It is fitting that Richard Marvin "Dick" Butkus hails from Chicago, Illinois; the city and state with which he will always be identified. He was born December 9, 1942, to a blue-collar Lithuanian couple living in the Roseland section of Chicago's South Side. The youngest of eight children, Dick learned early on to compete hard for what he wanted. By the fifth grade he had already decided to become a professional football player. "I worked hard at becoming one, just like society says you should," Dick recalled. "It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough. I was tough."
Dick's ferocious intensity first came to the public's attention when he attended Chicago Vocational High School, where he was a star football player, and then with the University of Illinois, where he enrolled in 1961. In 1963, his junior year, Dick made 145 tackles and forced 10 fumbles, leading Illinois to the Big Ten championship. The team finished the season ranked third in the nation, and went on to defeat Washington in the Rose Bowl, 17-7.
Dick was a unanimous All-American, playing center and linebacker, and repeated as an All-American in 1964. Despite not carrying the ball, he was a top contender in the Heisman Trophy balloting both years, finishing sixth in 1963, and third in 1964. His jersey number, 50, was one of only two ever retired by the University of Illinois, the other being 77, worn by the legendary Harold "Red" Grange. Eventually, Dick would be named to the College Football Hall of Fame (1983). He is generally considered one of the greatest college football players of all time.
In 1965, Dick Butkus was drafted by his NFL home team, the Chicago Bears, and suddenly the Midway had a brand new Monster! Picking up where he left off in college, he made 11 solo tackles in his first game and served as the catalyst for dramatically reversing the fortunes of a Bears defense that had been struggling. He was a top contender for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, but was edged out by his teammate and fellow first-round draft pick, the spectacular Gale Sayers, drafted by the Bears the same year.
Ranging from sideline to sideline with speed, quickness, and instinct, the 6-3, 245-lb. Butkus terrorized opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks. His mauling style of tackling was worthy of a grizzly bear. Adept at forcing fumbles, he recovered 27 in his nine-year career. He also excelled at pass coverage against tight ends and running backs, and finished his career with 22 interceptions. Most of all, he was the undisputed leader of the Chicago Bears defense, epitomizing the clean, hard-nosed, brutal athleticism that set the standard for every NFL middle linebacker who followed.
Part of Dick's success, by his own admission, was his ability to play with anger. "When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad," he said. "If someone on the other team was laughing, I'd pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. It always worked for me." No doubt, many an opponent of his era would grudgingly concur.
Dick suffered the first of a series of knee injuries in 1970, which resulted in surgery that was never fully successful. For the last three years of his career, Dick played in pain, yet continued to dominate from his position, registering 117 tackles and 68 assists, recovering three fumbles, and intercepting four passes in 1971 alone. By the time he retired in 1973, Dick had been named first-team All-NFL six years, and played in eight consecutive Pro Bowls. His career totals include 1,020 tackles and 489 assists. Dick underwent reconstructive knee surgery in 1997, which relieved much of the pain he had endured since his playing days.
For Dick Butkus, the end of his football career meant the beginning of a new one: acting. His outgoing personality and rugged persona served him well in many a movie role and TV commercial. In the first of what would become a long-running series of Miller Light ads, Dick played against type, portraying a gentlemanly tennis player who cheerfully debates the beer's merits with fellow ex-NFL defensive star Bubba Smith. Almost overnight, the campaign's tag line "Less Filling! Tastes Great!" was a household phrase. He has also appeared in motion pictures such as Necessary Roughness and Any Given Sunday, and as a regular character on TV shows such as My Two Dads and Hang Time.
Most recently, Dick appeared in the ESPN Original Entertainment series titled Bound For Glory. The series followed Dick as he coached a real-life high school football team for an entire season.