If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus of Illinois (see cover), all fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing soprano. Dick Butkus is a special kind of brute whose particular talent is mashing runners into curious shapes. He is, in fact, the product of an era—an era that has seen his position properly glamorized by such professional primates as Sam Huff and Joe Schmidt, and an era that has fostered defensive specialists in college through the gradual casing up of substitution rules. But while the 1964 season has therefore uncaged a rare group of first-rate collegiate linebackers, there is only one Dick Butkus. No linebacker mashes as many opponents as this Illinois senior, and what is more he does it in the Big Ten, a conference that offers little else to mash except fellow brutes.
There are a lot of reasons why Butkus is the most destructive defensive player in collegiate football, one who personally made 145 tackles and caused 10 fumbles last season and who this season has a good chance to become the first lineman in 15 years to win the Heisman Trophy. The first reason is his size. Butkus is 6 feet 3 and weighs 243 pounds, which means that he is the biggest college linebacker on a list of exceptionally good ones that includes Texas' Tommy Nobis, Washington's Rick Redman, Auburn's Bill Cody, Duke's Mike Curtis, Arkansas' Ronnie Caveness, Georgia Tech's Dave Simmons and Rice's Malcolm Walker. While these players are just as tough and willing as Butkus, they cannot hit as hard because they simply are not as big. Butkus not only hits, he crushes and squeezes opponents with thick arms that also are extremely long. At any starting point on his build, he is big, well-proportioned, and getting bigger. Once this summer Butkus reached a hard 268 pounds, but he trimmed some of it off for fear of losing speed.
There are, to be sure, linebackers who are faster and quicker than Butkus—Texas' Nobis, for example, is perhaps the quickest of all—but none of them have Butkus' instinct for getting to the play.
"He has intuition," says Illinois Coach Pete Elliott, whose sudden success last year is traceable in part to the day he recruited Butkus. "On the first play of his first spring practice, before we had told him anything, he smelled out a screen pass and broke it up. In two seasons Dick has only been out of one screen pass. By that I mean he either diagnosed them and forced an incompletion or got there and made the tackle."
October 11, 1964
Elliott says, "He's naturally great at jamming up the middle against running plays, and I would think the pros will certainly use him as a center linebacker. But somehow he manages to cover wide real good. He gets there, you know, because he wants to. Football is everything to him. When we have a workout canceled because of bad weather or something, he gets angry, almost despondent. He lives for contact."
Contact to Butkus is really only one thing: the moment of impact with the player unfortunate enough to have the ball. All of that other business, such as people bumping into him, foolishly trying to block him, he ignores. He is hurrying to the fun which, he says, consists of "getting a good measure on a guy and stripping him down."
Linebackers have more of this fun than anyone, of course. In a sense, they are defensive quarterbacks. They prowl up and down the line behind their tackles and guards, anticipating where the daylight may occur so they can close it off. Their job is to secure all hatches. They must know when to gamble on a blitz—or dog or storm or shoot or blow, depending on your terminology—which is the act of a linebacker darting through a gap in the line on the snap and trying to smash a runner for a loss or smother a passer before he throws.
"I can shoot any time I want to," says Butkus, who calls Illinois' defensive signals. "Pete leaves it to me." On Illinois' normal defense it is reasonably safe for Butkus to put on the blitz because the tackles, 262-pound Archie Sutton and 234-pound Bill Minor, share the middle responsibility with him. They, too, have size, agility and experience. So, for that matter, do the guards, 220-pound Ed Washington and 215-pound Wylie Fox. In fact, Illinois' interior line, from tackle to tackle, is as strong and big and experienced—all are seniors—as any in the country. Consequently, no team wears itself out running inside on Illinois. "I don't see why they would," says Butkus, honestly. "Archie and the others can take care of things pretty good—even if I guess wrong on a shoot."
