Whenever anyone asks my opinion on the greatest football player of all time, my answer is always the same and almost always surprising.
This rarely fails to raise eyebrows, because the football players usually mentioned as the greatest–Red Grange, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Dan Marino, Walter Payton (who to my way of thinking is the only other possible choice)–are offensive players, with statistics that can be rattled off and compared against each other. Butkus was the most ferocious defensive player I ever saw or hope to see. Football, of course, is half defense, but it’s half defense like no other team sport. Since the 60s, defensive players have played defense and offensive players offense with little overlap, and so there are specialists on both sides of the ball, even though most statistics measure offensive accomplishments. Butkus, in my opinion–and with the absence of stats, opinion becomes all that matters–lords over all other defensive players in a way that can’t be said of any one offensive player.
This all comes to mind because Butkus has been in town recently promoting his autobiography, Butkus: Flesh and Blood. It’s his second book, but the first, Stop Action, which dates from his playing days, was a sort of week-in-the-life along the lines of Vince Lombardi’s Run to Daylight. Flesh and Blood is a surprisingly fluid read; in fact, when he writes about almost flunking out of freshman rhetoric at the University of Illinois and hails a certain Miss Watt for improving his prose, one would be tempted to nominate this Miss Watt for a Nobel in literature if journalist Pat Smith weren’t given such prominent credit as cowriter. In short, the writing appears to be mostly Smith’s, and as the book advances through Butkus’s playing days it seems to rely less and less on his memories and more and more on newspaper clippings. His family life is given short shrift, and it comes as something of a surprise when his wife, Helen, gives birth to their third child more than halfway through the book after nary a mention of the first two. But Flesh and Blood is worthwhile for Butkus’s version of his rough-and-tumble childhood on the south side; for the inside story of his battles with George Halas and “Needles”–team physician Theodore Fox; and, most of all, for the theories behind his intensity, his concentration on the tiniest details of his opponents–their looks, their body language–and his conscious use of intimidation on the field.
What’s surprising about Flesh and Blood is Butkus’s apparently sincere discomfort with his current status as a legend. After his playing days, he writes, “the stories of my exploits on the field began to grow and take on a life of their own. Friends of mine would ask about things that occurred during my playing days, things that seemed absolutely preposterous….
This garbage has mixed with the true accounts of my football life, and it has all grown into this larger-than-life reputation I have no control over. Now I am constantly being referred to as a ‘legend,’ even though I wonder if I warrant such a title. Webster’s New Unabridged Dictionary defines legend as a story coming down from the past, especially one popularly regarded as historical but not verifiable. When I think about it that way, with all those false stories about me floating around, I guess I qualify after all.”
Permit me to tell a couple of stories about Butkus. The first comes from the ignoble season of 1969, when the Bears went 1-13. My father took me to see the Bears play the Los Angeles Rams on October 26; it must have been a gift for my tenth birthday. We drove up to Wrigley Field with a buddy of his, all three of us squeezed into the buddy’s Triumph, me in the backseat, all of us talking about whether the Bears would finally win one after opening 0-5. (Turned out they would beat only the Pittsburgh Steelers that season, and the Steelers, likewise finishing 1-13, would win a coin flip for the rights to Terry Bradshaw.) We had seats in the temporary bleachers set up in front of the right-field wall–bleachers that would be moved along with the Bears to Soldier Field in 1971 before being ruled unsafe and replaced with permanent seats ten years later–and I can still remember the thrill of actually setting foot in Wrigley’s right field. Those seats gave Wrigley an inflated capacity, and 45,985 saw the game in person that day. I am helped by a source I will soon reveal in recalling much of the numerical trivia, but I need no help with my sharpest memory. The Rams’ Les Josephson ran a sweep to the left, straight at us, Butkus in pursuit along the line of scrimmage. The two lines fought to a standstill, and Butkus and Josephson met one-on-one, both lowering their heads. The Rams, as today, had horns painted on the sides of their helmets, and Butkus and Josephson collided with a “crack!” that echoed off the grandstand and the facing houses on Sheffield as if they were two bighorn sheep meeting at the bottom of some deeply resonant canyon.
