The greatest linebacker in football history spears the raw flesh with two sticks. He raises the meaty morsel and observes it, then places it in his mouth and eats it with gusto. He spears another slab of uncooked flesh and eats it too. But Dick Butkus, the man who once said his goal was to hit a ballcarrier so hard that the man's head came off, is shattering all myths tonight. Dick Butkus is eating sushi.
Can this be? The hand that used to search through pile-ups, feeling for eyes to gouge and limbs to twist, now cradles the chopsticks that grasp dainty yuppie food. Beside Butkus is his good buddy Steve Thomas, owner of a BMW dealership in Camarillo, Calif., a man who deals in fancy cars, sharing ebi with a man who used to deal in stripped-down pain. The two friends recently finished shooting a commercial for Thomas's dealership, in which Butkus plays a mechanic who is so awestruck by a young woman's ability to fix a noisy Bimmer with a twist of a screwdriver that he backs away from the engine, saying meekly, "I, uh, I'll get the coffee," cracking his head on the open hood in the process.
Good lord. Butkus the wimp? The man even lives in Malibu, a place about as close in texture to Butkus's old Chicago Southside neighborhood as maguro is to Polish sausage. Isn't Butkus the savage who once was charged with provoking three separate fights in one game against the Detroit Lions in 1969, who picked up four personal fouls in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970, who supposedly in one heated skirmish bit...a referee? Dick Butkus, a casualty of Hotel California? Say it ain't so.
And maybe it ain't. Underneath the civility, Butkus seems restless, a caged animal. "I'm sick of all the Beverly Hills crap," he snarls, putting down his chopsticks, wiping his mouth with a napkin clutched in a great right paw scarred by, among other things, crocodile's teeth. Yeah, just a couple weeks ago, he says, he had to put a linebacker's touch on some unfinished business. A big shot who owed Butkus for some entertainment work had sent him two checks in a row that bounced. Dick's wife, Helen, had urged her husband to remain calm, but Butkus shrugged her off, drove to the big shot's office in Beverly Hills, barged in, grabbed the man by the shirt and in front of stunned office workers, shoved the dead-beat out the door and into the man's car. They drove to the bank, whereupon Butkus pushed the miscreant up to the teller and demanded $2,500 in cash. After the fellow withdrew the money from his account, Butkus shoved him back out the door, telling him before they parted that the man was, in Butkus's uncluttered appraisal, an orifice.
September 5, 1993
"People promising stuff and not coming through. Talking," says the Hall of Fame linebacker. "People tell me, 'That's how people do business in Beverly Hills.' I say, 'Well, I'm not from here.' "
Where is Butkus from? Chicago, of course, Chicago Vocational High School, then the University of Illinois in Champaign for a while, then the Chicago Bears for nine years, from 1965 to 1973. But where really? Where are all linebackers really from?
The same place. A world where things are straightforward, yet a little bit skewed, where collisions are embraced, where hitting is a form of chatting. A jittery place of easy provocation and swift retribution. Detroit Lion inside linebacker Chris Spielman once tackled his grandmother when he was just five years old. Why? Spielman doesn't know. "She walked through the door. She went to give me a hug, and I took her out," he says. "I knocked her down, but she bounced back up. You could tell she was a Spielman."
Certainly genetics plays a part in the makeup of a linebacker. "You are born with some type of aggressive streak in you," says Spielman. Linebackers don't end up at their position by accident. No, sir. They are drawn to its possibilities the way foaming dogs are drawn to junkyards. "A linebacker couldn't be an offensive lineman," says Los Angeles Raider coach Art Shell. "Check out the guy's locker. An offensive lineman's locker, you see everything is in order. A linebacker's locker is in total disarray."
Nor can a wannabe linebacker masquerade for long as the genuine article. "Brian Bosworth thought he was a great linebacker," says Seattle Seahawk defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman with contempt. Tillman, a former NFL linebacker himself, put together a tape of Butkus's big plays to show Bosworth (who had a brief, overhyped career with Seattle from 1987 to '89) "what a great linebacker was really like." A real linebacker would have been bouncing on his chair, cheering the video action, but Bosworth wasn't impressed by the tape. A short time later the Boz and his Mohawk were out of the league seeking work in biker movies.
Real linebackers don't constantly promote themselves. They may talk trash, but during the season they don't have a lot on their minds except nailing people. They are among the rare human beings who appreciate being called animals. How else can one describe a player who gets his greatest high from hitting an opposing quarterback, when, as New York Giant Lawrence Taylor said in his book, LT: Living on the Edge, "he doesn't see you coming and you drive your helmet into his back so hard, he blows a little snot bubble." Lovely. Linebackers all have their favorite moments. Former Lion Jimmy Williams used to speak of blindsiding a ballcarrier and hearing "that little moan"; the Houston Oilers' Wilber Marshall says simply. "I like to hear 'em gasp."
