CHAMPAIGN — It was a perfectly Butkus-y afternoon to unveil his statue. Cold, rainy, windy. Football weather.
Close your eyes and you could picture football’s greatest linebacker smashing into some Michigan running back.
Too bad he can’t suit up today.
George Lundeen’s stunning likeness of Illini legend Dick Butkus — unveiled for the first time Friday afternoon — will stand the test of time. It becomes the newest campus landmark. Just like the Red Grange statue before it.
Not that Butkus wanted the honor. He had to be talked into it by athletic director Josh Whitman and others.
The old-school linebacker from Chicago Vocational isn’t interested in the attention. He is humbled by it.
And not the false humbleness you get from some. It is genuine modesty. The kind where you consider yourself lucky and always make sure to pass credit to those around you. Makes for a great teammate.
Deep down, Butkus must know how special he was as a player. Not many people have their names associated so closely to one position.
Linebacker is Butkus. Butkus is linebacker. Everybody else is a notch behind.
He was a unique talent with a legacy for toughness. “Rocky” named his dog after him for gosh sakes.
“I did what I thought I was supposed to do,” he said.
Meet the press
Before Friday’s afternoon ceremony, Butkus chatted with the media for 30 minutes at the Bielfeldt Building.
It was among the best press conferences I have experienced as a reporter. My colleagues will agree.
First question: What’s this mean to you to be honored this way?
“It’s a very humbling experience to tell you the truth,” Butkus said. “I didn’t come here to play to get a statue.”
The reluctant subject helped Lundeen. Some.
“He was asking me, ‘Do I have my shoulder pads?’” Butkus said. “Funny thing is I wore my Illinois helmet for the first year or two with the Bears and wore those shoulders pads until they literally rotted. I didn’t have any of that stuff left over.”
Butkus is a fan of Lundeen’s work.
“He did a great job with Grange and I’m sure he did a great job with mine,” Butkus said.
Butkus finished his Bears career in 1973, 46 years ago.
What does he think of the game today? It’s a loaded question.
“With all the rules changes, it’s changed the game,” Butkus said. “They like to see good offense. Although they threw the ball a fair amount of times when I was playing — we had guys like Bart Starr and (Johnny) Unitas and (Fran) Tarkenton — it just seems now it’s more emphasized on the offense.
“I guess they like to see 59-58 games versus 10-9.”
Then, more honesty.
“I have a tough time watching it, to tell you the truth,” he said. “With the antics. It seems like a ‘me’ world out there on the field like it is in America. I think they’re losing what the hell the game is about. It’s a team sport. Not an individual sport. In the old days, when you would jump up and do a cartwheel after you made a tackle and you’re losing 48-0, you would be taken care of by your own. It’s different now.”
Butkus made it clear he appreciates Illinois and what it meant for his life and career.
“Choosing a university to go to after your high school career is over is a big step,” Butkus said. “I guess I made a good step.”
He was quick to thank former Illini assistant Bill Taylor, who recruited him to C-U.
When Butkus first arrived, Illinois was at the bottom of the Big Ten. His junior year in 1963, the Illini won the conference title and the Rose Bowl.
“We changed a losing program to a winner and it’s all you can ask,” he said. “It worked out well.”
It’s a path Butkus wants others to follow. Or else.
“Kids don’t like to come to a losing program,” Butkus said. “I don’t understand that because wouldn’t you get as much excitement and fulfillment of turning the team around? That’s what I remember. We turned the losing program around. We should be proud of that.”
My question to Mr. Butkus: Who inspired you?
“Maybe my brother Ron,” Butkus said. “I was the youngest of nine kids. He was here for a while, a whistle stop at Illinois. I looked up to him a little bit.
Next, came another story.
“(Ron) knew (Ray) Nitschke,” Butkus said. “My sophomore year in high school, we came here for the spring game. My brother introduced me to Ray.”
There was more.
“I just had that self-motivation, I think,” he said. “When I watched people, whatever they did wrong, I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to turn it around.’
“I was tunnel-visioned. I knew what I wanted do. And I lucked out and I was able to do what I wanted to do until a certain point.”
Come back soon
The 76-year-old grandpa doesn’t get to Champaign-Urbana very often. His legs got beat up pretty bad playing football all those years and to travel from California isn’t easy for him.
This week’s trip ran into a few snags. The flight for the 14-person Butkus party got canceled at the California end.
Thinking fast, Illinois administrators sent a plane to get them. You can’t very well unveil a statue without the inspiration on hand.
It would be great to see him on campus more often. Need an excuse? Matt Joyce, who paid for the statue, suggested Friday that stretch of road in front of his likeness be renamed Butkus Way.
Sounds like a plan. And he will certainly want to return for the dedication.
All sorts of Grange tributes are already on campus. Deservedly so. Grange Rock, Grange Grove and, of course, another Lundeen statue.
Time to start plastering “Butkus” on everything in sight. Put his name on a residence hall or a lab. The school might soon add hockey, so how about Butkus Arena?
Any way to get him back here more often. He is one of the living legends.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.