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Forever Growlin' So what if the former Chicago Bears linebacker is 61, lives in Malibu and hasn't suited up in more than three decades? The biggest Monster of the Midway is as ornery as ever

July 12, 2004
July 12, 2004

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July 12, 2004

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Forever Growlin' So what if the former Chicago Bears linebacker is 61, lives in Malibu and hasn't suited up in more than three decades? The biggest Monster of the Midway is as ornery as ever

The big, bad, wounded Bear comes peddling out of Malibu, headed
down the beach toward Santa Monica and Venice, aimed like a
rolling chunk of granite toward Mexico. ¶ "Somebody asked me
about Ur-locker," growls 61-year-old Dick Butkus, cruising
around a bend on his Cannondale as the gentle Pacific Ocean
glistens to his right, "and I said he needs to have some big
hits. That's all. Plant some people." ¶ The seven-time All-Pro
middle linebacker, the Hall of Famer who once said he wanted to
tackle a runner so hard that the guy's head came off, blows a
loogie out of first one, then the other nostril.

This is an article from the July 12, 2004 issue Original Layout

Air holes cleared, he continues.

"Create some turnovers. I remember when I was a fullback at CVS
[that's Chicago Vocational High School on da South Side, for the
uninformed]. When my arms were held by somebody and a guy would
drill me--I didn't like that. Nobody likes that."

The mind drifts. Images dance of the 6'3", 245-pound Butkus,
late-1960s, in his grass-stained number 51 Monsters of the Midway
jersey, twitching, snarling, sneering in utter contempt across
the line at cowardly Lions and Packers and Vikings. Butkus was
chaos. A tackle was only half his goal. The other was to yank
something off his foe--the ball, perhaps, maybe a limb, at least
his courage. He once intercepted a Fran Tarkenton pass near the
goal line and instead of dodging Vikings for an easy touchdown,
sought out the frail weasel quarterback and tried to crush him
like the vermin he was. Some time later Hall of Famer
Tarkenton--who did trip up Butkus--told da Bear that if he had
made any elusive move whatsoever, Tarkenton would have lain down
quietly. Butkus chuckles. Where would the fun have been in that?

"I thought the sissy stuff would end when I got to college," he
says. "But there I am at Illinois, and"--he grins--"there's guys
in college with f------yellow streaks up their backs!
Chickens---. And then in the pros I was sure it would end. But
there were still guys with their eyeballs rolling around. Big
pussies.'"

He turns gingerly to look at his pedaling partner to see if the
point has been made. His huge, crewcut head with that dapper,
narrow mustache has to be rotated in sync with his shoulders,
because, well, football has done a job on his upper and lower
spine.

It's not that he dislikes the Bears' current Pro Bowl middle
linebacker, Brian Urlacher (whose last name rhymes with
linebacker), mind you. It's just that he would like to see a
little more mayhem created by the young man whose noble Bears
middle linebacking lineage goes through Mike Singletary to Butkus
to the legendary Bill George, and perhaps even to the viciously
cruel George Trafton, the Hall of Fame center who sort of played
middle linebacker, before the position existed, and once put four
Rock Island players out of action in the first 12 plays of a 1920
game.

Yes, Butkus, who played from 1965 to '73, had 22 career
interceptions, 25 fumble recoveries and probably more fumbles
forced (a stat that was not kept back then) than anybody who
played the game. Indeed, it was Hall of Famer George who said of
the frothing rookie Butkus after training camp in '65, "The
second I saw him, I knew my playing days were over."

What God had in mind when he made Butkus--one of nine kids from a
South Side, Lithuanian-stock, working class family--was clearly a
middle linebacker. If football didn't exist? Hmmm. A mover,
maybe.

Butkus worked with his older brothers--Ron, Don, Dave, John--all
larger than he, as a mover in Chicago for four years, starting
from the age of 15. Nonunion guys, they were. Employed by a man
named Bunny. Three, four houses in a day. Carrying refrigerators
on their backs, up those narrow Chicago back-alley staircases. If
they liked the customer, they worked like dogs. If they didn't,
sometimes they'd drop a couch from the third floor. "You got
these sweaty strangers moving your mattresses, your personal
items, your pets," recalls Butkus. "It was pretty traumatic for
some people. But if you tipped us, it was fine." On Fridays the
brothers would go to a neighborhood tavern called Flea's to cash
their checks. Butkus, age 15, would sit with a hard-earned brew,
learning about life.

By the way, Butkus has a screenplay about those moving days, if
you Hollywood folks are interested. And there, in a sense, is the
rub. What is this battered, quintessentially Midwestern,
rock-solid Chicago hero doing in Los Angeles, where he has been
for decades, with the usual fruits and nuts, 2,000 miles from his
roots?

Start with betrayal. Butkus's right knee went bad in 1970, was
never fully repaired, went from bad to worse, and at the end he
was a staggering shadow of his former self. He sued the Bears,
just to get his guaranteed money, and the resulting acrimony hurt
him deeply. "My life is a freakin' joke to the Bears?" he asks
with genuine hurt in his voice. He guides his bike around a bend,
past a bikinied Rollerblader. "The attorneys were laughing: 'If
we can do this to this guy, we'll show who's boss.'"

Butkus, who reached an out-of-court settlement with the Bears,
hated the impotence he felt. Hated that he had to ask for
anything. Hated that people thought ill of him, that he could
possibly be a malingerer. "The old South Side code," he says.
"You work, you work. You get f-----up, too bad."

Pain was not the problem. "My brother Don, he's 6'7", a welder,
just retired," says Butkus, slowing near a side street on funky
Venice Beach. "Pain threshold? There'd be hot solder bouncing off
his bare feet and he wouldn't even flinch."

No, it wasn't pain, not the physical pain, anyway. Betrayal pain
is different.

