Former Chicago Bears linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer Dick Butkus has died at the age of 80, the team announced Thursday.
Butkus died “peacefully in his sleep overnight at home in Malibu,” California, a statement from his family, posted by the Bears on social media, reads.
“The Butkus family is gathering with Dick’s wife, Helen. They appreciate your prayers and support,” the family’s statement reads.
Butkus, a Chicago native, was “the ultimate Bear, and one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Chicago Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said.
“He was Chicago’s son,” McCaskey said. “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.”
News of Butkus’ death spread more than an hour before the Bears started a Thursday night game against the Washington Commanders. The teams and fans observed a moment of silence before the game at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
A ferocious hitter drafted out of the University of Illinois, Butkus was an imposing force as the Bears’ middle linebacker for all nine of his NFL seasons in the 1960s and 1970s, and made eight Pro Bowls.
Butkus thought his intensity on the field was simply how the game should be played, according to an article on the Bears’ website.
“I thought that was the way that everybody should have played, but I guess they didn’t because they were claiming that I had a special way of playing,” he said when asked about his ferocity, according to the article.
He retired at age 31 after playing part of the 1973 season, a few years after suffering a serious knee injury, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year eligible. Butkus was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
In 1985, the Butkus Award was founded and given to the top linebacker at the professional, collegiate and high school levels.
The Bears retired Butkus’ No. 51 jersey in 1994. Butkus was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Teams – selected by a Hall of Fame committee – for both decades he played, and was voted to the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
Butkus ended his career with 1,020 tackles and 22 interceptions, ESPN reported.
Butkus ventured into acting and announcing after his retirement from the Bears, appearing in dozens of television shows and movies – many alongside former NFL defensive player Bubba Smith, according to the Bears’ website.
The former athlete had roles on shows including “MacGyver,” “Hang Time,” “Half Nelson,” “Blue Thunder” and “My Two Dads.” Butkus starred with Smith in a series of Miller Lite ads and he appeared on the silver screen in films such as “Any Given Sunday,” “The Longest Yard” and “Necessary Roughness.”
Butkus also served as the Bears’ radio announcer for several years and was a panelist on “The NFL Today” pregame show on CBS.
Richard Marvin “Dick” Butkus, a Chicago native, was born December 9, 1942, in the city’s south-side Fernwood neighborhood, according to a biography on his website.
Butkus was the youngest of nine children and came from a blue-collar family of Lithuanian descent.
He began envisioning his future as a professional football player by the fifth grade, the biography reads.
“I worked hard at becoming one, just like society says you should,” Butkus said, according to his website. “It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough.”
The athlete showcased his football skills at Chicago Vocational High School and the University of Illinois before being selected with the third pick in the 1965 NFL Draft, according to the Bears’ website.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remembered Butkus as “a fierce and passionate competitor” on Thursday.
“Dick’s intuition, toughness and athleticism made him the model linebacker whose name will forever be linked to the position and the Chicago Bears,” Goodell said.