The injuries have compounded with time. His knee was replaced with a metal unit After an early osteotomy, in which a wedge of bone was removed to make his right tibia straighter, that leg ended up 1� inches shorter than the left, which affected his hips, which affected his back, which affected his neck. There are the messed-up fingers and toes. There was the quintuple-bypass heart surgery a couple of years ago. And now there is this neck-and-back issue.
Two years ago Butkus had spinal problems that caused nerve damage so severe that he developed dropfoot and tumbled down a couple of golf course slopes. His hands lost strength until he needed both to lift a coffee cup. "One time I woke up and couldn't open my hands. I had to peel them open. I was doing Hang Time, and I couldn't hold a basketball. My forearms were atrophying, looked like a damn broad's. A stunt guy saw me on the set, and he said to me, 'Man, you're really hurting.' "
Adjustment and therapy and chiropractic yanking followed, and Butkus began visiting a small, intense fellow named Jack E. Dunn, who uses something called Alphabiotic Alignment to snap the big man's neck and back into place. Recently Butkus was lying on a table in a back room at Thomas's BMW dealership, and Dunn twisted around him and grabbed and exhaled and jerked, and Butkus yelped so loud that you had to figure that a regular man would have swooned.
"Every occupation has some hazard," he says. "Miner. Cop. Fireman." How about stockbroker? you ask. What's the danger?
"If he's a f———thief?" asks Butkus. "His conscience."
Back in the saddle, Butkus chuckles at a white-haired girl he passes and a parrot perched on the windshield of a passing convertible. He is content in many ways. Tomorrow he will play golf with Thomas, and the two will mess with each other constantly. Thomas will squeeze a pocket fart machine every time Butkus putts, and the two will giggle like preschoolers. The toy is called a Redi-Poot, and Butkus is seldom without his. He stops again, this time outside a muscle gym in Marina Del Rey. He orders a sandwich at a deli, eavesdrops while a brazen little man tells a pal all about weight training, mentioning that he himself weighs "a buck-thirty-five."
Butkus chuckles and whispers behind his hand, "I weigh two-bucks-forty-five." The little guy blabbers on about not using heavyweights unless "you want your joints to turn to sawdust." Butkus wipes his mustache and says, "He's right."
What is pain, anyway, except God's slowing you down, suggesting you make adjustments? One reason Butkus travels everywhere he can—even to the East Coast—in his RV is that he hates airports. His body sets off a metal detector the way a butane torch sets off an office sprinkler.
"Unfortunately, God forgot to tell me what to do with the second half of my life," he says. The first part was a no-brainer. Why, the chiropractor even said eventually he'd get Butkus walking upright, instead of hunched over like a caveman. "You'll have to straighten my whole family," Butkus growled back. "We all walk like this." With gorillalike 37-inch sleeves but a short 32-inch inseam, Butkus could easily tilt forward a bit and ramble on all fours like a primate coming up out of the bush. Hey, ask an old Central Division tailback if that seems like much of a reach. So this is about easing into the final phase of life for our hero—the inactive list, as it were.
Later Butkus is sitting on his deck high above the Pacific, relaxing in the sun. Beside him are philosophy books and self-help books, and a little inspirational number called Our Daily Bread. "Ideally," he had said earlier, "I would have played that last game and keeled over dead right there."