The guess begins as soon as an enemy has broken its huddle and the opposing quarterback has bent over to stare into Butkus' small, cold and dark eyes. "He's calling signals and I'm calling signals." says Butkus. "I look first at the formation. Then I look to see if a halfback is cheating a few inches. I look at the halfback's eyes, and then the quarterback's eyes and head. Some jokers, they throw in the first direction they look. I may decide at the last second that I'm gonna call a stunt, or that I'm gonna shoot. If I shoot, the thing I hope is that I get a good angle on the runner, or if I've played the pass that I can strip the guy down and make him drop the ball. That takes it outta guys."
Butkus first began taking it out of opposing players as an All-America prep-school fullback at Chicago Vocational High. Even then he preferred defense and made 70% of his team's tackles. As a member of a full-blooded Lithuanian family of nine, growing up in a blue-collar district of Chicago's South Side, Butkus had never known many sports other than football. He used to swim some and he tried baseball, but from the eighth grade on football was it. And Big Ten football was what he always looked forward to.
"I had a lot of offers," he says, inoffensively. "But I didn't never really consider any of 'em except Illinois. Northwestern was...well, they ain't my kind of people. Notre Dame looked too hard. Besides, they didn't like the idea of my getting married, which I knew I was gonna do."
With casual honesty Butkus admits he is no honor student. "If I was smart enough to be a doctor, I'd be a doctor," he shrugs. "I ain't, so I'm a football player. They got me in PE."
Butkus and his wife, Helen, live in a small but comfortable red-brick university apartment on the campus. It is not far from the old concrete-pillared stadium where Red Grange ran to fame and the new saucerlike assembly hall and field house that look like an extension of the New York World's Fair. The town of Champaign-Urbana consists mostly of these two structures and the 27,000 students who go to classes in the lesser buildings scattered around them. Champaign-Urbana is flat and quiet and a good place to sleep in, which is what Butkus enjoys best next to football. While Helen goes to work as a switchboard operator at the Champaign National Bank, Dick struggles to classes, including one that sounds terribly intellectual, kinesiology, the study of muscle movements. After that he naps. Then he makes tackles and, when Helen comes home, they watch television. "I get by in school," he says, "but I just want to play football. I admit it." It is fine with Helen. She just giggles and turns on The Red Skelton Show. "It's been fun," she says.
The part that has not been fun to Butkus is the excessive fuss and adulation. Plaques and wristwatches poured in last year when he made every All-America team, and was selected for various other individual awards. Earning them was fine, but he disliked—and still does—being pressed for interviews and photographs. He especially dislikes being needled by opposing players. " 'Hey, Butkus,' " he mimics huskily. " 'You a All-American, huh?' Some jokers'll holler at you like that when you miss one." The highest honor Illinois could bestow on Butkus last year for not missing very many and leading the team to the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory over Washington was the school's Athlete of the Year award, or "A.O.Y.," as it is popularly known around the campus. Butkus' attitude was typical.
"The A.O.Y. is a big deal," says Editor Bill Nack of The Daily Illini. "But you know what kind of a guy Butkus is? He not only didn't care about it, he didn't even know what it was. When we called him to tell him he'd won, he said, 'What's that thing?' and then he said he couldn't attend the ceremony. And there we were with his name in 72-point Gothic."
Butkus' name has loomed in large black type in the minds of pro scouts since he was a sophomore. Even then the majority of scouts agreed that Butkus was the top linebacker in the nation. Their opinions have not changed, and chances are Butkus will collect more than $100,000 from some team for turning pro. He is such a prospect that some scouts think he could even play offensive center with the pros.
"He would be a fine offensive center," says Pete Elliott. "We like for him to be in there when we need a yard or so. I think he's as good a center as there is—but he's a great linebacker."
Elliott's leanings as a coach are, like so many others in the collegiate realm, to defense. Last year's championship team was chartered on defense and ball control. Illinois' attack consisted of Dick Butkus stopping everybody, and then two highly sought-after sophomores. Fullback Jim Grabowski and Halfback Sam Price, ramming down the field in short chunks of yardage. Illinois rarely won big, but it defeated opponents physically more than the scores indicated. This year junior Quarterback Fred Custardo, still another widely sought recruit, gives Illinois a more explosive attack. Custardo can throw and Grabowski and Price can still run. The fourth member of the all-junior backfield is Ron Acks, who can do both and who would move to quarterback if Custardo were injured.
