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'Nobody Thinks I Can Talk'
Robert F. Jones
September 21, 1970
Fill in the missing word: Dick Butkus is the————football player in the world.
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September 21, 1970

'nobody Thinks I Can Talk'

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Leg weights, a sit-up machine and many other Charles Atlas adaptations are available on the Universal, and starting in May of every year Butkus begins using them. He works out with two football-playing neighbors, Marty Schottenheimer of the Bills and John Johnson of the Broncos. After a few sit-ups the trio takes off in sweat suits for a half-mile airplane runway belonging to a neighboring farmer. They run for an hour or two, mixing the action up with competitive sprints and handicapped distance races, then return to the gym for a few friendly leg lifts. ""Working out by yourself can be deadly boring," says Butkus, "'but with Marty and John it's all a lot of fun. Sometimes, at parties, after we've had a few beers, some of us guys come down here and compete on the weights but I try not to overdo it. This machine is supposed to keep me from injuries, not inflict them."

Back of the gym, past his daughter's toy cookstove, is Butkus' sauna, which he and a few of his pals built. "'One of these days," says Dick with a wicked grin, "I'm going to pour a couple of gallons of vodka on the stones and see what happens. Nice for a party."

Butkus has warm relations with his neighbors. His mother lives two doors to the west and the intervening neighbor, a hardhat named Jessam Buck, has given the Butkuses free access across his neat front lawn. (After all, who would start a spite fence-feud with a Butkus?) Dick's own yard is chockablock with kids' toys, swings, bikes and chinning bars. His driveway provides the only clue that something more than a middle-income suburbanite dwells within. In the driveway are parked a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a Corvette Stingray and a Pontiac station wagon. Dick drives the Caddy and the Stingray; his wife Helen drives the wagon.

Helen Butkus, 27, is an outspoken, loyal little housewife and mother. Short, blonde, blue-eyed and just a shade plumpish, she conveys that sense of puzzled matronhood that comes across so poignantly in Midwestern women of her age. It's as if they had suddenly been switched by time machine from their high school days to a position of moral and diaper-changing authority in some very important nursery. And they wonder: What the heck, how did I get here and should I do like Mommy? Inevitably, they do.

If Joe Namath and Dick Butkus, as the optimum men at their opposite positions, represent poles of difference in football character, then their women are important indications of that character. Helen Butkus is no Namath nifty. Born Helen Essenberg of Swedish-American background, she started dating the Lithuanian kid who became the animal that is called Dick Butkus when she was only 14. At that time she was attending Fenger High on Chicago's South Side and Dick was at Chicago Vocational, a few miles away. CVS was—and is to this day—one of those technical schools where the corridors smell of sawed wood and burnt steel from the shops, where the lockers bear two-inch-deep dents from tough kids punching out their frustrations and where you can always find bloodstains from fistfights in the John. Butkus was already marked for greatness: as a hard-running fullback he doubled his ferocity on defense. The kid had his coaches agog. By the end of his high school career he had pro scouts goggling as well. How did he hook up with teeny little Helen? "I don't know," says Dick today, with his little boy half-smile, "she was kinda cute."

Apart from that, Helen is a dedicated Hausfrau in the best Midwestern tradition. She worries incessantly about the ineradicable rust spots on the backyard patio, moans mildly with that touching wifely self-martyrdom when she stoops to extirpate a weed from a garden abrim with tuberoses. "Oooh, there's a lot to dooo" she sighs, licking a bead of sweat from her dainty upper lip.

There is, indeed. Apart from handling the hearty appetites of her outsized husband, Helen must take care of two children, both cut in Daddy's mold. Daughter Nikki, who just turned 4, is a robust little blonde who could middle lineback for any nursery school (she attends a Montessori school, however, where traditional physical activity is considered "inadequate"). Son Ricky, who celebrates his 3rd birthday this month, rides a tricycle like Custer his cavalry mount. On a recent evening the Butkuses were preparing to go out for dinner and Dick's mother had accepted the baby-sitting assignment. "O.K.., kids," piped Helen, "you're going to go over by Grandma's for supper!" Instant deafness. Butkus growled low in his throat, more to himself than the kids. Just as instantly, perfect hearing. The three of them, gigantic Daddy and his two kids, lurched across neighbor Buck's front lawn like a Fearsome Threesome. Helen bit her lower lip as she watched Nikki go. '"Oh, golly," she said at last, "Nikki walks just like Dick. I hope she loses that."

Like most pro athletes in the long-seasoned sports, Butkus spends very little time with his family. During the season, even when he is physically present, his head is usually off somewhere else, rewinding cerebral game films and psyching up for next weekend. During the off season there is a semiweekly radio show (yes, Butkus speaks!), dinner appearances, endorsements, meetings with other players (until this season he was Chicago's rep to the Players' Association) and with his coaches (as a defensive co-captain he exercises a weighty leadership function). Understandably, then, Butkus feels guilty about not fulfilling the traditional father role. This summer when Brian Piccolo, the young Bear running back, died of cancer, Butkus felt that guilt all the more. "I kept thinking about what Brian said when he was dying, that maybe football hadn't really been worth it. that it had kept him from being with his wife and kids, and now he wasn't going to be with nobody no more."

Thus motivated, Butkus rented a camper and took off with Helen and the kids for a rolling vacation. "Like the hippies say, it was a bum trip," Dick recalls. "We bit off more than we could chew—2,000 miles in a week, from Ogallala. Neb. through Wyoming and down to Colorado. We were following the ruts in the Oregon Trail part of the way. I kind of liked that—the mountain men, you know, Bridger and Fitzpatrick, they always appealed to me, tough and hard-nosed. But the kids got bored with history." He imitates a child's voice, all whines and tremolos: " "Daddy, who cares about a stinky old fort, we wanna go swimming.' So I took 'em down to this lake in the mountains. I'm going down this mountain in this huge camper—I'm shifting into second, into first, I'm braking, I'm scared foofless that we're going to go over the edge. Then we get there and swim. It's colder than a welldigger's feet and the rocks cut you. I couldn't wait to get to Denver, where there were people and buildings and TV sets. I tied down all the gear in the camper and, man, we went. Like I say, a bummer."

By contrast to all those chilly mountains and empty plains, dinner tonight is to be in the real world of Dick Butkus. John's Pizzeria in Calumet City, Ill. Wicked old Cal City, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Lake Michigan steel belt, infamous since the early 1950s for its hookers and pushers and fabulous clip joints. Driving past the onion ranches toward Cal City, Butkus plays rock on the Caddy's stereo. "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.... " Cal City has changed. Cozy little discothèques stud the main drag, their freaked-out colored lights casting the shadows of bouffant B girls in miniskirts on the pavements. One of the old-time night clubs—boarded up now—points a telling contrast. The faded facade invites one and all to witness "All Girl Revues—Venus and Her Jungle Beast." Butkus smiles secretly when the sign is pointed out to him. Yeah, the Jungle Beast! All those lower-middle-class high school girl fantasies about being carried off by a lustful gorilla. Helen, too, is smiling.

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