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The animal image. There was a time when Dick Butkus truly believed he was an animal, and the transmogrification was nearly perfect. Now he is not so sure. In Chicago, where he exercises his territorial imperative to the fullest. Bear fans still think of him as the ultimate in ursine violence. Take the folks at a bar called Chances R on a recent afternoon. Chances R is one of those quasi-Western hangouts on the plastic, northwestern fringes of Chicago, where 19th-century nudes adorn the walls and the patrons are-asked to throw peanut shells on the floor to give the place that crackly, Big Shoulders atmosphere. The barkeep is a mountainous Irishman named Larry Mahoney, equally adept at bouncing a drunken house painter or trilling a ballad in his fine tenor.
"Hey, let's play a word game," Mahoney chirps to his assembled parishioners on this particular day. "What do you think of when I say 'Dick Butkus'?"
"Killer," say a young long-haired couple named Bill and Dee, whose motorcycle had just been blown over by a line squall. The wind is still rattling the roof overhead, and the chink of beer glasses is comforting. "Bull," says another patron. Others chime in: "Wild boar." "King Kong." "Mayor Daley." "Mean and nasty." "Elizabeth Taylor." Elizabeth Taylor? "I can see it," says Mahoney. "Butkus has the same kind of ego, the same self-dedication or cruelty or something."
Not far away, at Northwestern University's Dyche Stadium, Dick Butkus is doing a very un-Elizabethan thing. He is filming a breakfast-cereal commercial. A giant among mere advertising mortals, he even towers over the out-sized extras hired to simulate real football players. One scene requires him to blitz through a line of extras, who crumble in slow motion. Butkus then charges the cameraman, arms outstretched in true King Kong fashion. He can't do it. Every time the extras fall down, Butkus breaks up. And when that button-nosed, wide-eyed South Side kisser cracks into a smile it looks about 12 years old and fresh out of Mass after Holy Communion. Then he points a finger at the camera and giggles, "Get with it!" Finally, after a dozen takes, Butkus the actor meets Butkus the animal, and he snarls the words. The script girl, a tough Chicago cookie who has been complaining of the heat all day, actually shivers at the line. "Gee," she says with a little thrill in her voice, "he'll scare all those cereal-eating kiddies to death!"
It just so happened that a couple of cereal-eating kiddies were standing on the sidelines when Butkus came in from the take. Mike McHugh, 11, and Mike Rogers, 10, had been planning to sneak into a nearby circus for the day's entertainment when word flashed through their Wilmette neighborhood that a Bear was loose at Dyche Stadium. Since the two young Mikes love the Bears more than anything else in the world (except, perhaps, the Cubs, the Black Hawks, the Bulls and Johnny Lightning cars), they biked over to the stadium. Now they circled Butkus warily, like a couple of Paleolithic hunters on the prod for cave bear. "Hey," snarls Butkus in his meanest voice, "you kids come over here." They do. "Wadya want?" "Your autograph." "My whatagraph?"—kidding them and the kids know it, so they get cocky. "You know, your NAME! Like write it down." Butkus takes the proffered pen and drafts the usual message in a neat hand. The kids' eyes bug out: Butkus didn't grab the pen as if it were a dagger, he hadn't scrawled a blotchy X, he is...human!
"It makes me sad sometimes," Butkus said later. He was sitting at a table in the Pump Room, surrounded by the muted tap of solid silverware on bone china, disguised in a well-tailored suit of tropical worsted that made him look no larger, no fiercer than the rest of the entrepreneurs and con men eating in that deluxe, candlelit chow hall. "Nobody thinks I can talk, much less write my name. Why, last year I cut a record of Shakespeare quotes—you know, a parody, like 'Once more unto the bench, dear friends.' The record company said it was too good. Not enough deese, dem and doses. What the hell is this society doing to people? I did what it told me I could do. I wasn't any freak. I didn't have any identity crisis. In the fifth grade I knew what I was going to be: a professional football player. I worked hard at becoming one, just like society says you should. It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough. I was tough."
Butkus picked daintily at his shrimp salad, parodying in advance his next thoughts. "When I got to college I discovered that you always have to study. Which I did, even though it wasn't easy at Illinois. It hurt, let me be honest about it. But I didn't do too bad." He flashed his 12-year-old's grin at the grammar. "But the main thing was I knew my trade. And it wasn't all that grim. When I got to the Bears, I made it and I made it beyond the Bears. I made it to All-Pro, whatever that means. But I made it. And then what happens? They call me an animal."
Of course, he encouraged it. There is the celebrated incident last August in Miami of Butkus biting a referee in a melee. (He denies it: "If I'd of been dumb enough to bite a referee I'd have bitten his arm off.") Or of Butkus punching out a cop in the Chicago Federal Building last December, when halted on his way to the passport bureau. ("I didn't hit him. Maybe my friend Rick Bertetto did. We'd had a couple of beers and they got snotty. They locked us up for a while but let us out after a few hours. All a mistake. But I keep thinking: what if I'd been an immigrant like my old man, who couldn't talk so good the English. I might still be there.") And, of course, there is the famous—or infamous, if you will—photograph of Butkus with his lips curled (his whole face curled!) in contempt that was taken during a Minnesota game in 1968. That picture hangs in Dick Butkus' basement along with his gilded trophies and the more civilized glossies of him smiling with teammates, coaches, biggies, etc. Perhaps the former is a reminder of the Butkus that his fans demand, or an indication that he is more than that.
A man's home and his homelife reveal far more about his character than his job performance, and Butkus is no exception. He lives in one of those development areas near Chicago Heights—an hour south of the Loop—that are not quite split-level but a few cuts above miniranch. The neighborhood is new; there are still some working onion farms in the vicinity. From his backyard one can see the tan, turbulent wall of smog rising above Gary and Hammond, Ind. A few lightplanes circle in and out of the crud. "That's where Tony Lema went down," Butkus is wont to say, indicating the Hammond airport with a lugubrious wave of the paw.
His house is modest by football-star standards—a tidy yellow-brick, single-story, nondescript he bought for around $50,000 in 1966, his second year with the Bears. In 1968, with his fortunes vastly improved, Butkus expanded the house, adding a workout complex. In it stands Dick's pride and joy: a Universal Gym, $2,400 worth of muscle-building machinery on which he manufactures the strength that makes him the game's best linebacker. "My weakest point is the bench press," Butkus allows during an impromptu tour. "I only lift about 200, and the weights go up to 220. But I don't want to get muscle-bound. I need that mobility." On the military press, which goes up to 200 pounds, Butkus regularly lifts 170 or more—the weight of a minuscule running back. "In competition," he explains, "you can do things that no gym can teach you."