Tate: Linebacker U started with Butkus
Dick Butkus is 70.
It’s hard to imagine the greatest collegiate linebacker of all time, the once-snarling and intimidating Chicago Bear, with his legs up drawing Social Security.
But the Illini icon, who has turned his celebrity into philanthropic efforts, still has opinions, like: Tell us, Dick, what did you think of Bears linebacker Jon Bostic drawing a $21,000 fine for “blowing up” San Diego receiver Matt Willie?
“I saw it on TV, and it happened very fast,” Butkus said. “Bostic did lower his head. If he had kept his head up and hit with his shoulder, which he partly did, it would have been fine. I always tried to keep my head up when I tackled.”
Butkus resides in California and will attend Illini and Bears games at Soldier Field on Sept. 14-15. He’ll be honored at an Illini luncheon in Chicago on Sept. 12.
Following are more of his comments:
Q: Did you ever suffer a concussion?
Butkus: “Just once. It was in an exhibition against Washington in my rookie year (1965). I blitzed, tripped and hit somebody’s knee. I was dazed. Later, when George Allen asked me if I was ready to go in, I said, ‘Yeah, when does the game start?’ That’s the only time.”
Q: Should college players be given a stipend?
Butkus: “I think it’s time. Some of these kids don’t have a pot to you-know-what in. But you’ll need an accounting major to determine how to be fair with the other sports.”
Q: What are your thoughts about the Illini?
Butkus: “It’s depressing. Every time I’ve talked to the team, they get bombed, so I better just shut up. I look at the roster and I see more out-of-state players than in-state. We’re losing the top in-state players. We’ve always had trouble recruiting in Chicago. Why, I don’t know.”
Q: The Washington game marks the 50th reunion of your 17-7 Rose Bowl win against the Huskies. What do you remember about that game?
Butkus: “I felt a lot of animosity toward our team. They said we were fat and slow. So we showed them by running a lap around the field after the game. I thought it was more intense at Michigan State (a 13-0 win delayed by President John F. Kennedy’s assassination).”
Men in the middle
Even today, with a defense ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten, Illini linebacking is a strength. It’s always that way.
Who else had Butkus, whose name is attached to the national linebacking award?
Since 1994-95, no team has had back-to-back Butkus Trophy winners like Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy. With the Heisman Trophy leaning hard toward offensive stars, who else has produced such high finishers as Bill Burrell (No. 4 in 1959) and Butkus (Nos. 6 and 3 in 1963-64)? Who else had two Big Ten MVPs at linebacker (Butkus and Burrell)?
Since 1950, Illinois has produced a steady stream of them. Six have received All-America notice.
One noticeable absence from the list is Simeon Rice. His coach, Lou Tepper, and UI publicists insisted on listing him at linebacker, but he was a defensive end by any definition ... and remained so as a pass rusher in the NFL.
No discussion of Illini linebackers is complete without mentioning Ray Nitschke, who ranks alongside Butkus as the UI’s premier NFL products.
A strong-armed, multi-sport Proviso athlete who spent summers pitching, Nitschke moved from quarterback to fullback in the fall of his sophomore season in 1955 and scored three touchdowns in the second game, a 40-0 rout of Iowa State.
It was the single-platoon era, requiring players on offense to switch to defense when the ball was exchanged and vice versa. Ray Eliot found he had two comparable fullback-linebackers in 1956, the 201-pound Nitschke playing 271 minutes and former Fenger prep All-American Jack Delveaux 269. As a slashing senior, Nitschke led the 4-5 Illini in rushing with bull-like charges netting 514 yards.
He was the original devil-may-care roughneck. As a youth, he made it no secret that he smoked and drank and was wildly confrontational. He was always on the edge of trouble.
But, oh, man, could he play football! Green Bay took him in the third round, went 1-10-1 in 1958, and brought in the great Vince Lombardi in 1959. Nitschke soon became a Lombardi favorite and emerged steadily as the backbone of defenses that won championships in 1961-62-65-66-67. Playing 15 years, he almost seemed indestructible, in contrast to Butkus, whose nine knee surgeries represent one for each season he played.
On the 50th anniversary of the NFL in 1969, Nitschke was named the NFL’s all-time top linebacker. In 1999, the year after his death, he was No. 18 on The Sporting News’ “100 Greatest Football Players.”
In Green Bay, where he is still beloved, a bridge and a practice field wear his name. His No. 66 is one of five retired Packer jerseys.
In his calmer later years, one comment drew a rise from him: To tell him that he wasn’t as good as Butkus.
‘More of me and less of we’
Illini coaches capitalize on the linebacking culture. Said coach Tim Beckman:
“The Butkus Trophy, that’s exactly what the Illini program is about. If we can keep (senior) Jonathan Brown healthy, he can be as good as any this season. Butkus was known as the best, and it helps recruiting at that position.”
Beckman has two early commitments for the position, 237-pound Henry McGrew of Stilwell, Kan., and 226-pound Austin Roberts of Rice Lake, Wis. Similarly, all 10 linebackers on the current roster are from out of state.
Said recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh: “We sell the heck out of the tradition. We call it Linebacker U.”
As coach of linebackers, Mike Ward said:
“When you walk in our meeting room and see all the pictures, you recognize the pride we have in the position, and we educate all our players on this tradition. It’s a reminder that you need your best work ethic every day at practice. The history demands that we uphold the position. We expect excellence.
“We’ve proven that if they develop, they can play at the next level. Illinois has produced more draft choices on our side of the ball than every Big Ten school except one.”
Questioned about last season’s disappointments, Ward replied:
“I mean this in a constructive way. Selfish teams have great players and not a lot to show for it. Selfless teams have good players and win championships. We are only as good as the guy next to us. If we’re all on the same page, we have a chance to be good. We stress more of we and less of me.”
Ward noted that former linebacker Houston Bates now starts at end in an alignment that Ward says “can schematically shift from a 4-3 to 3-4 (four linebackers). Houston has been solid and brings a lot of pressure off the edge.
We’ll have four linebackers in there. On the outside, Mike Svetina makes us stronger against the run than previously.”
Sophomore Mason Monheim, leading tackler last year, acknowledges that last year’s veterans weren’t always on the same page.
“It has never been about talent,” Monheim said. “The good teams play together. Nothing against last year but we’re a more close-knit team. It’s not about I, it is about us. If we go out arm-in-arm, we’ll be fine.
“I didn’t arrive on campus until June a year ago. I’ve gone from one spectrum to another. I now know the defense and other positions. I can react faster. The more you play and watch film, the more comfortable you become.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.