One has only to know Pete Elliott to understand how he managed to gather all this talent at Illinois. Blond and tanned and slim, he must be the handsomest coach in the business. Though he tends toward the use of clichés, he is nevertheless gentle, smiling and persuasive. He enjoys talking about how much he believes in Illinois (he was born only 50 miles away in Bloomington, Ill.) and the Big Ten and how much trust he places in his athletes to rely on their pride.
"We didn't know we were going to have a winner last year," Pete says. "Week by week, we just did our jobs, and finally we realized that by winning the last two games [Wisconsin and Michigan State] the title would be ours. The kids decided they wanted it, so we won. We knew we had some athletes, but we didn't know how much pride they had until then."
Elliott keeps talking about pride, and the reason is that pride more than ever must carry Illinois this season. Big Ten rules do not permit Illinois to return to the Rose Bowl, even if Elliott can repeat, so the conference championship—or a national title—must be the incentive. While it is a truism of football that the hardest teams to coach are those dominated by seniors who have been winners—a perfect description of the Illinois line—Elliott appears unalarmed. "I'm just ignoring that," he says, and then, sounding more like a college president than a coach, he adds, "We may lose some games, but as long as the kids show me they're doing their best, I'll be pleased."
Some of Illinois' best was urgently required in its opening game against California two weeks ago. The Bears, rallying behind new Coach Ray Willsey and Quarterback Craig Morton, are no longer the whip dogs of the West Coast. Morton hurled them to a 21-16 upset over Missouri, and then trained his sights on the Illini. But Elliott's team was ready. Grabowski drilled out 114 yards, Custardo passed for two touchdowns, and Butkus was his usual brutish self. Illinois built a 20-6 lead, then held on to win, 20-14.
Illinois' frightening experience with Craig Morton paid a subtle dividend, however, for it prepared the secondary for another good thrower, Northwestern's Tom Myers. Last Saturday in Evanston the Illini intercepted four of Myers' passes. Two of them were taken by Butkus' superb linebacking partner, Don Hansen, as Elliott's team again followed Quarterback Custardo to victory, 17-6. The game was so close that Butkus had to be used on offense—to block for key first-down yardage and lead punt coverage—and he responded in All-America style.
Now that these grueling preliminaries are out of the way, Illinois is preparing to play what must essentially be its best game if Pete Elliott is to remain a genius. This Saturday's opponent: Ohio State. The season is still fresh, but the Big Ten showdown, or the first in a series of them, is scheduled at Champaign where the 71,119 seats have long been sold. Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes believes—or says he believes—that he has a defense and linebackers—Dwight Kelly and Tom Bugel—the equal of Dick Butkus. If the game is as wild as last year's in Columbus, both Hayes and Elliott will be worse insurance risks as a result. In that game Illinois got off to a 7-0 lead, but Ohio State went ahead 17-7 at the end of the third quarter. Two touchdowns put Illinois ahead again 20-17, but in the last frustrating two minutes, Ohio State's Dick Van Raaphorst kicked a 49-yard Held goal to earn a 20-20 tie and narrowly missed another from a whopping 57 yards. Van Raaphorst is gone, but Woody Hayes isn't—and Woody has never lost a game in Champaign.
Thus Pete Elliott, the man who surprisingly restored Illinois' football dignity to the days of Bob Zuppke and Ray Eliot—the only other coaches Illinois has had in more than 50 years—by coming from seasons of 0-9 and 2-8 to a 1963 championship, is faced with an equally stern challenge. He must defend that dignity against Illinois' oldest and bitterest opponent in this season's first game matching Big Ten giants. At least he has one thing on his side—Dick Butkus. Says Butkus in anticipation of the big game: "I guess I'd rather play those jokers than anybody. There's always as much hittin' as you want in that one."