Illini Football, Chicago Bears Legend Dick Butkus Dies at 80

Matt Stevens, IlliniGuys Staff Writer

October 5, 2023

Dick Butkus courtesy Illinois Athletics

One of the most successful and memorable athletes to ever represent the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has died.

Dick Butkus, a Pro Football Hall of Fame selection, was pronounced dead at the age of 80 on Thursday morning. The news of Butkus’ death was released via his wife Helen of 60 years through a spokesperson for the Chicago Bears franchise.

Butkus was born in Chicago and played his entire football career in the state of Illinois starting first at Chicago Vocational High School before becoming a two-time All-America selection at Illinois, and finally as an all-time legendary linebacker in the National Football League for the Bears.

Butkus’ arrival in Champaign was a major reason Illinois went from a 0-9 team in Pete Elliott’s first season as coach in 1961 to the Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl winner just two years later in 1963. Butkus then finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1964 behind Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte and Tulsa quarterback Jerry Rhome.

“As the head coach of his alma mater that he loved, I had the great honor to meet Dick, one of my childhood idols, last September,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said in a statement. “He was an amazing person, as well as a football player, and a loyal Illini. Dick embodied everything that Illinois football has represented in the past and what we look to represent into the future. His deep love for Illinois football will be honored and remembered forever.”

While at Illinois, Butkus played center on offense and linebacker on defense. He is a member of both the College Hall of Fame and was part of the introductory class to the Illini Hall of Fame in 2017. The 1963 Rose Bowl win over Washington by Butkus’ Illini team still stands today as the last time an Illinois football squad has won that game in Pasadena. Butkus’ name will live on in college football as following every season, the nation’s top linebacker receives the ‘Butkus Award’.

“The greatest living Illini has left us,” Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “Dick Butkus was a giant in a land of giants. In a game built on toughness and tenacity, he stood alone. One of the most imposing figures to ever wear a helmet, away from the field, Dick was self-effacing, humble, and generous. A cultural icon, Dick leaves a legacy on Americana that will never be forgotten. On a personal note, the friendship I formed with Dick is something I will always cherish. I am so grateful for the time I was blessed to spend with him and for the many moments that we shared. I will never forget how touched he was when I told him he was the inaugural member of the newly formed Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame, or how emotional he became in learning that we were building a statue in his honor. Nor will I forget dedicating that statue – on a brittle, windy, rainy day that was tailor-made for a ceremony celebrating the toughest man in football. We grieve for his loss. We take solace in the many wonderful gifts that Dick gave us, both on the gridiron and in the decades since he left it. On behalf of our entire Illini famILLy, we send our love and condolences to his wife, Helen, and the entire Butkus family, with a reminder that Dick Butkus may be gone, but his memory will live forever at the University of Illinois – a place that he permanently changed with his ferocious heart, his indomitable spirit, and his unshakable loyalty. Our university is better, our game is better, and our country is better, all because we were graced by the presence of one Dick Butkus. Rest well, my friend."

Butkus and Red Grange are linked in many different ways around the University of Illinois campus as both are the only men to have their numbers retired as Butkus had the honor in 1986. Grange and Butkus are the only Illini athletes to have a statue outside an Illinois athletics facility."

"Perhaps no football program in the country can claim two more iconic players than Red Grange and Dick Butkus," Whitman said in a 2019 statement. "Thus, it is only fitting that statues of these two incredible Fighting Illini frame the west and east sides of the stadium where they played. We are so excited to unveil the Butkus statue, a beautiful piece of art that will stand forever as a testament to the player Dick was the man he remains today. We hope our fans will come help celebrate Dick's remarkable legacy and pay tribute to all that he has meant to our University and to the game of football.”

The Grange statue sits outside Memorial Stadium and the Butkus statue is along First Street outside the Smith Family Football Center, which was unveiled in 2019.

“I didn’t come here to play and get a statue after I was done. “What the hell can you say? I really made it tough for (sculpture) George (Lundeen). I really wasn’t for it. He did an excellent job. I really wasn’t for it. It’s a very humbling deal,” Butkus said Friday in his statue dedication media conference on Oct. 11, 2019. “And you wonder ‘why man?’. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. (Expletive), I had fun knocking the (expletive) out of people. So if it was that unusual, I guess you take it.”

After getting selected No. 3 overall in the 1965 NFL Draft, Butkus had a nine-year career with the Bears where he was a five-time first-team All-Pro selection and an eight-time Pro Bowl honoree. He totaled 22 career interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries, one of which was run back for a touchdown. Butkus' 49 total career takeaways rank second in franchise history.

"Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history," Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement. "He was Chicago's son. He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidentally, what George Halas looked for in a player: toughness, smarts, instincts, passion and leadership. He refused to accept anything less than the best from himself, or from his teammates. When we dedicated the George Halas statue at our team headquarters, we asked Dick to speak at the ceremony, because we knew he spoke for Papa Bear. Dick had a gruff manner, and maybe that kept some people from approaching him, but he actually had a soft touch. His legacy of philanthropy included a mission of ridding performance enhancing drugs from sports and promoting heart health. His contributions to the game he loved will live forever and we are grateful he was able to be at our home opener this year to be celebrated one last time by his many fans. We extend our condolences to Helen, Dick's high school sweetheart and wife of 60 years, and their family."

Following his playing career, Butkus remained in the spotlight mostly as an actor and announcer. He appeared on TV shows such as "Hang Time," "MacGyver," "My Two Dads," "Growing Pains," and "Magnum P.I.". Butkus’ movie resume included roles in ‘Any Given Sunday’, ‘The Last Boy Scout’, ’Necessary Roughness and ‘Brian’s Song’. Butkus was also the Chicago Bears' radio color analyst for many years and a panelist on CBS' pregame show "The NFL Today.”

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