Chicago legend Dick Butkus talks draft, Buffone and Chicago

By John Rosin

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Bears drafting Dick Butkus, who will announce the team’s second-day picks at the NFL Draft in Chicago. The University of Illinois standout became a Hall of Fame linebacker before knee injuries pushed him out of football and into acting.

Last week, he spoke via conference call to the media about everything from the Bears picking him (and fellow franchise icon Gale Sayers) in 1965, about the rival AFL’s Denver Broncos also drafting him that year, and about the recent death of  former teammate Doug Buffone.

Q: What was your draft experience like?

A: I didn’t have one, I don’t think. Of course, we didn’t get the exposure like you do today. I remember going to the Bears’ office on a Friday. I came up (from) Champaign — went to see my attorney to represent me — and he had a group of people there from the Broncos.

Next thing you know, we walked over to 173 West Madison and talked to the Bears briefly. I got in the car and sped off to the airport to go to New York because we had to do “The Ed Sullivan Show” or whatever on Friday night, and Saturday morning was the draft.

While I was at some restaurant, my attorney called and read me a deal that said the Bears were going to draft me. I said, “Really?” And then Saturday morning, sure enough, I was drafted by the Bears. I saw Gale, and he was drafted. So that was it. I packed up my bags and flew back to Champaign.

Q: How did you feel about the passing of Doug Buffone, and what did he mean to you as a teammate?

A: Well, Doug came in one year after me, and we lockered next to each other and got to be great friends. It’s just amazing to me that he played all those years and all those games (186 over 14 seasons). I’m sure he got bumped up a little bit, but he was so lucky dodging any serious injuries.

People always bring up, “Well, you know, you’ve got all the accolades and Doug has never done this or done that.” You know what? It’s just the character of the guy. He was actually happy for me that things were turning out the way they were. He wasn’t worried about awards or anything else, he just did the job. That’s what made him such a great guy, a great character and person.

Q: What was your reaction and how surprised were you to hear about his passing?

A: I was shocked. I was going to call him over the weekend just to check in with him and see what was going on. I didn’t call. I should have made the call, just to say hello. It kind of floored me when my son called me and said what had happened.

Q: Can you tell me parts about today’s game that you like or don’t like?

A: I probably would say that there’s a lot of emphasis on offense. As I recall, when I was playing, it seemed like every year there’d be a rule change in favor of the offense. I just think the rules have really strapped the defense. It just seems like the NFL and/or people like scoring. That’s the only part that I don’t like that much. I think I’m more prejudiced, maybe, playing defense.

I like to watch it. Some of the antics of the players, I just don’t agree with. It’s a team sport. All this celebrating and patting yourself on the back, it’s very difficult for me to understand that.

Q: How did you guys celebrate after a big play?

A: We walked back to the huddle and did it amongst ourselves and (did) not make a spectacle of ourselves. I’d really love to ask one of the players when they get a sack or something and they’re losing 20 to nothing and he’s doing cartwheels back to the defensive huddle: I don’t understand where you’re coming from. It’s a team game, you’re supposed to do that. Especially if you’re losing, what is there to celebrate?

Q: What does it mean to you to have the NFL Draft in your hometown this year?

A: It means a lot, to tell you the truth, because first of all, it’s just a great city. It’s a great sports city, and you’ve got one of the founding franchises in the NFL. A lot of history there. I think it should be there.

Q: What was one of your favorite memories playing for the city of Chicago?

A: Well, I wasn’t exactly playing, but it was with my dear friend, Doug Buffone. We were in the locker room at Wrigley Field, a locker room that I think was probably too small for a basketball team, and there was this awful odor.

Doug was lockering next to me and, gee, he was wearing athletic gym shoes with no socks, and there was this odor. I’m going, “Oh my God.” I’m like, “Doug, you gotta change your shoes or something, man.”

In the locker room above the locker, there were these old tiles — you know, ceilings — and one of them was kind of loose. I just kind of hit it, and a damn dead rat fell right down. It crawled up there and died and, hell, I thought it was Doug’s shoes.

We just had so much fun.

Saturday was just a light workout day, and everybody would bring their dogs. Of course, Doug had a pit bull and Ed O’Bradovich had a Great Dane. I was a rookie, and I’m sitting in the meeting, and these dogs are barking and running around the little locker room, and I’m like, “What the heck, man? This is the pros, this is how it’s done?” A couple of guys are having a smoke. “Geez,” I said, “this is great.”

Playing there in Chicago with the history and playing at Wrigley Field, where in the south end zone I think you could lay down a ball and it would roll to the north end zone because of the pitch of the field for baseball, I just thought, “This is big time. This is what it means to be a pro. A pro can play in a prairie somewhere. It doesn’t have to be AstroTurf in a billion-dollar facility.”

It was great.