RIP Dick Butkus

One of the long-time NFL greats has died. Not even the legendary Dick Butkus was too tough for Father Time.

“How could he die!” Fran Tarkenton said on the day Dick Butkus did, indeed, die. “He was indestructible! Bigger than life, tougher than nails! Mick Tingelhoff died recently, and he was my center, and we were close. Bud Grant died recently, and he was my coach. Great man. And today Dick goes, and I’ve been crying ever since I heard. Dick Butkus was football!”

When I was very young, I loved the NFL more than anything. I wore purple Vikings corduroys with a matching yellow Vikings shirt to my first day of school in first grade. I collected the game programs. I met Matt Blair after winning a reading contest. For my 11th birthday, we went to the preaseason training camp in Mankato and I got Ted Brown’s autograph at the nearby pizza place. On Monday nights, I went to bed at halftime of Monday Night Football and my mother would write the final score on a piece of paper she’d tape to my bedroom door. Eventually, I owned a pair of Vikings season tickets on the 20-yard-line of the Metrodome. I went out with Vikings cheerleaders. I had a drink with Todd Scott in the VIP lounge at Glam Slam.

And always, I read the lore dating back to the earliest days.

Some of my favorite childhood books were those written by Bill Gutman and published by Tempo Books. They were short paperbacks, less than 200 pages, and always featured four players. I somehow still have two of them, Football’s Fantastic Four and Great Linebackers #1.

Haden-Dorsett-Payton-Jones. Butkus-Lanier-Curtis-Buoniconti. Needless to say, Butkus went first.

I never met him. I don’t even remember ever seeing him play. He retired when I was five. But his ferocious determination to succeed, combined with the tragedy of a great player being stuck for his entire career on a sub-par team, resonated with me, and I never forgot his dignity, the universal respect he commanded, and the way he continued to excel even though his superhuman efforts were invariably futile. He was named to eight consecutive Pro Bowls, but he never played in a playoff game.

It’s an irony of sports history that the greatest NFL defense of all-time, the 1985 Chicago Bears, did not include Chicago’s greatest linebacker.

Dick Butkus is gone. But his legend remains.