To each his own. As Dallas Cowboy hit man Ken Norton puts it, linebacker "is the most badass position on the field." Just repeat the names of the great ones and see if you don't feel like ducking: Ray Nitschke, Mike Curtis, Tommy Nobis, Bill George, Jack Ham, Sam Huff, Joe Schmidt, Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley, Mike Singletary. There's former Kansas City Chief Willie Lanier, his helmet padded on the outside, to protect his victims. There's grizzled Philadelphia Eagle Chuck Bednarik nearly cutting golden boy Frank Gifford in two (page 74). There's Marshall hitting Lion quarterback Joe Ferguson so hard in 1985 that Ferguson is unconscious before he reaches the Silverdome turf. Is the man dead? Chicago Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan thinks he is. Until Ferguson twitches. The league fined Marshall $2,000 for the blow, even though no penalty was called. "What was I supposed to do?" asks Marshall in disgust. "Hit him softly?"
Bad humor is integral to the position, says Bear linebacker coach Dave McGinnis, because of what a linebacker is asked to do: "He has to diagnose a play, defeat blockers and still be ticked off enough to get the ballcarrier. An offensive lineman is done when his man is blocked. A linebacker is only half done when he's beaten an offensive lineman. He has to have this desire to make the runner pay a price, to make him not want to come up in there anymore. I'd watch Singletary when he'd get stoked up, and he'd be screaming, 'I'm gonna be here! Always! Right here!' "
Linebackers rise out of the football ooze in a curious twist on Darwin: While the primitive stayed below, groveling on all fours, the more primitive ascended to the upright position. Of course in the beginning there were no linebackers at all in football. Because there was no forward pass, there was no need on defense for anything other than seven or eight down linemen who rooted like pigs and three or four defensive backs who could run down any ballcarrier who got past the swine. With the dawn of the pass in professional football in 1906, defensive principles slowly evolved. "Roving centers" started to pop up, and by 1920 something like a modern-day NFL middle linebacker had emerged.
His name was George Trafton and he played for the Decatur Staleys, who became the Bears. There is some dispute as to whether Trafton was the first true linebacker, but he was definitely the first Butkus-like personality in the NFL. Nicknamed the Brute, Trafton was as nasty as they come, despised by rival teams and their fans. In a Rock Island (Ill.) Argus account of a Staley game in 1920, Trafton was described as "sliding across the face of the rival center." Against the Independents in Rock Island that same year, Trafton took umbrage at a rumor that an opponent, a halfback named Fred Chicken, was out to get him. The Brute promptly knocked Chicken out with a hit that broke his leg. On the final play, Staleys' coach George Halas sent Trafton running for the exit and a waiting taxi. Angry Rock Island fans mobbed the taxi, and Trafton had to hitch a ride with a passing motorist to get himself safely out of town.
According to Bob Carroll, the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, the first outside linebacker in the NFL was 6'4" John Alexander, who played for the Milwaukee Badgers. Normally a tackle, one day in 1922 Alexander "stood up, took a step back, two steps out and became an outside linebacker," says Carroll. "He wondered why, as tall as he was, he was always getting down on the ground where he couldn't see."
Alexander would set the evolutionary clock moving, and 60 years later it would bring us to LT himself. Some people think that modern outside linebackers, blitz specialists primarily, aren't really linebackers at all, but gussied-up defensive ends. Some people say that inside linebackers, whether in tandem in a 3-4 alignment or standing alone in the increasingly rare 4-3 (wasn't a big part of Butkus's dark majesty that aloneness?), are the only true linebackers today. But linebacking is really about responsibilities and attitude, not formations.
Pain is the thing that separates linebackers from everyone else on the field—both dishing it out and receiving it. Linebackers dish out pain because it intimidates opponents. Says Butkus, "I was a fullback in high school, and if somebody made a perfect tackle on me, no big deal. But if I got hung up and guys were bear-hugging me and I couldn't use my arms, and somebody came in and nailed me, I didn't like that. So I did that to guys we were tackling in high school, and sometimes their eyes would close or they'd flinch or pull up. In college I figured punishing the ballcarrier wouldn't intimidate anybody, because the players were better. But it did. Then I knew it wouldn't work in the pros. I thought I'd meet guys like me. But there were still guys who were chicken——, guys with big yellow streaks."
Linebackers see the game as superseding all guidelines on basic empathy for one's fellow man. "You want to punish the running backs," says Steeler Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Lloyd. "You like to kick them and, when they get down, kick them again. Until they wave the white flag." Or as Huff of the Giants said to TIME magazine in 1959, "For that matter, we try to hurt everybody."
Even themselves at times. The euphoria that linebackers experience afield comes during the white Hash of great collisions—enlightenment literally being a blow to the head. Lloyd split two blockers in a game against the Cleveland Browns last year and then met runner Kevin Mack head-on in the open hole. The ensuing crash overwhelmed Lloyd. "I was dizzy, my head was hurting and my eyes were watering," he says of his condition as he staggered to the huddle. "It felt good."
Where does such lunacy come from? "Off the field I'm quiet, laid-back, calm, relaxed," says Eagle star Seth Joyner. "On the field I talk all kinds of garbage and things like that. I think it's a way to vent your anger."