He rests his bike on a chopped-down palm tree near the Cow's End,
orders a decaf latte and a blueberry muffin and sits at an
outdoor table just down the sidewalk.

"Cigar?" he offers, firing up a big stinker. It's 9:30 in the
morning. No thanks.

So here is Butkus, an actor in more than a dozen films, some 200
commercials and five TV series, including NBC's teen basketball
series, Hang Time. He is a spokesman for several businesses,
including International Fireplace & Grills, his buddy Steve
Thomas's BMW dealership in Camarillo, Calif., and a
nutritional-supplement company with a glucosamine-chondroitin
product called ArthX. He has done other things, such as referee
in Wrestlemania II and serve as a color analyst for the late,
Vince McMahon-fueled XFL.

He lives in swanky Malibu, up in the hills, with his wife of 41
years, Helen. His three grown children live nearby. It's idyllic,
in a way, but incomplete. The brutal serenity of NFL linebacking
does not translate to the real world. Did Butkus love football?
No, the man for whom the annual award for best college linebacker
is named, adored football.

"Football for me was never work," he says. "If you love
something, it's not work. Like acting. I had something going with
Bubba Smith in those Miller Lite commercials, and I've been in
the Actors Guild for 33 years." He puffs on his cigar and almost
sighs. "But if acting were my real true love, I'd be honing my
craft, wouldn't I, over at some s---theater?"

The injuries have compounded with time. His knee was replaced
with a metal unit. After an early osteotomy, in which a wedge of
bone was removed to make his right tibia straighter, that leg
ended up 1 1/2 inches shorter than the left, which affected his
hips, which affected his back, which affected his neck. There are
the messed-up fingers and toes. There was the quintuple-bypass
heart surgery a couple of years ago. And now there is this
neck-and-back issue.

Two years ago Butkus had spinal problems that caused nerve damage
so severe that he developed dropfoot and tumbled down a couple of
golf course slopes. His hands lost strength until he needed both
to lift a coffee cup. "One time I woke up and couldn't open my
hands. I had to peel them open. I was doing Hang Time, and I
couldn't hold a basketball. My forearms were atrophying, looked
like a damn broad's. A stunt guy saw me on the set, and he said
to me, 'Man, you're really hurting.'"

Adjustment and therapy and chiropractic yanking followed, and
Butkus began visiting a small, intense fellow named Jack E. Dunn,
who uses something called Alphabiotic Alignment to snap the big
man's neck and back into place. Recently Butkus was lying on a
table in a back room at Thomas's BMW dealership, and Dunn twisted
around him and grabbed and exhaled and jerked, and Butkus yelped
so loud that you had to figure that a regular man would have
swooned.

"Every occupation has some hazard," he says. "Miner. Cop.
Fireman." How about stockbroker? you ask. What's the danger?

"If he's a f------thief?" asks Butkus. "His conscience."

Back in the saddle, Butkus chuckles at a white-haired girl he
passes and a parrot perched on the windshield of a passing
convertible. He is content in many ways. Tomorrow he will play
golf with Thomas, and the two will mess with each other
constantly. Thomas will squeeze a pocket fart machine every time
Butkus putts, and the two will giggle like preschoolers. The toy
is called a Redi-Poot, and Butkus is seldom without his. He stops
again, this time outside a muscle gym in Marina Del Rey. He
orders a sandwich at a deli, eavesdrops while a brazen little man
tells a pal all about weight training, mentioning that he himself
weighs "a buck-thirty-five."

Butkus chuckles and whispers behind his hand, "I weigh
two-bucks-forty-five." The little guy blabbers on about not using
heavy weights unless "you want your joints to turn to sawdust."
Butkus wipes his mustache and says, "He's right."

What is pain, anyway, except God's slowing you down, suggesting
you make adjustments? One reason Butkus travels everywhere he
can--even to the East Coast--in his RV is that he hates airports.
His body sets off a metal detector the way a butane torch sets
off an office sprinkler.

"Unfortunately, God forgot to tell me what to do with the second
half of my life," he says. The first part was a no-brainer. Why,
the chiropractor even said eventually he'd get Butkus walking
upright, instead of hunched over like a caveman. "You'll have to
straighten my whole family," Butkus growled back. "We all walk
like this." With gorillalike 37-inch sleeves but a short 32-inch
inseam, Butkus could easily tilt forward a bit and ramble on all
fours like a primate coming up out of the bush. Hey, ask an old
Central Division tailback if that seems like much of a reach. So
this is about easing into the final phase of life for our
hero--the inactive list, as it were.

Later Butkus is sitting on his deck high above the Pacific,
relaxing in the sun. Beside him are philosophy books and
self-help books, and a little inspirational number called Our
Daily Bread. "Ideally," he had said earlier, "I would have played
that last game and keeled over dead right there."

But now he's going on, ripening well. When he was a rookie,
almost 40 years ago, he asked Bears executive Mugs Halas where he
should live. He meant, Where do all the Bears live together, as a
team? As if this were a game, and the players were boys.

As if that could happen.

B/W PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER FACING FACTS A fearsome presence on the field, Butkus has found life after football a little tame.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTERCOLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF MILLER BREWING CO. (TOP) GREAT TASTE Among Butkus's numerous on-screen roles was a memorable turn in a series of Miller Lite ads with Smith.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER WORKING IT OUT Back pain sometimes curtails his golf game, but Butkus still gets his exercise in however he can.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER ALL OUT Butkus gave everything he had on the field, which made it that much tougher when the Bears turned their backs on him.

Hall of Famer Bill George said of the frothing rookie Butkus in
1965, "The second I saw him, I knew my playing days were
over."

Butkus puffs on his cigar. "But if acting were my real true love,
I'd be honing my craft, wouldn't I, over at some s---theater?"