Dick Butkus left us Oct. 5 at age 80. I knew him in the fourth quarter of his distinguished life.
We met at a fitness equipment show in California, where the imposing figure with an unmistakable gimp headed straight to a Nautilus exhibit. There, he became reacquainted with the Vancouver-based equipment maker that employed him in the 1970s to bring modern strength training to organized sports.
Butkus burned an indelible image into the American psyche. He was a ferocious defender. The most feared man of America’s favorite sport. Among the best ever in college and the pros. Jersey numbers retired. His bone-crunching highlight reel is a must-watch locker room ritual a half-century after he hung up his cleats.
I knew a different Butkus. I knew a family man with a big heart, business savvy, deep faith and a relentless desire to give back.
His already strong desire to make an impact in his post-football life was intensified in 2001. A routine heart scan revealed he needed a five-way bypass. While recovering, he decided it was “payback time.”
He gained control of the Butkus Award honoring linebackers, expanded the award to three levels of play, and leveraged its prominence to advance causes. He and son Matt would travel to campuses across the country, spreading the word and challenging rising stars to give back.
His first challenge was to rid youth sports of performance-enhancing drugs, after learning of the lasting physiological and emotional damage they cause. He crisscrossed the country, testifying before Congress and statehouses, completing countless interviews, and speaking to teens with a sobering bluntness that only Butkus could deliver.
His even larger goal was to ensure that every adult could peek into their cardiovascular system, just like the scan that saved his life and caused him to redouble his own commitment to training hard and eating well. He figured a good place to start was one facility in every major football community, beginning with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. Thousands of lives have been saved.
Butkus wanted to make a difference and he did it with class. He didn’t want limelight or self-recognition. He operated with a sense of teamwork, fairness and appreciation. Each encounter produced examples.
He only consented to the monstrous Butkus statue at the University of Illinois when assured that his entire Rose Bowl-winning team would be honored.
He refused to be featured in NFL Films’ “A Football Life” documentary until learning it might be a last chance to celebrate his teammate Gale Sayers.
He insisted on donating tables at any event to returning military personnel or emergency responders.
The aging restaurant waitress who never tasted the wine she poured was sent home with a bottle courtesy of Butkus.
He extended a fan event in Vancouver to visit with the grandfather and grandson who waited for hours to have Butkus sign a prized 1970 Sports Illustrated magazine.
No speeches were finished without Butkus honoring his high school sweetheart Helen. He traveled to Vancouver to share his story with the local nonprofit MarriageTeam.
That’s the way it was with Butkus. He was real. He was relentless. He gave back. He never lost heart.
His fourth quarter proved that one person can make a game-changing difference in the lives of many.
Great game, Butkus. Great game.