In the wake of Dick Butkus’ death, celebrating the man behind the image


One of the first non-Native people to set foot here, in what would eventually become Chicago, was a French explorer named Robert Cavalier, sieur de la Salle, and he had this to say, “The typical man who will grow up here must be an enterprising man. Each day, as he rises, he will exclaim, ‘I act, I move, I push.’ “

Dick Butkus was no typical man but how easy it is to imagine his rising each football game day and saying, “I move, I push, I bite.”

Butkus’ death is spurring sadness and sparking memories so vivid that one can almost hear the crash of pads, the grunts of hard tackles and the moans of sacks. It is giving many people pause to contemplate not only the man but the image.

There have been many people who have helped define the city. For all the kind and talented creatures — Myra Bradwell, Jane Addams, Daniel Burnham, Ernie Banks and Michael Jordan among them — who shaped Chicago, it has always been those less than gentle souls who have most vividly given the city character.

Former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus arrives for the Bears100 Celebration Weekend at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont on June 7, 2019.

Most Chicagoans still like to think of this as a rough-and-tumble town. For them, Carl Sandburg got it right and for keeps when he called the city “alive and coarse and strong and cunning” and endowed it with those oft-quoted “big shoulders.”

And for a certain generation, the shoulders were those of Butkus.

The stands for games at Soldier Field may now be filled more with techies than “Grabowskis,” the label hung on the Bears by then coach Mike Ditka a few weeks before the Super Bowl victory in 1986 when he said, “Some teams are fair-haired. Some aren’t. Some teams are a Smith, some are a Grabowski. … We’re a Grabowski.”

And Butkus was a Butkus and Butkus was Chicago.

Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus turns to oratory when all else fails, but to no avail. The Detroit Lions beat the Chicago Bears 16-10 on Oct. 25, 1970, at Wrigley Field.

A child of Roseland, he embodied the work ethic of his generation in what was still a working man’s town, factories humming. Get a good job and do it right. Marry your high school sweetheart and stay true to your town and your family.

Others will manufacture the images, and Chicago’s image has always been our most fragile civic commodity, though one that has always been shaped by violence of varying degrees. From the chilling massacres at Fort Dearborn and later on St. Valentine’s Day; the horrors at Haymarket Square to current crime troubles, the city has never reminded anyone of ancient Athens.

For decades saying “I’m from Chicago” on foreign soil would occasion a mimed blast of machine gun fire.

We had a mayor who once threatened to punch the king of England in the nose, and we owned the “Crime of the Century” (thanks to those homicidal University of Chicago scholars Leopold and Loeb) until the O.J. Simpson case came around.

If we were civilized, it was only on the surface.

I was lucky enough to have watched Butkus play in the intimate setting of Wrigley Field, many dreary seasons during which he and Gale Sayers were the only reasons to even watch a game. But it was palpably violent.

The Bears' Dick Butkus intercepts a pass intended for Cincinnati's Bob Trumpy in the fourth quarter of their game on Nov. 26, 1972.

I would later spend a great deal of time with Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka and poor Steve McMichael to write cover stories about them for the Tribune magazine. They were in the mold of Butkus (all admired him tremendously and called him a friend) and were all tough guys. But below that surface, not that far below, they were men of substance and introspection and intelligence. As McMichael told me, when I asked about his nickname, “Mongo is the entertainer, baby. It’s a voice. It’s a part of the real me but it’s not anywhere near that big a part. Now there were times when that Mongo voice went out of control, when I went out of control. But there has always been a method to my madness, baby, which really isn’t madness at all.”

Near the end of his playing career, Butkus was approached to write a book. He had his choice of possible collaborators. He chose Robert Billings, a talented Chicago Daily News reporter and terrific athlete.

Billings and I played handball, along with his best friend, Mike Royko, and others. These two were also part of the “tough guy” crowd and I would often bother Billings with questions about the “real” Dick Butkus. When he wasn’t telling me to “shut up” or “read the book again,” the stories he told were of a “man that is much more than the man you saw on the field … much more.”

Image is a tough thing to shake and the city’s image has been smoothed of some of those rough edges, not so much a place that Sandburg called “proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” The city has softened. Chicago is no longer, as Nelson Algren wrote in “City on the Make,” “a fighter’s town.” Rahm Emanuel tried to play tough guy and where did that get him?

Dick Butkus, Bears' rookie linebacker, pauses during "study period" with his playbook in the Bears locker room on Dec. 7, 1965.

But in spite of that, and for all of the world-class-city pretensions, this is in some corners not unlike the place where Butkus was born and came of age.

The late Jeannie Morris was once married to Butkus’ teammate Johnny Morris, who once said, “I used to be afraid of Dick Butkus — and he was on my team.”

A few years ago Jeannie told me, “Football is a strange game, perhaps the most human of all sports because it is filled with contradictions: intricate and simple, vicious and artful, base and honorable. Like life at its headiest, football is all about risk. Chicago is a Bears town, and I do think that ‘city of big shoulders’ thing has resonance. Chicagoans like tough mayors too. And they love a good fight.”

On game days, some venerable taverns are still jammed with regular folks, some recalling the glory of a Super Bowl long past and, over the past few days, alive with Dick Butkus tales.

Yes, it is sad that he died but, hell, didn’t we have him for a wonderful while?


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