That, my friend, was football, and it seems to me that when I’m deeply into a game, clenching my muscles subconsciously with the contact on TV, what I remember most is the way it felt to see Butkus close on Josephson, a sound and feeling better than one had a right to anticipate. It was football on a visceral level; nobody played it like Butkus and–more important–no other player was ever as good at bringing a fan to that state of sensation. Concentrating on Butkus, watching him leap blockers in his early days or simply push them to the ground later on, watching him roam sideline to sideline or drift back in pass coverage (five interceptions in his rookie year of 1965, before knee injuries limited his range) with that grizzly build of his, all broad shoulders tapering to a deceptively thin waist, a fan was plunged into the game. It’s a special athlete who enables a fan to project himself into his place.
One more Butkus moment: It was almost exactly three years later, and again my father and I were sitting in those same temporary bleachers, though this time at Soldier Field along with 55,699 other fans. Butkus was the blocker lined up behind the line of scrimmage between the center and the punter on fourth down. The ball was hiked directly to him on a designed fake. Butkus headed through a big hole off tackle and rumbled 28 yards for a first down, carrying several Detroit Lions the last few steps. The Bears went on to lose, 38-24, but my last great memory of Butkus had been set in place. A knee injury would drag him down and force his retirement the following season.
Oddly enough, in Flesh and Blood Butkus recalls a similar fake-punt play run by Doug Buffone a few seasons earlier but not his own run against the Lions, though it was the only rushing attempt of his career. I know that it was his only rush and that it went for 28 yards from consulting the new Total Football, the long-overdue attempt to collect all NFL statistics into a single volume.
There have been previous attempts at compiling a National Football League encyclopedia, but none this successful. Total Football is a sibling publication of Total Baseball, which has usurped the Baseball Encyclopedia as the best stats reference in that sport, and it is compiled by Total Baseball editors John Thorn and David Neft along with football stats experts Bob Carroll and Michael Gershman and, of course, the Elias Sports Bureau. Like Total Baseball, it is not just a compendium of stats but also includes essays on the game’s history and the like from various contributors. Though there are no rain delays in football, like Total Baseball it is a great rain-delay book, a time-waster full of trivia such as the entry on the one football game played at Chicago Stadium. That was on December 18, 1932, when the Bears’ scheduled contest against the Portsmouth Spartans was forced indoors by a blizzard. The field, the entry says, was supposed to be 80 yards but actually measured more like 67, and was set up on the dirt floor left behind by the circus, which evidently even then was making an annual late-November stop at the Stadium. “According to the late Joe Kopcha, who played in the game,” reads the entry, “the most distinctive aspect of the game was the aroma of elephant dung, also a remnant of the circus.”
Yet if Total Football is an excellent collection, it also displays the limitations of football statistics, which have traditionally done a poor job of representing the work of defensive players and offensive linemen. Butkus’s entry lists only his basic history (Chicago Vocational High School, University of Illinois, a first-round pick of the Bears in 1965, and a Hall of Famer in 1979), as well as his occasional kick returns (he typically manned the block wedge and returned short kickoffs), the 28-yard carry in 1972, and his games played and interception totals for every season. Though Pat Smith cites Butkus’s tackle totals from various games, Total Football makes no attempt to gather those figures for his career. Nor does it do so for any other defensive player, though more recent defensive players do have their sack totals listed. Worse, a player like Jimbo Covert, an essential part of the 80s Bears and one of the greatest offensive tackles in NFL history, gets an entry with the same basic school information and then just a list of his years and the number of games he played each season. That is woefully insufficient. Elsewhere there is a list of the annual all-pro teams as well as an extended piece on the 300 greatest players in NFL history (Covert doesn’t make the cut, though Dan Dierdorf does), but no attempt is made to put that information in an individual player’s entry.
So there is work to be done. Total Football, like the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969, is a starting place. One hopes the editors will try to find ways to give defensive players and offensive linemen their due, so that the greats in those specialties can stand alongside Unitas and Montana and Marino and Brown and Payton. Even including recognition on the annual John Madden team–perhaps the highest honor an offensive lineman can receive these days–would help to correct this bias.
For now, however, Total Football serves in many instances to supply the concrete facts behind the legends of the sport, to verify the stories, such as the not-to-be-forgotten detail that on a September day in 1972 Dick Butkus rushed for 28 yards, dragging several members of the Detroit Lions along the way. In the words of Walt Whitman: I am the man, I suffered, I was there.