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Illinois legend Dick Butkus dies at 80: Former linebacker’s name is synonymous with excellence at his position

Butkus redefined linebacker play at the college level during his time at Illinois

            Dean Straka

By Dean Straka of cbs sports.com

Michigan v Illinois

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The football community lost an icon Thursday when Dick Butkus died at the age of 80. Butkus was best known for his Hall of Fame career as a linebacker for the NFL’s Chicago Bears from 1965-73, but his legacy is not limited to professional football. Butkus’ legendary career at Illinois earned him a place in the College Football Hall of Fame. His name is so synonymous with excellence that the award presented to college football’s best linebacker every year bears his name. 

“I am saddened to learn of the passing of Dick Butkus, the greatest linebacker in football history,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said in a press release. “As the head coach of his alma mater that he loved, I had the great honor to meet Dick, one of my childhood idols, last September. He was an amazing person, as well as football player, and a loyal Illini. Dick embodied everything that Illinois football has represented in the past and what we look to represent into the future. His deep love for Illinois football will be honored and remembered forever.”

A Chicago native, Butkus attended Illinois in the early-to-mid 1960s, playing center and middle linebacker for the Fighting Illini from 1962-64. His impact for the Illinois program was immediate. Butkus was an All-Big Ten selection his first year. While the team finished 2-7 that fall, far more success for both Butkus and the program as a whole was on the horizon. 

“Dick Butkus was a giant in a land of giants,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a release. “In a game built on toughness and tenacity, he stood alone. One of the most imposing figures to ever wear a helmet, away from the field, Dick was self-effacing, humble, and generous. A cultural icon, Dick leaves a legacy on Americana that will never be forgotten.”

The 1963 season saw Illinois compile an 8-1-1 overall record, capturing the Big Ten championship and ending the season with a Rose Bowl victory against Washington for a No. 3 finish in the AP rankings. Butkus was the star of the show for the Illini defense that season, winning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and Unanimous All-American honors. In 1964 Butkus finished third in Heisman voting and was named a Consensus All American as Illinois finished 6-3  and ranked No. 16.

“Our University is better, our game is better, and our country is better, all because we were graced by the presence of one Dick Butkus,” Whitman said.

For his Illinois career, Butkus totaled 347 tackles. His 145 tackles in 1963 stood as a school record until 1976. Butkus also toppled the century-mark in 1964, registering 132 total tackles before he went No. 3 overall in the 1965 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears. Butkus’ No. 50 was retired by the university in 1986 before he was named to the Walter Camp Foundation All-Century team in 1989. Additionally, Butkus is a member of the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame.

By going on to play exclusively for Chicago in the NFL, Butkus was able to spend his entire football playing career within his native Illinois. In his nine-year NFL tenure, Butkus totaled 1,020 tackles, 22 interceptions and 25 fumble recoveries. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.