The history of pro football is replete with seminal influences, individuals who changed the game with their play, coaching or other means. Appropriately for a series headlined "Bears Classics," on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 9:30 p.m. CSN will chronicle the life and career of Butkus — the man who did not create the position of middle linebacker, but effectively defined it after taking the job away from Bill George, who in fact had created the position in 1954 when, as a middle guard in a traditional 5-2 front, he stood upright and changed an area of football forever.
But when Butkus ran onto the field for his first practice after being drafted third overall in the 1965 draft, former Bears teammate and wide receiver Johnny Morris told a friend, “You could almost feel a chill come over the field. Bill [George] knew his time was done.”
The “story” of Butkus is almost anecdotal. As the saying goes in theater, “action is character,” and nowhere would that resonate truer than Butkus, after whom Sylvester Stallone fittingly named his 140-pound bullmastiff in “Rocky.”
In the course of compiling and writing “Tales from the Chicago Bears Sidelines” some years back, I was fortunate enough to come across some of those “actions” that went into the Butkus “character:”
The Bears had a lobby display of their Hall of Fame players, with stories. To wit: Minnesota Vikings running back Dave Osborne had once been annihilated by Butkus on an ill-fated attempted sweep. Osborne was asked after the game what had happened to his blocker on the play. “I don’t know,” Osborne said. “Maybe Butkus ate him.”
[SHOP: Buy a Dick Butkus retro jersey]
Gale Sayers, drafted by the Bears with the No. 4 pick, right after Butkus, was asked by a teammate who the toughest guy Sayers had ever played against. Sayers didn’t answer, just pointed out toward the field: No. 51.
Butkus fury was not reserved for players only. Longtime NFL official Norm Schacter made a call that incensed Butkus, who began raging and finger-pointing in Schacter’s face. Finally Schacter’d had enough.
“Butkus,” Schacter warned, “if you don’t get your finger out of my face, I am going to bite your damn head off!”
Butkus stormed off but not before snarling back, “If you do, you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you do in your head!”
Pittsburgh Steelers center Ray Mansfield recalled Butkus destroying the Steelers’ special teams: “He knocked out L.C. Greenwood on a punt, and he knocked out Warren Bankston, who was a fullback and very good special-teams player,” Mansfield said. “I remember Warren coming over and crying, ‘I don’t know who I am!”
He was not alone.
“Dick was an animal,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones. “I called him a maniac. A stone maniac. He was a well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”