Dick Butkus, perhaps the greatest middle linebacker of all time, looks like he’s supposed to look and sounds like he’s supposed to sound. His shoulders are broad, his mustache is thick and his hair is cropped so short it’s as if each strand stands at attention. He wears glasses and a Pro Football Hall of Fame ring. His voice is raspy. He’s 72.
I meet Butkus Friday in a small room at the Charlotte Westin hotel, where in an hour, in a much larger room, he’ll address the Charlotte Touchdown Club.
What do you think of today’s NFL?
“We don’t have enough time,” he says.
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Butkus, who played for the Chicago Bears from 1965-73, talks first about “so called expressions of exultation.” He doesn’t understand why a player celebrates a tackle when his team is down by 20 points. Butkus says football is a team sport.
He doesn’t mention any players by name when we talk.
But later, when Butkus answers questions in front of the Touchdown Club, he says he does not like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and imitates Newton pointing after he picks up a first down.
His audience laughs nervously. Butkus is an icon. Newton is their quarterback, a quarterback undefeated six games into this season.
Butkus says his wife, Helen, walked past the television when Newton was celebrating and asked what he was doing. Butkus told her. She kept walking. Helen isn’t a fan, either.
Butkus comes from a time when, if a good play was celebrated, it was celebrated after a game. He comes from a time when a concussion was a headache. He comes from a time when a team’s best players played on special teams. Butkus played on Chicago’s special teams.
He says football has been good to him, and he still loves the sport. He lives in Los Angeles, and when the Bears come on at 10 a.m., he watches. When the Bears aren’t on, he looks for players who have won the Butkus Award, which goes to the country’s top NFL, collegiate and high school linebacker.
Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly won the award at Boston College in 2011 and as a Panther in 2014.
“He’s a classy guy,” Butkus says of Kuechly. “He’s the kind of guy you want representing you.”
I ask Kuechy, who was born 18 years after Butkus retired, what he thinks when he hears Butkus.
“He’s the standard, man,” Kuechly says.
As a kid Kuechly watched NFL films, where in tones low and dramatic a deep voice described Butkus’ work.
“They always had Dick Butkus playing a tough, physical game, running around the field, just a tough guy,” says Kuechly. “And that’s what epitomizes the linebacker. He’s a great guy. I’ve met him quite a few times and he loves football and he loves being around the game.
“You try to emulate him in a sense. But the thing I always grab from him is toughness. And there’s no substitute for that, there’s no substitute for heart.”
Butkus has other reservations about the NFL. They can’t have two-a-day practices in training camp? You call a penalty on a tackler for leading with his helmet? The game moves fast, so how can you tell if the tackler meant to?
But Butkus’ career ended after nine seasons because his knees went bad, and rules prohibited him from getting a second opinion from a doctor who was not connected to the team. Doesn’t today’s NFL offer protection his NFL did not.
He says “safety is OK unless it degrades the game.”
Butkus believes the game has been degraded. He jokingly says that if he had access to the doctors and nutritionists today’s players do he’d still be playing.
Can’t you see No. 51 out there? Butkus isn’t a name. It’s a lifestyle.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera, a former Bears linebacker, says Butkus “was tough, physical, mean, just a real neat individual.”
When Butkus was inducted into the Chicago Hall of Fame, Rivera gave the induction speech.
Carolina cornerback Josh Norman says Butkus “was a hard-nosed, don’t matter, hit you in your face, old school, just drag dog action type of guy.”
You don’t need to know what drag dog means to know what Norman means. If you assembled Butkus’ greatest hits, he’d have more than Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood combined.
Kuechly missed three games this season with a concussion. Had Kuechly played when Butkus did, he wouldn’t have missed any. One suspects that 15 years from now Kuechly will appreciate that. Until he passed a neurologist’s test, he was unable to play.
Kuechly’s NFL is not Butkus’ NFL. But even though the rules differ, the standard is the same. Butkus was the best middle linebacker of his time. Kuechly is the best middle linebacker of ours.
You know, Luke, kids might someday watch your highlights the way you watched Butkus’.
“I don’t know about that,” says Kuechly, who is so modest it’s as if he practices. “I just try to run around and see what happens.”