Monday, October 9, 2023

Quote of the Day (Arthur Kretchmer, on the Outsized Presence of NFL Great Dick Butkus)

“When [Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick] Butkus finally comes out, his steps are hesitant, like he is trying to walk off a cramp. You notice immediately that he looks even bigger in pads and helmet—bigger than anyone else on the field, bigger than players listed in the program as outweighing him. He has the widest shoulders on earth. His name seems too small for him; the entire alphabet could be printed on the back of his uniform and there'd be room left over.”—American reporter and editor Arthur Kretchmer, “Butkus: One Season and One Injury With the Meanest Man Alive,” originally printed in Playboy, October 1971, reprinted in Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, edited by John Schulian (2014)

Dick Butkus didn’t last as long in the NFL as other Pro Football Hall of Gamers—only nine seasons—but the outsized presence described by Arthur Kretchmer carried over onto the field. A half-century after he retired, he is still considered by many of the game’s observers as the greatest middle linebacker of all time.

Or, as Kretchmer summed up the consensus about Butkus from fans, teammates and opposing players of the time: “He's the meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest son of a bitch in football. An animal, a savage, subhuman. But as good at his game as Ty Cobb was at his, or Don Budge at his, or Joe Louis at his.

Early last week, I heard a radio commercial featuring the gridiron giant. His voice reassured me in several different ways: that he was, after all, still around at all; that, unlike so many other retired players, he did not appear to be suffering the effects of multiple concussions; and even that a link to the game that had so fascinated me starting in my tweens continued as a living link to the past. Some things, you could still count on.

That sense of stability didn’t last long. By Friday, the news had come out that Butkus had died at his home in Malibu, Calif. The irony was that someone so ferocious on the field had passed away peacefully in his sleep.

WBEZ sports contributor Cheryl Raye-Stout, talking about him on Texas Public Radio, put matters succinctly on what he meant in Butkus meant in his prime: “He became notorious for being someone that would do anything, anything at all, to make a tackle, to force the ball out of the opposing player's arms, to go after the quarterback. He did things that nobody had done before. He would bite. He would claw. He would scratch. He did anything.”

"You know, his brother Ronnie played for a while with the old Chicago Cardinals. He had to stop because of a knee injury." Then she turns to me and says, "I hope Dick gets well. It's his life."

Told that he had taken his place in the pantheon of great middle linebackers, along with Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke, Butkus said, "Hell, I'm going to make more money this year than those guys ever thought about."

“This year”—and to the end of his life. International Merchandising Corporation (IMC), the company that took sports promotion to a new level by helping Arnold Palmer gain a string of lucrative endorsements and exhibitions, did the same, albeit on a smaller scale, for Butkus.

In the five decades after he hobbled off the field for the last time, Butkus appeared in dozens of television shows and movies, not to mention scores of commercials—notably Miller Lite Beer commercials.

This quote from Butkus, on the Website of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, confirmed his mother’s observation about his single-minded devotion to the sport:

“There’s only one thing I’ve ever wanted to do: Play pro football. Everyone seems to be made for something, and I’ve always felt that playing football was the thing I was supposed to do. I love the game.”

After the string of confirmations on the damage caused by concussions, I can’t share his feelings. But I can’t help but admire his desire to excel, and I’m glad he was able, unlike so many other ex-players, his time away from the game.

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