Waiting for Dick Butkus
Dick Butkus is ducking me. Won’t return my calls, my e-mails.
The name’s Lithuanian, you know — a verb, a proper noun, an act of war. You don’t say it, you bark it. Like a big, flatulent truck backfiring up a hill.
“But-cuss,” the man himself says on his answering machine. One word, But-cuss, then a beeeeep, as if he’s verbally rung your bell. He was always, even when things were going very well, frosted about mundane things, no patience with life’s little inanities, which is how he probably now regards me.
Back in the ‘60s, Butkus invented the concussion. Drafted third in the NFL in 1965, along with Gale Sayers in the four slot. Guy named Namath went that year, as did another double-barrel linebacker, Mike Curtis.
Name the first pick that year, ahead of Butkus, Sayers, Namath? Tucker Frederickson, running back out of Auburn with blond good looks, panache, Manhattan instincts. The anti-Butkus.
Butkus is four weeks shy of 71 now and resides here in Southern California on a hill full of mansions, football’s J.D. Salinger, almost a recluse. Did something like 150 sitcom episodes, hence the L.A. connection. Wrap your arms around that enigma. The most mythic linebacker of all time, the ultimate Monster of the Midway, did 26 episodes of “My Two Dads.”
After six months of trying to reach him without success, he has become not my Salinger but more my D.H. Lawrence in “Out of Sheer Rage.” As in Geoff Dyer’s book about Lawrence, Butkus is now an object of intense fascination, inspiring more a rangy tribute than biography.
At one time, middle linebackers like him were an American archetype — ornery, with a whiff of the Old West about them.
Butkus in particular played the part, bent a little forward, up on the toes the way all sports should be played. A little leery of authority, he once bit a ref’s finger. Or maybe he was just extra hungry.
His expression was grim as a winter’s day at Wrigley, where Da Bears played at the time, miserable on offense, despite having the magnificent Sayers, who glided across the gridiron like a pair of expensive French shears.
“If you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a team,” goes the adage. So Butkus took on that role too.
As the team’s field commander, Butkus may as well have been on roller skates on the pre-chewed Wrigley turf, shucking blockers, punishing ball carriers with those granite shoulders.
Rarely led with the helmet, though, in that way that brutalizes tackler and ball carrier at the same time. Insisted on the shoulders or chest, and a forearm hard as a Thanksgiving ax. Always moved the pile backward. During his nine-year reign, the entire state of Illinois used to shimmy six inches west, then six inches east, depending on who won the coin flip.
There is a wonderful passage in a Playboy profile from 1971, on Butkus in his primal peak, back in the days when you read it for the articles, remember?
In the passage, the Bears’ rotund defensive guru Abe Gibron, who made Andy Reid look like a leggy Miss November, is working with the defense during practice, and realizes that one of the signals that Butkus calls — “Duck!” — is quite similar to another word heard frequently during trench warfare. So Gibson insists on changing the signal to “Quack! Quack!” which Butkus refuses to say.
“It’s Duck,” Butkus growls to a teammate. “Not Quack, Quack.”
If you wanted one moment to represent the frustrations of that sweet-and-sour era of Bears football, there it is.
There is another part of the article, by Arthur Kretchmer, that talks about how former Cardinals linebacker Dave Meggyesy was once taught to pin an opponent’s cleats into the turf to better twist and explode the tendons.
Asked about that, Butkus insists this could never happen to him: “All you’d have to do is roll with the block and step on the guy’s face.”
I suppose I could hound Butkus for more stories of the glory days of the NFL, when you didn’t watch games to tally up your fantasy points, you watched to cheer great and muddy middle linebackers, of which today there are maybe two.
But I refuse to stake out his home — respect him too much for that. Plus, even at 70, he could probably death-rattle me with a forearm to the side of the Bears helmet I always wear when I leave the house.
So I will just keep ringing him till he answers.
“But-cuss,” the machine says, evocative and glorious. That alone is reason enough to call.
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