The University of Illinois’s legendary No. 50 — Dick Butkus — will be in Champaign-Urbana later this week as his alma mater unveils a 12-foot-tall statue in his honor. It will stand adjacent to the Fourth Street entrance of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center. Wrote Chicago Tribune’s Don Pierson: “Some people are born to play football. Football was born for Dick Butkus.”
Here are 50 things you might not know about Dick Butkus (many gleaned from his 1997 book titled BUTKUS Flesh and Blood):
1. Born Dec. 9, 1942, Richard Marvin Butkus weighed in at 13 pounds, 6 ounces, but spent his first four days in an incubator.
2. His father, John, immigrated to Canada (then to the U.S.) from Lithuania. He eventually became a U.S. citizen.
3. Dad worked in Chicago for the Pullman-Standard railroad company as an electrician.
4. Dick’s mother, Emma Goodoff, was born in Spring Valley.
5. The Butkuses had seven children, Dick being the youngest.
6. While raising her family, Emma also worked 50 hours a week in a laundry.
7. As a couple, John and Emma lived for nearly 45 years in a 900-square-foot bungalow on South Lowe Avenue in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.
8. Despite their home being located within the city limits, the Butkus family raised chickens, ducks, geese and, at one point, a couple of pigs.
9. Dick played football at Chicago’s Vocational High School for Coach Bernie O’Brien, playing linebacker and fullback, but also serving as the team’s punter and placekicker.
10. In 1959, though only a junior, the Chicago Sun-Times named him the city’s high school player of the year.
11. Dick won two varsity letters in basketball at Vocational.
12. Two of Dick’s childhood heroes were former Illini stars Buddy Young and Ray Nitschke.
13. Dick bought his first car, a 1949 Plymouth green two-door coupe, for $50.
14. Illini head coach Pete Elliott and assistant coach Bill Taylor were Dick’s primary two recruiters.
15. Sought by several schools — including Purdue, Iowa, Florida State and Miami — he ultimately chose to attend Illinois over Notre Dame, in part because UND officials discouraged their players from getting married.
16. Dick’s first campus residence was at Snyder Hall.
17. As a sophomore in 1962, his first season with the Illini varsity, Dick’s team was 2-7. He registered 97 tackles in the seven games he played.
18. The 1963 season ended with a Big Ten championship and a victory over Washington in the ‘64 Rose Bowl. He led the Illini with 145 tackles in 10 games.
19. After the season, the Illini All-American appeared on both the Ed Sullivan and Bob Hope television shows.
20. Butkus placed sixth in the 1963 Heisman Trophy balloting.
21. Dick married Helen Essenberg in June of 1963. The couple lived at UI’s Orchard Downs. Raising three children, they celebrated their 56th anniversary in 2019.
22. As a senior at Illinois in 1964, Dick finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, behind quarterbacks John Huarte of Notre Dame and Jerry Rhome on Tulsa.
23. Dick was the third pick of the 1965 NFL Draft, selected by the Chicago Bears. Auburn’s Tucker Frederickson was the first choice (Giants) and North Carolina’s Ken Willard was the second pick (49ers).
24. Butkus’ first Bears contract, a five-year deal, began at $18,000 and expanded to $60,000 in the fifth and final year.
25. Dick’s $6,000 signing bonus was sent to his parents. His mother’s first purchase was for burial plots for herself and her husband.
26. Dick and Helen’s first apartment on Chicago’s East Pearson Street cost $240 a month.
27. Like Butkus, Bears head coach George Halas also was an Illinois football grad.
28. Dick’s defensive coordinator as a rookie with the Bears was George Allen, future head coach of the Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.
29. In his first NFL game, Butkus and his Bears teammates were beaten by the host San Francisco 49ers, 52-24. Dick had 14 tackles.
30. Butkus and Bears teammates Gale Sayers were the only two rookies to make All-Pro in 1965.
31. After his fifth pro season, Butkus signed a three-year, no-cut contract for $195,000.
32. Dick played his first six seasons with the Bears at Wrigley Field, then finished at Soldier Field.
33. His final Bears contract was $115,000 per for five years ($575,000). However, due to numerous knee injuries, he had to retire prior to completion of the deal.
34. In 1973, he was awarded the George Halas Award as the NFL’s most courageous player.
35. ABC-TV called Butkus about replacing Don Meredith on its Monday Night Football telecasts, but both parties eventually agreed that the timing was not right.
36. His first of many acting roles was in 1975 as a bad guy in a “spaghetti Western” called The Onion Man.
37. In the late 1970s, Dick began a fourteen-year relationship with Miller Lite, helping launch the brewery’s “tastes great, less filling” ad campaign.
38. In the 1976 film Rocky, Sylvestor Stallone called his bulldog “Butkus”.
39. Dick was selected in his first year of eligibility to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1979). Butkus’s HOF classmates included Johnny Unitas, Ron Mix and Yale Lary.
40. In 1983, Dick was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, including classmates O.J. Simpson, Woody Hayes and Lee Roy Jordan.
41. The Butkus Award, which began in 1985 to honor college football’s top linebacker, was awarded to fellow Illini Dana Howard (1994) and Kevin Hardy (1995).
42. In 1986, he returned to the University of Illinois for the retirement of his Illini jersey No. 50.
43. In 1994, he was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.
44. On October 31, 1994, the Bears retired Butkus’ No. 51.
45. In 2001, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman ranked Butkus the best middle linebacker ever, leading a top five of Ray Lewis, Joe Schmidt, Willie Lanier and Ray Nitschke.
46. Butkus started all 119 NFL games in which he played over nine seasons with the Bears.
47. He was named first-team All-Pro five times and second-team once, and he was voted to the Pro Bowl after his first eight seasons.
48. In 2009, the NFL Network named Butkus the most feared tackler of all time.
49. In 2010, the NFL Network named him the 10th-best player of all-time.
50. Dick’s grandson, Ian Parish, is a 6-foot-9-inch sophomore volleyball player at UCLA.
Sunday: Julian Pearl, football (20)
Monday: Lere Oladipo, football (22)
Tuesday: Tony Eason, football (60)
Wednesday: Brendan & Patrick Heffernan, wrestling (39)
Thursday: Te’Jon Lucas, basketball (21)
Friday: Luke Simmons, baseball (40)
Saturday: Neil Bresnahan, basketball (61)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.