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In Memoriam: Dick Butkus

If ever a man were recognized as the ultimate tragic hero in sports, Dick Butkus would have earned it handily. As a player, he stood out on bad teams in Chicago, only enjoying a single winning season and never sniffing the postseason. He was often misunderstood as a bully, but wouldn't you be perpetually angry if you were a star on lousy teams?

Arguably his greatest accomplishment on the gridiron happened in the bleakest year in Chicago sports history. As the team began the 1969 season 0-7, Dick Butkus wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. In an era where so many defensive statistics were more legend than fact, Dick Butkus played like a man possessed, knocking players senseless as his team struggled to find its way down the field.

Twice they were shut out and four more times they scored just once as Butkus tried to rally his weary troops again and again. Six times, his team came up short in one-score games. Gut-wrenchers such as their 13-7 loss to Detroit and 9-7 loss against the mighty Rams must have kept him tossing and turning in his sleep those nights.

Still, he prevailed. Patience doesn't always pay in sports, but when it does it sure is gratifying. Despite their nearly equally abysmal record of 1-6, Dick Butkus and his winless teammates were not taking the Steelers lightly in Week 8. They manhandled Pittsburgh that afternoon, with Dick being unofficially credited with 25 tackles as well as his first career safety in the 38- 7 demolition.

Fittingly, this game would come to define his career. While his teams had spurts of heroism, in the end, fate was never on their side. That victory against the woeful Steelers would force a coin flip for the first overall pick in the Draft, resulting in the Steelers selecting Terry Bradshaw. While so many more moves had to be made before they could call themselves a dynasty, every championship contender needs a reliable quarterback. the Bears never had one during Dick Butkus' time.

Incredibly, despite a 1-13 record, Dick Butkus would win the first of his two Defensive Player of the Year awards that year. While he would win that award again the following year, 1969 would come to define his character and tenacity. No matter the odds, he would always give his very best on the field of friendly strife. After all, it was only a game. He knew that his time was limited and that eventually, his gimpy knees would force him to retire sooner than later. He was going to soak in every moment that he possibly could on the football field.

But despite the constant losing, he knew that if the worst thing that could happen to him happened on the fields of friendly strife, then he would have lived a good life. His children saw a different side of him behind the scenes. While he was a one-man wrecking crew on the gridiron, he was a gentle giant at home. When he got into acting after his playing career ended, the rest of America got to see what his children always knew about their famous father.

Dick Butkus died at the age of 80 today. While the NFL mourns the passing of a legend on the football field, it would be wise to mourn the man, not just the player. For behind that mustachioed snarl was a man who gave his all on the gridiron and lived life to its fullest.

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