The big, bad, wounded Bear comes peddling out of Malibu, headed down the beach toward Santa Monica and Venice, aimed like a rolling chunk of granite toward Mexico.� "Somebody asked me about Ur-locker," growls 61-year-old Dick Butkus, cruising around a bend on his Cannondale as the gentle Pacific Ocean glistens to his right, "and I said he needs to have some big hits. That's all. Plant some people."� The seven-time All-Pro middle linebacker, the Hall of Famer who once said he wanted to tackle a runner so hard that the guy's head came off, blows a loogie out of first one, then the other nostril.
Air holes cleared, he continues.
"Create some turnovers. I remember when I was a fullback at CVS [that's Chicago Vocational High School on da South Side, for the uninformed]. When my arms were held by somebody and a guy would drill me—I didn't like that. Nobody likes that."
The mind drifts. Images dance of the 6'3", 245-pound Butkus, late-1960s, in his grass-stained number 51 Monsters of the Midway jersey, twitching, snarling, sneering in utter contempt across the line at cowardly Lions and Packers and Vikings. Butkus was chaos. A tackle was only half his goal. The other was to yank something off his foe—the ball, perhaps, maybe a limb, at least his courage. He once intercepted a Fran Tarkenton pass near the goal line and instead of dodging Vikings for an easy touchdown, sought out the frail weasel quarterback and tried to crush him like the vermin he was. Some time later Hall of Famer Tarkenton—who did trip up Butkus—told da Bear that if he had made any elusive move whatsoever, Tarkenton would have lain down quietly. Butkus chuckles. Where would the fun have been in that?
"I thought the sissy stuff would end when I got to college," he says. "But there I am at Illinois, and"—he grins—"there's guys in college with f———yellow streaks up their backs! Chickens—-. And then in the pros I was sure it would end. But there were still guys with their eyeballs rolling around. Big pussies.' "
He turns gingerly to look at his pedaling partner to see if the point has been made. His huge, crewcut head with that dapper, narrow mustache has to be rotated in sync with his shoulders, because, well, football has done a job on his upper and lower spine.
It's not that he dislikes the Bears' current Pro Bowl middle linebacker, Brian Urlacher (whose last name rhymes with linebacker), mind you. It's just that he would like to see a little more mayhem created by the young man whose noble Bears middle linebacking lineage goes through Mike Singletary to Butkus to the legendary Bill George, and perhaps even to the viciously cruel George Trafton, the Hall of Fame center who sort of played middle linebacker, before the position existed, and once put four Rock Island players out of action in the first 12 plays of a 1920 game.
Yes, Butkus, who played from 1965 to '73, had 22 career interceptions, 25 fumble recoveries and probably more fumbles forced (a stat that was not kept back then) than anybody who played the game. Indeed, it was Hall of Famer George who said of the frothing rookie Butkus after training camp in '65, "The second I saw him, I knew my playing days were over."
What God had in mind when he made Butkus—one of nine kids from a South Side, Lithuanian-stock, working class family—was clearly a middle linebacker. If football didn't exist? Hmmm. A mover, maybe.
Butkus worked with his older brothers—Ron, Don, Dave, John—all larger than he, as a mover in Chicago for four years, starting from the age of 15. Nonunion guys, they were. Employed by a man named Bunny. Three, four houses in a day. Carrying refrigerators on their backs, up those narrow Chicago back-alley staircases. If they liked the customer, they worked like dogs. If they didn't, sometimes they'd drop a couch from the third floor. "You got these sweaty strangers moving your mattresses, your personal items, your pets," recalls Butkus. "It was pretty traumatic for some people. But if you tipped us, it was fine." On Fridays the brothers would go to a neighborhood tavern called Flea's to cash their checks. Butkus, age 15, would sit with a hard-earned brew, learning about life.