Fill in the
missing word: Dick Butkus is the————football player in the world.
Fiercest? Smartest? Strongest? Quickest? Angriest? Coolest? Roughest? Think
about it for a while—maybe a moment or two. After all, Butkus (left) thinks
about it constantly.
O.K., time's up.
According to those who know him most intimately—and you can count their bruises
to determine the degree of intimacy—Dick Butkus is all of the above and perhaps
a bit more. In a sense, he is his own missing word in the act of
self-definition, though some may claim that he is merely the missing link. In a
game as complex and specialized as pro football, where experts abound at
everything from placekicking to face-masking, it is impossible to determine a
'"best player" in the overall sense. Yet if such a designation could be
made, Butkus would come close to filling it.
Listen to Phil
Bengtson, the Green Bay coach: "Butkus rates with any linebacker I've ever
seen—Bulldog Turner, Joe Schmidt, Ray Nitschke, George Connor. He has as much
enthusiasm as any player I've ever known, and you can always count on him being
Joe Schmidt, who
sort of invented the middle linebacker position during his playing days at
Detroit, where he is now head coach, feels Lion MLB Mike Lucci is the best—good
for you, Joe!—but even his grudging praise of Butkus cannot conceal the
cast-iron truth. "If he overplays, it's because he's so aggressive,"
Schmidt says. "I've never seen him quit. Last year in our final game with
the Bears, when we went ahead 20-3, he got the ball on the kickoff with less
than four minutes to go and ran down the field trying for a touchdown with the
same desire as if it were the opening kickoff." That 28-yard return, which
left flattened Lions in its wake, brought a sullen Wrigley Field crowd to its
feet in a rare standing ovation. Rare, that is, for last season, when the Bears
were 1 and 13. As Schmidt says, "Butkus has a quality that is instinctive,
that all good linebackers have to have. That's the leadership ability that
stimulates a team."
God knows the
Bears need leadership—though His alter ego, George Halas, apparently doesn't.
In the past Butkus has tried to provide leadership by example, and some of
those examples proved painful to the objects in the leadership lesson. Johnny
Roland, the St. Louis running back, recalls a 1967 game in which Butkus was
hobbled by a wrenched knee but played his usual fierce game anyway. "I have
a bruise under my lip to this day where he shattered my mask," says Roland.
"I was running up instead of low, as I should have been, and he met me
head-on—just like somebody he hadn't seen for a while. He actually embraced me,
but he also put me down for a time."
Tight End Charlie
Sanders of Detroit has equally vivid memories. In the first Lion-Bear game last
year Sanders caught a pass and Butkus gave him the old, rib-cracking Bear hug.
Then Sanders caught a second pass and Butkus poked his fingers through
Charlie's face mask into his eyes. In the course of the afternoon's work the
Lions charged Butkus with provoking three fights and Detroit General Manager
Russ Thomas called him "an annihilating son of a bitch." Sanders,
laughing, took it more coolly. "Dick's just a maladjusted kid," he
ultimate appraisal of a middle linebacker must come from his opposite number,
the quarterback. Green Bay's Bart Starr, a man not given to cheap superlatives,
has this to say: "Since the day he came into the league Butkus has made the
Bear defense what it is. He's the finest example of hustle I've seen—" then
Bart frowns, the old Lombardi loyalty surging up—"or one of the finest. Ray
Nitschke is the epitome of hustle.
linebackers are different, of course, and maybe some are a little better pass
defenders than Butkus. I can't imagine anyone being any quicker or stronger.
Lee Roy Jordan of Dallas is a good one, but Dallas' defense is so
well-coordinated that he can go right to a hole and fill. Butkus doesn't need
that team coordination to be great. He covers so much ground—you can complete a
pass downfield and, son of a gun. he makes the tackle."
Well, son of a
gun, quarterbacks sure talk nicer than middle linebackers. That's one of
Butkus' major hang-ups—talk. In the public mind the quarterback is to the
middle linebacker as the surgeon is to the butcher. Yin and yang, mind and
body, human and animal. But—and of course there is a "but" in
Butkus—the real man exists in the tension between those opposites. Granted that
Butkus is a bruiser (6'3", 245 pounds); granted that his defensive ferocity
draws fans to any Bear game nearly as effectively as his superb offensive
complement, Gale Sayers; granted that Chicagoans get a kick out of calling him
"Buttocks" and "Bupkis" behind his back. The man is something
else. Inner-directed, inarticulate, locked into an image he has outgrown and
would desperately like to change, Butkus is striving to overcome...what?