Dick Butkus, a Chicago Bears legend who is regarded as one of the greatest defensive players in league history, has died at the age of 80.
“The Butkus family confirms that football and entertainment legend Dick Butkus died peacefully in his sleep overnight at home in Malibu, California,” the Butkus family said in a statement issued through the Bears. “The Butkus family is gathering with Dick’s wife, Helen. They appreciate your prayers and support.
“Additional information will be provided when it is available.”
Butkus had attended the Bears’ regular season-opener against the Green Bay Packers. Never one to mince words, Butkus had poked fun at the Lions two just days prior via social media after Detroit’s season-opening win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The word legend is often used loosely in sports, but not in Butkus’ situation. A larger-than-life figure on the football field, Butkus struck fear into opposing offenses throughout his nine-year playing career. He received just about every accolade a player can earn.
A first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Butkus was an eight-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro, and a member of two All-Decade teams. In 2019, Butkus was named to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team. Butkus’ No. 51 has also been retired by the Bears.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement on the passing of Butkus:
Dick Butkus was a fierce and passionate competitor who helped define the linebacker position as one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Dick’s intuition, toughness and athleticism made him the model linebacker whose name will forever be linked to the position and the Chicago Bears.
We also remember Dick as a long-time advocate for former players, and players at all levels of the game. The Dick Butkus Award and his foundation honored achievement on the field and service to the community among high school, college and NFL linebackers. Dick was a champion of clean sports as his “I Play Clean” campaign helped raise awareness about the dangers of steroid use among high school athletes.
We send our deepest condolences to the Butkus family, the Bears organization and the many fans and people he impacted throughout his life.
In retirement, Butkus enjoyed success in broadcasting, acting, and as a celebrity endorser.
Bears chairman George H. McCaskey issued a statement prior to Chicago’s game against the Commanders on Thursday night:
A quote once said by former Packers running back MacArthur Lane best sums up how offensive players from that era felt about going up against Butkus.
“If I had a choice, I’d sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear,” Lane said, via the Bears’ website. “I pray that I can get up after every time Butkus hits me.”
While his ferociousness on the field was the stuff of legend, Butkus never thought his intense style was anything special. It was simply how the game should be played in his view.
“I thought that was the way that everybody should have played,” he said in a 2019 interview. “But I guess they didn’t because they were claiming that I had a special way of playing. You try to intimidate the person that you’re playing against and hit him hard enough so that sooner or later he’s going to start worrying about getting hit and forget about holding the ball. If it stood out, I guess no one else was doing it as much.”
You can’t talk about Butkus without mentioning his 1965 draft classmate, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who passed away in 2020 at age 77. In fact, Butkus once said that his favorite game in which he ever played was Sayers’ record-setting day on a mud-soaked Wrigley Field against the 49ers during their rookie season.
“It’s the day that Gale Sayers scored six touchdowns and did it all different kind of ways.” Butkus said. “I was on all the kicking teams except the kickoff team at that point, but you know, we busted him on a punt return. I don’t know if he had a kickoff return or not. But he had six.”