The world of pro football is full of legendary figures and players whose names alone seem to verge on the mythological. Just think of Joe Montana, Dan Marino, or John Elway. Dick Butkus doesn’t fall quite in the same category — his name is just as likely to be the butt of a dirty joke — yet as a player, he’s every bit as iconic as those mentioned above.
Butkus accomplished a lot in just nine years in the NFL, ultimately earning himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The University of Illinois also recently erected a statue of Butkus to commemorate his playing days with the Fighting Illini.
The quintessential linebacker
The Chicago Bears drafted Butkus with the third pick of the 1965 NFL Draft. Right of the gate, the rookie asserted himself as one of the best defensive players the game had ever seen. The middle linebacker had an almost uncanny knack for forcing opposing teams into turning over the ball. In his rookie season alone, reports Pro Football Reference, Butkus racked up five interceptions and recovered seven fumbles.
By the end of his nine-season career, those numbers had ballooned to 22 interceptions and 27 recovered fumbles. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting tacklers in the game, inspiring fear and respect from his opponents. As recently as 2009 — in other words, 36 years after Butkus retired — NFL.com named him the most feared tackler of all time.
Butkus’ talent earned him eight Pro-Bowl selections, six First-team All-Pro selections, and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. The only thing Butkus never managed to accomplish was getting his team to the playoffs. Given another few years, he might have managed it, but unfortunately a lingering right knee injury finally forced his retirement in May 1974. He was just 31 years old at the time.
Dick Butkus post-NFL
Butkus had no intention to rest on his laurels following his premature exit from the game of football. Yet surprisingly, he didn’t choose to pursue a new career path within the sport—at least not right away. Instead, in a move few would have predicted, Butkus swerved into the world of acting. He made frequent appearances in comedy films of the 1970s, especially those that involved sports.
Butkus’ acting career continued well into the 1990s, spanning multiple genres. A few of his more noteworthy screen credits include The Longest Yard (1974), Cry, Onion! (1975), Gus (1976), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Necessary Roughness (1991), and Any Given Sunday (1999). Meanwhile, Butkus became a celebrity endorser for a variety of brands, including Prestone and Miller Lite.
Butkus has also spent time as a sports analyst over the years, most notably serving as radio color analyst for the Chicago Bears in 1985. More recently, Butkus has chosen to focus on various philanthropic efforts through The Butkus Foundation. Having suffered from serious heart disease, Butkus is also highly involved in promoting cardiovascular wellness.
The new Dick Butkus status at the University of Illinois
Before any of his exploits in NFL and on the silver screen, Butkus had already earned legendary status for his playing days at the University of Illinois. The school recently paid tribute to their former star by unveiling a new statue of Butkus outside of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center. Butkus himself was in attendance, and had this to say about the statue:
“It’s a very humbling experience to tell you the truth. I didn’t come here to play to get a statue. We changed a losing program to a winner and it’s all you can ask. It worked out well.”
As for the statue itself, it does manage to convey some of the fear which Butkus inspired in opponents. The twelve-foot tall statue depicts Butkus leaping into the air, presumably en route to tackle some unlucky foe. His hands are wrapped with tape, and his face wears a look of frankly disturbing intensity.