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Bears legend Dick Butkus has died. He chatted with a reporter on the sidelines and posed for photos with fans during the Bears game against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field Sept. 10.

Bears legend Dick Butkus has died. He chatted with a reporter on the sidelines and posed for photos with fans during the Bears game against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field Sept. 10.

Ashlee Rezin

Dick Butkus, a Bears legend for all generations, dies at 80

Longtime Bears linebacker Doug Buffone, who played next to Dick Butkus for Buffone’s first eight seasons in the NFL, used to recall standing on the field in the midst of a Bears game, looking at Butkus “frothing at the mouth” with the typical rage that fueled Butkus’ manic game and thinking one thing:

“I’m glad he’s on my side.”

Every Bears fan and every Chicagoan can relate to that sentiment about Butkus, the Bears’ legendary Hall of Fame linebacker who died in his sleep at 80 on Thursday at his Malibu, California, home.

The Bears never made the playoffs during Butkus’ nine seasons with the Bears. They were 53-83-4, with just two winning seasons (9-5 in 1965 and 7-6-1 in 1967). In 1969, the Bears went 1-13.

But through all that misery, Bears fans always had Butkus on their side. Gale Sayers ran like nobody else could. But Butkus was a Chicagoan who played football like all of us wanted to — with grit, ferocity, anger and relentless aggressiveness. Through all those losing seasons, he played the game as if he felt our pain.



Former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus poses for a photo with fans as the Bears take on the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023.

Former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus poses for a photo with fans as the Bears take on the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023.

Ashlee Rezin

That’s one reason Butkus doesn’t need a statue to live forever in his hometown. Though he retired in 1973, he remains not only a standard for linebacker excellence in the NFL, but — along with Walter Payton — the definition of what a Chicago Bear is and what fans think a Chicago Bear should be.

The old-school notion during the post-Halas era that if those Bears teams couldn’t win, they at least made you pay a price for beating them is ridiculed as meathead, neanderthal thinking. But let’s face it, Butkus was the embodiment of that. He made watching the Bears fun when it really wasn’t. All you have to do is watch the Bears today to know the value in that for Bears fans of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Few players, if any transcend, the generations like Butkus. Nearly 50 years after he played his last game, he ranks with Ray Lewis as the best inside linebacker in NFL history and still is ranked among the top 10-15 players to ever play in the NFL. Though there have been bigger and faster and more lethal linebackers, like Lewis and Lawrence Taylor after him, it’s the Butkus Award that honors the best linebacker at three levels of football — high school, college and the NFL.

Butkus is best known for his maniacal aggression that struck fear into the best opponents and every so often went over the line of fair play. But that reputation sometimes overlooks the reality that Butkus was a technically sound football player, blessed with phenomenal instincts and anticipation and great hands.

He had 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries in his 119-game career. And while his highlight videos show Butkus’ brutality in all its glory, they also show that he was a textbook tackler. Butkus was more than a monster. He was a great football player.

Butkus was everything Bears fans wanted him to be. And whenever he returned to Chicago, those fans — including many who never saw him play — always gave him the biggest ovation of all. That last happened in the season opener against the Packers on Sept. 10 at Soldier Field, when Butkus was among Bears alumni honored at halftime.

Interviewed earlier in the game, Butkus spoke for every Bears fan there when he said it was “always good to be back in Chicago, especially when the Bears are going to kick the Packers’ [butt].” The crowd, of course, loved it. Butkus was one of them to the end.

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