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
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."
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
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.