Butkus: 'It's good to be back home'

Butkus: 'It's good to be back home'

You would never call Dick Butkus a crier.

Not if you wanted to live.

But there the Illini legend was Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center, tearing up as he accepted his place in the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame.

Twenty-eight entered the first class. Big names. In all sports.

During a two-hour free ceremony, the crowd of 2,000 saved their loudest applause for the greatest linebacker in the history of football.

He was given a long standing ovation. Then he talked about how all the roads in his life lead back to his college days.

"The University of Illinois prepared me for what has been an interesting and rewarding life," Butkus said.

As his speech continued, he tried to keep it together. No such luck.

"Jesus, I'm going to get through this," he said. "It's good to be back home."

Butkus has become what we always hoped: the lovable patriarch of the Illinois program.

His Illinois No. 50 was retired years ago. He was the first member of the school's Hall of Fame.

The last installment of the Butkus honors will be a statue.

Maybe next to Red Grange.

Maybe on the other side of Memorial Stadium.

It will be another chance to see tears from the big lug (meant in a nice way, in case he reads this column. The guy looks like he could crush a sportswriter with his bare hands.)

One of his fellow inductees, former track star Tonja Buford-Bailey, did a little trash talking.

"See, I didn't cry like Dick Butkus did," Buford-Bailey said.

A look ahead

There are more to follow. The first member of the 2018 Hall class has already been announced: basketball coaching great Lou Henson. He was introduced at Saturday's ceremony and received a long ovation. Like Butkus.

Henson will be joined by an unnamed number of honorees. Hall of Fame Class 2.0 will be inducted on Sept. 21, the day before Illinois hosts Penn State in football.

Saturday's classy event felt like a big deal. Not as glitzy as the summer Gala in Chicago, but still plenty of pomp and circumstance.

Illinois alum Ryan Baker did a fine job as host, telling personal stories about his interactions with the greats. It added a local flavor, always a good thing. Baker's task was to introduce the Hall of Famers.

Some of them couldn't make it because of other commitments. Steve Stricker is captain of the U.S. Presidents Cup team, which is playing this weekend in New Jersey. Dee Brown just started a new job as an assistant coach at Illinois-Chicago. Craig Tiley couldn't get back from his duties with Tennis in Australia. Deron Williams is an unrestricted NBA free agent waiting to see if his career continues.

Wouldn't miss it

Former Illini volleyball star Mary Eggers Tendler needed help from her bosses at Elon University to make it back to C-U. The coach of the Phoenix for 15 years, she was supposed to have a match Friday against William & Mary, but her athletic director helped move it to Thursday.

Eggers Tendler remembers the day she found out about her selection.

She was in a coaches meeting and saw a missed called from the 217.

It was Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman.

"I knew it was coming out," she said. "He said, 'I have some important news for you that I think you're going to like.' I still actually have his message saved on my cell phone. To be in the Illinois athletics Hall of Fame, it's pretty huge."

Eggers Tendler wasn't the only one making sacrifices to be at the ceremony.

Buford-Bailey is the associate head coach at Texas. Again, her bosses were understanding.

"They're proud of this," Buford-Baile said.

Despite a distinguished career as an athlete and coach, this is Buford-Bailey's first Hall of Fame.

"It's great," she said. "My high school didn't do one."

What does the honor mean to her?

"It's being a part of something," Buford-Bailey said. "Not only happenstance being a part of it, but people actually voting for you and rallying for you to be a part of it. I really compare it to being an Olympian. Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. This is the same."

Buford-Bailey had a large rooting section at the ceremony including her mom, sister, brother, several nieces and some of the athletes she coached at Illinois.

This was her first trip back to the Illinois campus in four years, a weekend she, along with the other inductees, will surely remember.

Bob Asmussen writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at asmussen@news-gazette.com