Very sorry to see the passing of Dick Butkus, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears. He was pure Chicago -- he played his entire career in Illinois. He grew up on the Chicago South Side, went to Chicago Vocational High School, attended college at the University of Illinois. And then played for the Chicago Bears.
When the Bears had Butkus and Gale Sayers (picked #3 & #4 in the very same 1965 draft! Man, what a draft that was...), the team was usually awful -- yet they were as great to watch as any Bear team...because of watching just those two. In fact, even with Sayers -- as graceful, remarkable and entertaining a runner to watch as I've seen -- Butkus is the only defensive player who's made me look forward to seeing the Bears (or any) team *without* the ball.
The quintessential Butkus play, that I saw often growing up was a runner getting the back, sweeping left with two blockers in front of him leading the way -- and then you'd see Butkus's body come flying in, knocking the two blockers aside, bursting through them and not only tackling the runner, but causing a fumble and recovering the ball.
Here's how great Butkus was: in 1969, the Chicago Bears only won one game, they ended the season 1-13. They were terrible. Yet Butkus won the NFL Award for best Defensive Player of the Year.
When ESPN did a special countdown on the 100 greatest NFL players of all-time during the NFL's 100th season, they named Dick Butkus #10. Despite playing on only two winning teams in his nine-year career (cut short by bad knees.) That's how great Butkus was.
It should be noted, too, that when college football gives out their Linebacker of the Year award, it's called the Butkus Award. That, too, is how great Dick Butkus was.
Here's the video evidence. But stick around for a bonus video -- a short, but glorious clip of my favorite play ever with Dick Butkus, that I remember as a kid and happily found.
Yet for all his renown as a spectacular defensive player, my favorite play with Butkus that I remember when growing up had nothing to do with defense!
When the Bears would kick extra points and field goals, they would use Butkus to block for the kicker, because he was so tough. Late in one game in 1972 (the video says "1971," but that's incorrect), the Bears lined up to kick an important extra point against the Philadelphia Eagles. But the snap was bad, and the ball got away from the holder -- who happened to also be the team's quarterback, Bobby Douglas.
Meanwhile, as Douglas scrambled around to gather up the loose ball, Dick Butkus had the presence of mind (even as a defensive player) to realize that he was of no value in the backfield, and instead sneaked his way into the end zone.
Now, I can assure you, at no time during the Philadelphia Eagles' game preparation was the question ever brought up -- "Okay, now, who will be covering Butkus?" And so, there Butkus was, almost literally just standing in the end zone all alone, no one close to him. Because who in the world would think of covering Dick Butkus. And when Bobby Douglas finally was able to control the ball, he ran around to his left -- happily being a left-handed thrower, and happily Butkus (perhaps knowing this and in part, too, because he was lined up on the left) had run out to the left side -- and so Douglas, being a quarterback, spotted Butkus entirely by himself in the end zone. And threw him the ball, which Butkus simply stood there and caught, for the extra point.
But that's not the best thing about the play. What happened next made the play special -- all the more so when compared to this era of player celebrations and choreographed team dances when they do something good. When Butkus caught the extra point, he didn't celebrate, he didn't dance, he didn't spike the ball -- instead, he just turned to the Eagles' defender who was rushing towards him, but too late...and politely, and utterly sardonically held out the ball for him. In perhaps the most gracious, "in your face" move you will ever see. At which point the frustrated Eagles player just thwacked the ball away.
And best of all, as proof, here's that video!
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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