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The greatest linebacker in football history spears the raw flesh with two sticks. He raises the meaty morsel and observes it, then places it in his mouth and eats it with gusto. He spears another slab of uncooked flesh and eats it too. But Dick Butkus, the man who once said his goal was to hit a ballcarrier so hard that the man's head came off, is shattering all myths tonight. Dick Butkus is eating sushi.
Can this be? The hand that used to search through pile-ups, feeling for eyes to gouge and limbs to twist, now cradles the chopsticks that grasp dainty yuppie food. Beside Butkus is his good buddy Steve Thomas, owner of a BMW dealership in Camarillo, Calif., a man who deals in fancy cars, sharing ebi with a man who used to deal in stripped-down pain. The two friends recently finished shooting a commercial for Thomas's dealership, in which Butkus plays a mechanic who is so awestruck by a young woman's ability to fix a noisy Bimmer with a twist of a screwdriver that he backs away from the engine, saying meekly, "I, uh, I'll get the coffee," cracking his head on the open hood in the process.
Good lord. Butkus the wimp? The man even lives in Malibu, a place about as close in texture to Butkus's old Chicago Southside neighborhood as maguro is to Polish sausage. Isn't Butkus the savage who once was charged with provoking three separate fights in one game against the Detroit Lions in 1969, who picked up four personal fouls in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970, who supposedly in one heated skirmish bit...a referee? Dick Butkus, a casualty of Hotel California? Say it ain't so.
And maybe it ain't. Underneath the civility, Butkus seems restless, a caged animal. "I'm sick of all the Beverly Hills crap," he snarls, putting down his chopsticks, wiping his mouth with a napkin clutched in a great right paw scarred by, among other things, crocodile's teeth. Yeah, just a couple weeks ago, he says, he had to put a linebacker's touch on some unfinished business. A big shot who owed Butkus for some entertainment work had sent him two checks in a row that bounced. Dick's wife, Helen, had urged her husband to remain calm, but Butkus shrugged her off, drove to the big shot's office in Beverly Hills, barged in, grabbed the man by the shirt and in front of stunned office workers, shoved the dead-beat out the door and into the man's car. They drove to the bank, whereupon Butkus pushed the miscreant up to the teller and demanded $2,500 in cash. After the fellow withdrew the money from his account, Butkus shoved him back out the door, telling him before they parted that the man was, in Butkus's uncluttered appraisal, an orifice.
"People promising stuff and not coming through. Talking," says the Hall of Fame linebacker. "People tell me, 'That's how people do business in Beverly Hills.' I say, 'Well, I'm not from here.' "
Where is Butkus from? Chicago, of course, Chicago Vocational High School, then the University of Illinois in Champaign for a while, then the Chicago Bears for nine years, from 1965 to 1973. But where really? Where are all linebackers really from?
The same place. A world where things are straightforward, yet a little bit skewed, where collisions are embraced, where hitting is a form of chatting. A jittery place of easy provocation and swift retribution. Detroit Lion inside linebacker Chris Spielman once tackled his grandmother when he was just five years old. Why? Spielman doesn't know. "She walked through the door. She went to give me a hug, and I took her out," he says. "I knocked her down, but she bounced back up. You could tell she was a Spielman."
Certainly genetics plays a part in the makeup of a linebacker. "You are born with some type of aggressive streak in you," says Spielman. Linebackers don't end up at their position by accident. No, sir. They are drawn to its possibilities the way foaming dogs are drawn to junkyards. "A linebacker couldn't be an offensive lineman," says Los Angeles Raider coach Art Shell. "Check out the guy's locker. An offensive lineman's locker, you see everything is in order. A linebacker's locker is in total disarray."
Nor can a wannabe linebacker masquerade for long as the genuine article. "Brian Bosworth thought he was a great linebacker," says Seattle Seahawk defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman with contempt. Tillman, a former NFL linebacker himself, put together a tape of Butkus's big plays to show Bosworth (who had a brief, overhyped career with Seattle from 1987 to '89) "what a great linebacker was really like." A real linebacker would have been bouncing on his chair, cheering the video action, but Bosworth wasn't impressed by the tape. A short time later the Boz and his Mohawk were out of the league seeking work in biker movies.
Real linebackers don't constantly promote themselves. They may talk trash, but during the season they don't have a lot on their minds except nailing people. They are among the rare human beings who appreciate being called animals. How else can one describe a player who gets his greatest high from hitting an opposing quarterback, when, as New York Giant Lawrence Taylor said in his book, LT: Living on the Edge, "he doesn't see you coming and you drive your helmet into his back so hard, he blows a little snot bubble." Lovely. Linebackers all have their favorite moments. Former Lion Jimmy Williams used to speak of blindsiding a ballcarrier and hearing "that little moan"; the Houston Oilers' Wilber Marshall says simply. "I like to hear 'em gasp."