Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A visit with Dick Butkus, who still gives as good as he gets

Over lunch in Malibu, the former Chicago Bears linebacker and TV actor reminisces and tells of his foundation's charity work.

December 31, 20135:15 p.m.

Dick Butkus - House Holds Hearing On Human Growth Hormone Testing In NFL
Pro Football Hall of Famer Dick Butkus testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill December 12, 2012 in Washington, DC. Butkus testified on the topic of "HGH (Human Growth Hormone) Testing in the NFL (National Football League): Is the Science Ready?"

Finally found Butkus, cornered him in Malibu after eight months of trying. Remember? Author Geoff Dyer had D.H. Lawrence to pursue; I had Butkus, the Lithuanian American kid from the South Side of Chicago, solid as a coal car, ornery as a hungry mule.

Talk about a disconnect. Outside the Malibu saloon, surfers float under fairy-tale skies. Inside, there's Dick Butkus. It's the same odd organics you'd get if a giant mermaid swallowed Sheboygan, Wis.

Nearly 40 years after retiring, the Hall of Fame linebacker still gets grumpy over Chicago Bears losses, especially the team's late collapse against the Packers on Sunday. The way defenders tackle these days — or mostly don't — is almost enough to keep him up nights.

"You gotta wrap guys up," he barks, then recalls how playing fullback in high school taught him the most effective way to tackle.

"What I tried to do [as a linebacker] was hit people high," he explains of his ferocious pops. "I tried to aim for the middle of the chest, and the head slides either way, sometimes it doesn't, OK, but you're not going for the head.

"So that was the whole deal of putting people on their back or hitting them hard, was to cause turnovers. Guy gets hit enough, and he's going to start thinking about it," Butkus says.

"I thought, well this will work in high school but not in college. But it happened there too. Well, I get to the pros, and I think it's not going to work there. It did work there."

In a decade with the Bears, he ruined more nice fall days than did the Marquis de Sade.

Already a legend at the high school level, Butkus became an All-American at Illinois. He came west by train with Pete Elliott's team to hammer Washington, 17-7, in the 1964 Rose Bowl. Played center and linebacker in the game, with an interception and a fumble recovery.

"You guys ready to order?" the waitress asks.

She's overly attentive now. The boss clued her in on who the gruff guy in the mustache is, the one whose legs spill over into the aisle like he doesn't care.

"What's the fish of the day?" Butkus asks. "Carp?"

He's funny and profane, and full of opinions on everything from concussions to Rodney Dangerfield (whom he worked with on the Miller Lite commercials).

At 71, he's still a swaggery character from a Sinatra lyric, hard-boiled and stubborn, occasionally even a little wistful, but with not a shred of self-pity.

"If I hadn't played football, probably would've been a mover," he says.

In fact, he tells great stories about working with his older brothers at a Chicago moving company at age 15, when they had to move five apartments a day and used to hurl couches from windows. Talk about unnecessary roughness.

Funny what an upcoming lunch with Butkus elicits:

"Ask him if he ever regrets hitting somebody harder than he had to in order to make a stop," my wife suggests.

No, sweetie, I won't ask him that.

"Does he have any concussion-related issues?" another friend wants to know.

Evidently not, though when he does grasp for a name, as 71-year-olds occasionally do, he often makes light of it. Hardly happens at all.

Another buddy wants to know: "Does Miller Lite taste great or is it less filling?"

Butkus, a Screen Actors Guild member, says he made more from those commercials, which ran 14 years, than he ever did in football. After retiring, he settled in Florida, then moved to Malibu when his television career took off. Eventually, he did 150 sitcom episodes.

Looks good these days. At 234 pounds, Butkus weighs the same as he did as a college sophomore. He credits an emphasis on juices — apple, orange, pomegranate, beet, spinach, carrot — and a glass of red wine or two as well.

He still follows the game closely. His charity, the Butkus Foundation, awards a trophy to the best college and high school linebackers each year, works with hospitals on the benefits of cardiac screenings and educates high schoolers on avoiding steroids.

In early February, he and Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison are hosting a major fundraiser for steroids awareness. Info:

You gotta give back, Butkus insists. And you gotta protect the kids.

He tells the story of a Pop Warner coach who had to order his team's parents to stop making their 9-year-olds chug Red Bull before games.

"Nine years old!" Butkus snaps, still a little peeved. "I mean, I thought we were going low with high school kids."

Twitter: @erskinetimes


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