By the way, Butkus has a screenplay about those moving days, if you Hollywood folks are interested. And there, in a sense, is the rub. What is this battered, quintessentially Midwestern, rock-solid Chicago hero doing in Los Angeles, where he has been for decades, with the usual fruits and nuts, 2,000 miles from his roots?
Start with betrayal. Butkus's right knee went bad in 1970, was never fully repaired, went from bad to worse, and at the end he was a staggering shadow of his former self. He sued the Bears, just to get his guaranteed money, and the resulting acrimony hurt him deeply. "My life is a freakin' joke to the Bears?" he asks with genuine hurt in his voice. He guides his bike around a bend, past a bikinied Rollerblader. "The attorneys were laughing: 'If we can do this to this guy, we'll show who's boss.' "
Butkus, who reached an out-of-court settlement with the Bears, hated the impotence he felt. Hated that he had to ask for anything. Hated that people thought ill of him, that he could possibly be a malingerer. "The old South Side code," he says. "You work, you work. You get f——-up, too bad."
Pain was not the problem. "My brother Don, he's 6'7", a welder, just retired," says Butkus, slowing near a side street on funky Venice Beach. "Pain threshold? There'd be hot solder bouncing off his bare feet and he wouldn't even flinch."
No, it wasn't pain, not the physical pain, anyway. Betrayal pain is different.
He rests his bike on a chopped-down palm tree near the Cow's End, orders a decaf latte and a blueberry muffin and sits at an outdoor table just down the sidewalk.
"Cigar?" he offers, firing up a big stinker. It's 9:30 in the morning. No thanks.
So here is Butkus, an actor in more than a dozen films, some 200 commercials and five TV series, including NBC's teen basketball series, Hang Time. He is a spokesman for several businesses, including International Fireplace & Grills, his buddy Steve Thomas's BMW dealership in Camarillo, Calif., and a nutritional-supplement company with a glucosaminechondroitin product called ArthX. He has done other things, such as referee in Wrestlemania II and serve as a color analyst for the late, Vince McMahon-fueled XFL.
He lives in swanky Malibu, up in the hills, with his wife of 41 years, Helen. His three grown children live nearby. It's idyllic, in a way, but incomplete. The brutal serenity of NFL linebacking does not translate to the real world. Did Butkus love football? No, the man for whom the annual award for best college linebacker is named, adored football.
"Football for me was never work," he says. "If you love something, it's not work. Like acting. I had something going with Bubba Smith in those Miller Lite commercials, and I've been in the Actors Guild for 33 years." He puffs on his cigar and almost sighs. "But if acting were my real true love, I'd be honing my craft, wouldn't I, over at some s—-theater?"