhood. He recently sat down with us for a little to talk about his roots and what it was like being a fan while out on the gridiron.
Butkus was “born and raised on the south side of Chicago” where he was the youngest of nine children born to working class parents. He attributes his first involvement in sports to his older brothers and the family’s childhood proximity to Fernwood Park, a public park on Chicago’s south side.
Butkus described this green space where he could play sports as a boy as “a dreamland for me.” Butkus built upon these games with his brothers and neighborhood friends and played with distinction at the Chicago Vocational High School.
From 1962 through 1964, Butkus played both ways (center and linebacker) for the University of Illinois, twice earning All-American accolades. In 1964, he finished third on the Heisman Trophy ballot. His number is retired by the University of Illinois and his standout play earned him a number of individual awards. In 1985, the Butkus Award was created to honor the nation’s best linebackers at varying levels of play. It remains a prestigious award at all levels.
Though drafted by both NFL and AFL teams, Butkus signed with his hometown Chicago Bears, for whom he played a legendary nine seasons before injuries forced him to retire. He was six times named All League and went to eight Pro Bowls. A hard hitter who was deeply feared by opposing players, Butkus also had a special knack for forcing turnovers and retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in forced fumbles, though the record has since been broken.
Born on Chicago’s south side, Butkus did not grow up a Bears fan. He said, “I became a fan after I played with the Bears.”
A special moment that stood out in his memory as a player-fan was a famous game in his rookie season. On December 12, 1965, the Bears were hosting the San Francisco 49ers at Wrigley Field. A fellow Bears rookie — Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers – ran for six touchdowns, an individual performance still considered among the greatest ever.
But Butkus remembers a fact lost to the history books. He told us:
“Being a fan while I’m out there on the field … as a fan, I was hoping he was going to get seven … I think we had the ball at the two-yard line and Halas took him out.”
Butkus is referring to legendary Bears head coach George S. Halas, known affectionately as “Papa Bear” who substituted Sayers out on that play. His replacement ran the ball in for a touchdown, stealing Sayers’ would-be seventh touchdown away.
Beloved by Bears fans, Butkus told us the admiration and respect is reciprocal.
“The Chicago fans are a certain breed and that’s because they’re loyal and they’re smart – they know what the hell the game’s about.”
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