Legendary Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, 80, dies

Dick Butkus, arguably the fiercest Monster of the Midway, has died at age 80, the team announced Thursday.

Butkus became a Chicago Bears legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer in his nine-year career, which started in 1965. The middle linebacker was a vicious tackler whose sense of intimidation put some players on their heels before the ball was even snapped.

In a statement released through the Bears, Butkus’ family said he “died peacefully in his sleep overnight” at his home in Malibu, California.

“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” team chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “He was Chicago’s son. He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidentally, what George Halas looks for in a player: toughness, smarts, instincts, passion and leadership.

“He refused to accept anything less than the best from himself, or from his teammates. … His contributions to the game he loved will live forever and we are grateful he was able to be at our home opener this year to be celebrated one last time by his many fans.”

Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones once called Butkus a “maniac” and “well-conditioned animal.” Butkus appeared to want to send a message with every tackle.

In a game against the rival Green Bay Packers during the 1970 season, Butkus and teammate Willie Holman hit quarterback Bart Starr so hard that Starr lost his helmet and began walking toward the wrong bench.

Said the Chicago Tribune: Starr “looked like Oscar Bonavena after Cassius Clay had finished with him.”

He made the Pro Bowl in eight of his nine seasons, but a chronic knee injury abruptly ended his career in 1974.

Butkus finishing his career with 1,020 tackles and 22 interceptions. He was named to the All-NFL first team six times in his career and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979.

“Dick had a gruff manner, and maybe that kept some people from approaching him, but he actually had a soft touch,” McCaskey said in his statement. “His legacy and philanthropy included a mission of ridding performance enhancing drugs from sports and promoting heart health.”

He took part in promoting a number of charitable causes through The Butkus Foundation.

Butkus spent his entire football career in Illinois. Born in Chicago, he played high school football for Chicago Vocational High School, earning a high school player of the year award as a junior.

He went on to compete in college at Illinois, where he played both center and linebacker. He helped the Fighting Illini to an 8-1-1 record and Rose Bowl victory in 1963. In his senior season, he made the All-America team and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

That led to Butkus being selected by the Bears with the third overall pick in the 1965 NFL draft. He had big shoes to fill in Hall of Fame linebacker Bill George, but Butkus quickly showed that he was up to the task. He set career highs with five interceptions and seven fumble recoveries during his rookie season.

Butkus only played for two winning teams with the Bears, however, and never made the playoffs. He came on during the end of the George Halas era, just missing the 1963 championship season. In his final season, the Bears went 3-11.

He continued to be a staunch supporter of the franchise after his playing days. A year ago, he even took over the team’s social media account for an evening, thrilling fans.

Many people knew Butkus more for his appearances on television after his playing days. He became a well-known pitchman in commercials. His Miller Lite commercials with Bubba Smith, in which they played off their menacing reputations, were especially well known.

Butkus also appeared as an actor in a number of films in the 1970s and 80s and was a sports broadcaster — even serving as a color analyst on Bears games.

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