Dick Butkus, one of the fiercest players in NFL history, has died. He was 80.
His death was confirmed in a statement from his family distributed Thursday by the Bears, the NY Post reports.
“The Butkus family confirms that football and entertainment legend Dick Butkus died peacefully in his sleep overnight at home in Malibu, California,” the statement on X read. “The Butkus family is gathering with Dick’s wife Helen. They appreciate your prayers and support.”
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A two-time All-American at the University of Illinois, Butkus, a Chicago native, was an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro in the NFL and is widely regarded as one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the game and having helped revolutionise the position.
“Dick was the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said in a statement.
“He was Chicago’s son. He exuded what our great city is about and, not coincidentally, what George Halas looked for in a player: toughness, smarts, instincts, passion and leadership. He refused to accept anything less than the best from himself, or from his teammates. When we dedicated the George Halas statue at our team headquarters, we asked Dick to speak at the ceremony, because we knew he spoke for Papa Bear.
“Dick had a gruff manner, and maybe that kept some people from approaching him, but he actually had a soft touch. His legacy of philanthropy included a mission of riding performance enhancing drugs from sports and promoting heart health. His contributions to the game he loved will live forever and we are grateful he was able to be at our home opener this year to be celebrated one last time by his many fans.”
Despite being limited to nine seasons due to knee issues, his 27 fumble recoveries remain a Bears franchise record.
“Dick Butkus was a fierce and passionate competitor who helped define the linebacker position as one of the NFL’s all-time greats,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
“Dick’s intuition, toughness and athleticism made him the model linebacker whose name will forever be linked to the position and the Chicago Bears.”
Many across the sport paid tribute to the Pro Football Hall of Famer.
“Dick Butkus wasn’t just one of the greatest football players to ever play the game, he was a remarkable man,” wrote Jarrett Payton, the son of NFL legend Walter Payton, on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“He was always there for me when I needed him. Now, these 3 #Bears legends are in heaven, sharing a drink, getting ready to watch the #TNF game from the best seats. Here’s to you, @thedickbutkus. Your spirit will live on forever.”
Another great Bears linebacker, Brian Urlacher, shared similar sentiments on Instagram.
“Very saddened to hear the news of the passing of the Legend Dick Butkus,” Urlacher wrote in a post that contained a portrait of him with Butkus. “I have so much respect for this man and the way he treated me. The Bears family lost a Legend today. RIP Butkus!”
The tributes extended beyond the football ranks, with wrestling legend Mick Foley paying his respects to Butkus.
“My favourite all-time player. I grew up with a poster of Butkus on my wall, and he signed it for me on the one occasion we met. A true legend. #RIPDickButkus,” Foley wrote on X.
Magic Johnson, now part owner of the Commanders, also remembered Butkus’ contributions to the game.
“NFL Hall of Famer and one of the hardest hitting linebackers I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, Dick Butkus, passed away today,” Johnson posted on X. “May he rest in peace! Cookie and I are praying for his family and loved ones!
A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, and his iconic No. 51 was retired in 1994.
If it seems odd that Butkus’ number took so long to be retired by the Bears given his playing career ended in 1973, it could probably be explained by his rift with the organisation.
His career-ending knee injury occurred with four years remaining on his contract, at a rate of $115,000 year, that was guaranteed for injury.
He sued the team, and the lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but the Chicago Tribune reported in 2012 that Butkus and George Halas went five years without speaking to each other.
“It was like I had leprosy,” Butkus said. “They were spreading rumours I wouldn’t play because of my pain tolerance.”
The feud ended in 1979, when Butkus asked Halas to sign a copy of his own autobiography, and Halas wrote, “To: Dick Butkus. The greatest player in the history of the Bears. You had that old zipperoo.”
Butkus had an extensive post-playing career as an actor, appearing in a number of films and TV shows including “The Longest Yard,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “MacGyver.”
He was also a pitchman for various products, including appearances in some of the classic “Great Taste / Less Filling” Miller Lite advertisements, and at one point worked as an NFL studio analyst for CBS Sports.
Butkus is survived by his wife, Helen, his high school sweetheart who he married in 1963, and three adult children: Ricky, Matt, and Nikki.
This article originally appeared on the NY Post and was reproduced with permission.