Anger over what?
Butkus struggles with the question. It's not really anger, he says. It's more a desire to set things right, to prove, as he says, "you don't get something for nothing." Violence can resolve ambivalence and uncertainty. And who doesn't crave certainty in life, a reward for the good, punishment for the bad?
Things are so simple when you're a linebacker. One afternoon while Butkus was practicing at Chicago Vocational with his high school team, he noticed four boys in a car harassing his girlfriend, Helen Essenberg, who was across the street near the school. Without hesitation Butkus ran off the field, chased the car onto 87th Street, dived through the open front window on the passenger side and, in full uniform, thrashed each of the passengers. Then he climbed out of the car and walked back to the field. He never said a word to Helen, who is now his wife. He had done what needed to be done, and it was over. "They could have been her friends, for all I knew," he says.
Singletary broke 16 helmets in four years at Baylor, all of them his own. The school's publicist confirmed that typically two or three football helmets are broken each year at the school, by the entire team. Most NFL coaches agree that the perfect size for a linebacker is between 6'2" and 6'4" and 240 to 250 pounds, but players such as the 6-foot, 230-pound Singletary and the New Orleans Saints' 5'9", 225-pound Sam Mills have proved that size is not as important to the position as want-to. Is that the same as craziness?
There are former players like the Steelers' Ham, a Hall of Famer, who says, "I don't think we're any meaner than any other position on the team." But after some thought he admits that the first person he saw eat a glass was former Eagle linebacker Tim Rossovich, and that former Raider star 'backer Ted Hendricks did, indeed, have "this demented look to him." Then there was former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams, who doubled as a city councilman and seemed the master of comportment, as long as he wasn't on the field. But that is in keeping with the Jekyll and Hyde nature displayed by good linebackers. Off the field they generally keep cool; on the held they explode. Lloyd says linebackers are "deviant" because they change personalities so dramatically. "You wear all different hats," he says. "You're a father, a husband. But on the field, yes, you are that other person."
Marshall marches to his alter ego's battle chant, kill or be killed, but going nuts can lead to disaster, even for an assassin. "You have to be under control, you can't be a complete idiot," says McGinnis. "I've seen tough guys who couldn't make reads just get killed. You have to be tough like a bull but smart like a coyote. You step up too quick and they'll run a power O or a counter, and the tight end will come down and earhole you. Try that some time."
The easiest thing to teach a linebacker is to blitz. It's like cutting the twine on a catapult. The hardest thing to teach is pass defense. Dropping back after reading a play-action fake is not an easy thing for an attacker to do. "It's a discipline thing," says Buffalo Bill assistant linebacker coach Chuck Lester, "because it goes against his nature."
Still linebackers have more freedom than other players. Their job is basically to do whatever is necessary to make all the tackles. And because linebackers are freer to attack and seek the explosions they crave, they seem to miss the game more than other players when they can no longer play. In his book, Calling the Shots, Singletary described the splendor of the devastating hit: "The resultant feeling has always been almost indescribable to me, akin to being struck, I suppose, by a bolt of lightning—a blast that, for one brief second, shines through your mind and body like a Hash of brilliant white heat." St. Paul would not describe a vision any differently.
Thinking about life after football worries some linebackers. "Right now, with football, I can release all of my frustrations and not too much bad can happen to me," says New England Patriot linebacker Vincent Brown. "Sometimes I wonder what my outlet for those feelings will be after I stop playing."
That worried Butkus. It still does. "What I miss is the violence," he says bluntly. "Life is very boring to me now." He thought he would get into coaching after he retired, keeping the juice flowing that way, but an injury lawsuit he brought against the Bears, which was settled in '76, made him something of a pariah to his old team. His Miller Lite beer commercials led to an acting career, with Butkus mostly playing against type—a funny, sensitive guy in a caveman's body. Acting's O.K., he says, but after football, "hell, you just do what's second best."
Every now and then the demons that can't be exorcised come out, as they did when Butkus went to collect on the bounced checks. As they did last month when he was hosting a quail hunt in Georgia for the Suzuki's Great Outdoors series on ESPN. A quail flew at him, and Butkus, holding a shotgun in one hand, angrily forearmed the bird, batting it to the earth as if it were a tipped pass, its feathers drifting down to meet the corpse. The segment did not make the final program. "We didn't think it showed proper safety with a gun," the producer explained.
And so the greatest linebacker ever to play the game is trapped in La La Land. He starts his car, puts a dip of snuff under his lip and heads down the highway toward Malibu, where his neighbors include Cher and Olivia Newton-John.
"There are other things you can accomplish in life," Butkus says, spitting into his cup. "But physically, how do you get that rush again? You're in the middle of it all. You're involved, instead of hanging over the sides, you're there. The ball is snapped, somebody is trying to knock your ass off, you're trying to knock his ass off...."
Mountains rise out of the dark air. The ocean is nearby.
"How the hell do you get that feeling again?"
The answer is simple.