March, 20 2023
Dick Butkus knew in elementary school that he would become a football player. “I worked hard, just like society said you should,” the gridiron legend said in an interview. “Society said you had to be fierce, I was fierce. Tough, I was tough.” Butkus grew up on Chicago’s South Side and spent all the time he could refining his craft, even to the point of using trees as opposing players when he couldn’t round up anyone from the neighborhood.
Butkus went to the University of Illinois after high school. He wrote in a freshmen essay that he would lead the Illini to a Rose Bowl championship. That seemed far-fetched after Illinois finished 2-7 during his sophomore season (1962). Butkus gave a hint of the greatness to come in the season finale. He made several key tackles and intercepted a late pass to help Illinois upset favored Michigan State, 7-6.
A two-way player at center and linebacker, Butkus led the 1963 Illini to a Rose Bowl championship, fulfilling the prophecy of his essay. He recorded 145 tackles and forced ten fumbles during the season, leading head coach Pete Elliott to declare: “Defense is our forte, Dick Butkus is the spearhead.” Butkus and his defensive teammates held Washington to just 183 yards in a 17-7 victory.
Butkus again led the team in tackles during his senior season and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, the highest vote tally at that time for a defensive player and lineman. A rival Big Ten coach conceded that running the ball against Illinois was a fool’s errand that season. “Nobody runs up the middle against Butkus,” the coach said. “Wherever we run, he’s liable to be there.” That was evident in Butkus’ final college game. He made 18 solo tackles, including the final tackle on a goal line stand to preserve a shutout victory.
The legacy of Butkus continues in the form of the Butkus Award, which has honored the game’s best linebacker annually since 1985.