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A Hero Gone

In 1965 I was eleven years old. We had moved to Arlington Heights from the Northwest side of Chicago the year before and I was finishing my 6th grade year at Dempster Junior High School. The Bears had a terrible 1964 finishing 5-9 after winning the NFL Championship in 1963 and they had high hopes for a better 1965 especially since they held the third and fourth picks in the 1965 draft. They knew they would be getting two pretty good players.

I remember reading in the paper the day after the draft that with the third pick they selected a linebacker from the University of Illinois, and a Chicago native, named Dick Butkus. He had a pretty stellar career at the U of I and the Bears hoped he could fill a hole for them at linebacker. I was unimpressed with their next pick at number four in the first round a running back from the University of Kansas named Gale Sayers. We didn't follow college football beyond the Big Ten and Notre Dame in Chicago so I had never heard of him. They turned out to be pretty decent picks.

Dick Butkus played for the Bears from 1965 until he retired in 1973. During that span the Bears were not very good. Their overall record was 48-74-4. Their best year was his first year in 1965 when they went 9-5, it was all downhill from there. Even having two future Hall of Famers couldn't save the Bears from themselves.

In spite of their problems Butkus managed to be selected to eight Pro Bowls, was a seven time All-Pro, a two time defensive player of the year, elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979, selected for the all decade teams in 1960's and 1970's, and named to the all century team in both the 75th and 100th anniversary selections. The Bears Centennial Scrapbook voted him the second greatest Bears player of all time behind only the great Walter Payton. And football named the Butkus trophy after him which goes to the most outstanding linebacker in high school, college, and the pros.

Those are his achievements, and while they are sensational it doesn't really tell the story of what he means to the fans of the Chicago Bears. Gale Sayers was the greatest football runner of all time and Walter Payton was the greatest football player of all time but Dick Butkus was the Chicago Bears.

Even though the teams he played on stunk, generally, he made us proud to be Bears fans. He was emblematic of what the city of Chicago saw itself as in sports and life. Tough, hard nosed, loyal, and dedicated. Every kid wanted to be Butkus when playing football on the sandlot or stadiums. While other fans talked about their championships we could say sure but we have Butkus.

Running backs, quarterbacks, offensive linemen, and anyone standing on the field feared him. Green Bay Packers running back MacArthur Lane said, "If I had a choice , I'd sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear. I pray I can get up after every time Butkus hits me." Rams defensive lineman, and a Hall of Famer himself, Deacon Jones said of Butkus, "Every time he hit you he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital."

Butkus played at a time when you could only see Bears away games on TV as the NFL had a local blackout policy. Instead when the Bears where at home at Wrigley Field you had to listen to the game on WGN radio with Jack Brickhouse doing play by play and for some unknown reason a gossip columnist for the Sun Times, Irv Kupcinet was the color analyst.

Brickhouse painted a picture of the game but couldn't give you the feel of what Butkus was doing, you had to see it for yourself on TV or in person. Kupcinet brilliant contribution to the game was him saying, "Dat's right Jack, and now back to the action." I'm serious. That is all he ever said.

I was lucky enough to get to go to one Bears game during his career. Somehow my dad got tickets and we went to a game at Wrigley. We sat in the first base grandstands which was the south endzone then and I remember it being crazy cold but exciting to get to see Butkus and Sayers in person. Even from as far away as we were you could hear the sound of Butkus hitting people and the "oomph" they let out when he did.

With each hit the fans went nuts and I thought my heart was going to explode I was so happy to be there to see it in person. I can't remember if the Bears won or lost and it didn't matter to me. I got to see the two best players on the Bears for many years to come and it was thrilling.

Dick Butkus was a hero to me and many other kids in the 1960's and early 1970's. We were proud he played for the Bears and proud of what he brought to the city. He was as tough as there ever was in football. I've never shared this story before but here goes.

It was on one of my many business trips, I think it was around 1996, I had about a three hour layover in Phoenix. I grabbed some lunch and then headed to my gate to wait. When I got there I was the only person in the area so I sat down and started reading the newspaper I bought and doing the crossword puzzle.

After about thirty minutes I sensed that someone else had come in and sat across from me. I glanced up and he was hiding behind his newspaper so I returned to my puzzle. A short time later he put the paper down and I could see that it was legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr.

Without looking at him I said, "you have caused me many days of anguish with your play against my beloved Bears." He chuckled and said, "those were some of my favorite games I've ever played." "Even against Butkus?" I asked. "Well yes but he was nuts. He used to stand right behind his linemen and yell at me that he was going to come in there and rip my head off and serve it to the team for a post game snack." Yikes I said, were you afraid? "Heck yes, that's why I handed the ball off so much against the Bears." We both laughed and then chatted about life for another hour or so before we had to board. It was one of the great afternoons of my life.

It made me realize that as much as we the fans enjoyed watching Butkus play football, the players on the other teams were just as enthralled too and they also held him in great regard. That is all you need to know about someone. When your combatants think you are something special, you are really something special.

Dick Butkus was, arguably, the greatest defensive player in NFL history and he was one of our very own in Chicago. A kid from the Southside at Chicago Vocational High School, getting to play for his state school at the University of Illinois, and then playing for his home town team, the Chicago Bears, a pretty unbelievable career to say the least. He was only eighty years old when he passed away in his sleep at his home in Malibu, California yesterday.

It sucks to lose your hero's.

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