Butkus, Ferocious as a Bear, Is Really Just a Genial Teddy

You talk to people at CBS about Dick Butkus, who replaced Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder on “NFL Today” this season, and you get descriptions such as shy, gentle, religious, devoted family man.

Wait a minute. Is this the same Dick Butkus who used to tear people’s heads off when he was a linebacker for the Chicago Bears?

Yes, same guy.

“He’s the exact opposite of the type of person you’d expect him to be,” said Susan Kerr, a CBS publicist who has worked closely with Butkus.


Said commentator John Madden, who got to know Butkus when both were doing beer commercials: “He’s a gentle guy with a dry sense of humor, a great practical joker.

“Because of his reputation, you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to laugh or not. After a while, you figure out it’s OK to laugh.”

About his image, Butkus, who has lived in Malibu for the last 6 years, said: “I got burned by a couple of sportswriters early in my career, and as a result, sort of clamped out. That, combined with the style of football I played, gave me that tough-guy image.

“I’d see people in airports who would recognize me but would be afraid to come up to me. I’d want to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK. I’m not a bad guy.’

“It changed a lot after the Miller Lite commercials. They served as an icebreaker. People would say, ‘Shot any birdies lately?’ or something like that.”

Said “NFL Today” colleague Brent Musburger: “I covered him as a writer and broadcaster in Chicago when he was with the Bears, and at that time he was difficult to deal with. I think it was a combination of shyness and a reluctance to talk with the media.

“I do remember him getting burned . . . when he was at Illinois, and later by a Chicago writer.

“But once you get to know him and he trusts you, he’s a lot of fun to be around. He’s got a great sense of humor and is able to laugh at himself.

“He’s a caring person who comes from a strong Lithuanian family background.”

Butkus and his wife Helen have known each other almost their entire lives and have been married 25 years.

They have three children: Nikki, who last spring graduated from the University of Notre Dame; Rick, a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, and Matt, a senior at Loyola High School in Los Angeles and a heavily recruited defensive lineman. Matt, according to Butkus, has narrowed his college choices to USC and Illinois, Dad’s alma mater.

Butkus has spent this week preparing for Sunday’s NFC championship game (1 p.m., PST) between the San Francisco 49ers and the Bears at Chicago, which CBS will televise, and working on the NBC sitcom, “My Two Dads,” which makes its season debut next Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Butkus plays the role of a deli owner.

An acting career is what brought Butkus to Southern California. Before moving here, he lived in Florida, on a 30-acre ranch at De Land.

When his football career ended prematurely in 1973, after four knee operations, he went there to work for Arthur Jones, the founder of Nautilus weight-training equipment.

He also did some volunteer work, teaching catechism to inmates at Raiford state prison.

When Butkus was forced to retire from football, he had 3 years left on a 4-year contract. At first, the Bears refused to pay him. Butkus sued, but 2 years later, before the case reached a court, the Bears agreed to pay him.

“I always thought I would remain connected with football, but because of my contract hassle, I just wanted to get far away from Chicago,” Butkus said.

Later, however, he returned to the Bears as a radio commentator from 1985 through 1987.

Now he’s returning to Chicago for a playoff game for the second straight weekend.

In the 9 seasons he played for the Bears and the 3 seasons he served as a radio commentator, Butkus said, he never saw fog at Soldier Field as there was last Saturday for the Bear-Philadelphia game.

“I was down on the sidelines, and I could see across the field, except for a few minutes when it really got dense,” Butkus said. “Battling the elements is part of football. No way should the game have been postponed.”

Said Madden: “If I’d been there, I would have gone right down to the sidelines. I’ve always wanted to do a game from the sidelines, and that would have given me the perfect opportunity.”

Butkus’ work on “NFL Today” has shown improvement through the season. Early on, he seemed nervous and unsure of himself.

“I was nervous because I would spend all week on the phone gathering information and would want to use all of it,” Butkus said. “Brent told me to edit it down and just use what’s important and forget the rest. That advice helped a lot.”

Said Musburger: “He was juggling five or six thoughts at once in his mind and, working alongside someone like me who talks very quickly, it made him nervous.

“I told him, ‘If you can make one good point, we’ll sell it for you.’

“Dick is very perceptive, and he understands the game of football. Having him on the show has been a big plus.

“It sure is a lot different this year with Dick. There’s less friction. We’re now all going in the same direction.”

TV-Radio Notes

Are you ready for Dan Dierdorf on boxing? The rumor is that ABC had Dierdorf do an audition, liked him and will soon announce that he will be the network’s blow-by-blow man on boxing, working with Alex Wallau. . . . Add Wallau: He has been battling throat cancer for a little more than a year, but is said to be doing better. The cancer apparently is in remission. . . . The San Diego Padres reportedly are close to hiring former Dodger Rick Monday as an announcer. A new series on TBS, “U.S. Olympic Gold,” makes its debut Saturday at 3:05 p.m. with a team of U.S. amateur boxers facing a South Korean team. Anthony Hembrick, best known for missing a bus and being disqualified for tardiness at Seoul, is the only U.S. Olympian participating. And none of the South Korean Olympians will participate. All have either retired or turned pro.

NBC begins its AFC championship coverage Sunday at 9 a.m. with “NFL Live.” Ahmad Rashad offers a feature on Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, and Gayle Gardner focuses on Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason. . . . Add Esiason: While attending the University of Maryland, he worked as an intern at a Baltimore TV station, WJZ, at the same time Gardner worked there. . . . Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen will announce the game.

ABC’s first “Wide World of Sports” program of 1989 Saturday at 4:30 p.m. (3:30 in San Diego) will highlight figure skating, taped at Paris Dec. 16. It’s the World Challenge of Champions, and the skaters include Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser, Dorothy Hamill, Debi Thomas and Rosalyn Sumners. . . . Although today’s round as well as Saturday’s round of the MONY Tournament of Champions at La Costa will be on ESPN live at 1 p.m. both days, Sunday’s final round will be on ABC, delayed at 2 p.m. . . . Add golf: ESPN will televise the first 3 rounds of next week’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, beginning Wednesday, and NBC will televise the final 2 rounds.

New show: “Billy Packer’s College Basketball” will make its debut on Prime Ticket at 6 tonight. The show will run through April 8. . . . ABC’s pro bowlers’ tour begins its 16th season Saturday with the Pinole Open from Pinole, Calif., delayed at 3 p.m.

John Mohr, who was vice president and executive producer of sports programming for ON TV from 1977 to ’83, has been named senior vice president and chief operating officer of SportsChannel Regional Networks. SportsChannel operates in New York, Philadelphia, New England, Chicago and Florida. . . . Chris Myers, ESPN’s relatively new West Coast correspondent, came to the cable network from the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, where he was a weekend sports anchor. Myers, a Florida native, is ESPN’s first full-time West Coast correspondent since Jim Gray left to join NBC last spring.

Add Gray: In his interview with referee Jim Tunney about why last Saturday’s NFL playoff game at Chicago was not postponed, Tunney said because he could see both goal posts from midfield. “But I can’t see 15 yards in this stuff,” Gray said. Countered Tunney: “Well, everyone knows referees can see better than broadcasters.”