Sometime overnight on Oct. 5, 2023, former Chicago Bears linebacker turned actor/philanthropist Dick Butkus passed away at his home in Malibu, California, at the age of 80. Tales of his toughness and fierce determination echo down the decades from when he played in the mid-'60s to the early '70s.
He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.
Butkus' body bore the marks of his hard-charging career. But, as he wrote for USA Today in 2017:
Football is tough. It takes strength — the physical strength to compete and the mental strength to master your fear of violence and failure.
But the game gives back as much as it takes. It teaches tenacity, teamwork, respect and appreciation for a strenuous and healthy life.
I was made for football. No sport prepared me for the game of life better than football.
Do It for 51
Born to Lithuanian-American parents on the South Side of Chicago in 1942, Butkus was the youngest of eight children. He played his whole football career in Illinois, from high school to the University of Illinois to the Bears, as a first-round draft pick.
He was also a Catholic, who married his high-school sweetheart, with whom he had three children.
On the day his death was announced, his winless Chicago Bears (coming in with a 14-game losing streak that stretched back to last season), took the field against the Washington Commanders in a Thursday Night Football game.
Several Bears fans in the stands wore Butkus' number 51, and one held up a hand-lettered cardboard sign that said, "Do It for 51."
Against all expectations, the Bears (a team that has a Catholic history of its own) dominated the first half, eventually ... well, we'll get back to that in a bit.
Father Vince Offers a Personal Remembrance of Butkus
Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., is a lifelong Bears fan -- and frequently celebrates Mass for both NFL and MLB teams. Knowing Butkus was getting on in years, he already had thoughts about an obituary.
Here it is:
A Childhood Spent With Da Bears
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1980s, Bears fandom came naturally. The 1985 version went on to become one of the greatest and most memorable single-season teams of all-time.
The team comprised a stifling defense, a GOAT running back in Walter Payton, and punky QB Jim McMahon. Their bravado culminated in recording the Super Bowl Shuffle, a rap video boasting of their Super Bowl exploits prior to their eventual drubbing of the New England Patriots 46-10.
I could probably rattle off their entire starting defense that championship year, but I will spare you that in this blog.
Not particular to the Bears is the hearing the oral history of your city’s players whose careers concluded before you were born. For me and the Bears, that was Mike Ditka and Dick Butkus. I never saw them play. But my late father sure did.
Mike Ditka was arguably the Bears' top offensive weapon in the early 60s. He went on to coach those legendary teams from the '80s and early '90s. My dad had an even greater appreciation for Dick Butkus, mentioning his ferocious presence on defense.
I couldn’t argue with him, even the briefest of clips from his career show him to be one intimidating dude. For all the video-game offenses of the modern period, give me your shutdown defenses any day. Recent Baltimore Ravens squads and the Seatle Seahawks' “Legion of Boom” come to mind.
Meeting Mr. and Mrs. Butkus at Mass
Several years ago, I celebrated a Vigil Mass at our Lady of Malibu for a priest-pastor friend of mine who was on vacation. After Mass, I was approached by Dick Butkus and his wife Helen, who I later learned was his high-school sweetheart.
He did not presume I knew who he was, but it was pretty evident I recognized him, stating the Bears were my favorite team and football being a generation thing, I heard the stories of his prowess on the gridiron. Surprisingly, he wanted to know more about me and my journey to priesthood.
Finding my words, I mentioned discovering my vocation at the University of Notre Dame and entered the Congregation of Holy Cross after a few years in the corporate world. ND was a modest connection for us.
He had wanted to play for the Irish, but ironically enough, they did not have married undergraduate housing at the time. He went on to a storied career at the University of Illinois and the rest, they say, is history.
Telling Stories as an NFL Chaplain
As a chaplain to NFL teams, I try to use storytelling (as I do in the parish) with the players, coaches, and staff I work with.
Being regaled at the athletic feats of those who came before me contributed to my staying connected to a sports league for nearly 40 years now. I think something similar is true about faith. After all, Our Lord used stories, many of whom did not have an overtly religious component to them.
And One More Story About Butkus
I’ll always remember my brief encounter with Dick Butkus, and how he took a sincere interest in my journey to priesthood. I’ll continue to tell that story about him…and another one.
At the end of that same Vigil Mass, after praying the Prayer after Communion, out of habit, I turned to the cantor asking if there were any closing announcements. She whispered that they don’t do announcements at their parish, as congregants just know to check the bulletin.
In a hot mic moment, I responded: “Oh, praise the Lord.” It got quite the laugh out of the gathered assembly, with Dick and his wife among those smiling.
Oh, and that Thursday Night Football game?
Da Bears won, 40-20.
Below, sportswriter, commentator and Chicago native Michael Wilbon remembers Butkus on ESPN:
Image: Chicago Bears helmet/Shutterstock
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.