The meanest, the toughest, the hardest-hitting man in the game: that was Dick Butkus in his fire-breathing prime. For close to a decade he was the punishing middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears—a glowering symbol of pro football’s violence. Now, suddenly, bitterly, the 31-year-old Butkus is on the verge of retirement, a symbol of another sort, unable to play and barely able to walk. Bones in his right leg are twisted grotesquely, and his knee may be damaged beyond repair.
Knee injuries are endemic to football, of course, and have ruined many careers before Butkus’s. One of his Chicago teammates, running back Gale Sayers, gave up the game after torn ligaments left his knee flapping like a loose hinge. And New York superstar quarterback Joe Namath has limped through several painful, uncertain seasons on knees scarred and swollen by surgery. Yet most damaged players have accepted their injuries and retired without raising a protest. But Dick Butkus is not going quietly. Feeling betrayed by the Bears and their crusty, parsimonious owner George Halas, he is demanding the team pay his $105,000-a-year salary for the remaining four years of his contract—and is prepared to sue them, if necessary. What infuriates him, says Butkus, is that the Bears pressured him to play when they knew he was injured, then accused him of goldbricking when the pain grew intolerable.
It was in 1970, in a game against the New York Giants, that Butkus was hit and his knee started wobbling. He was operated on the following year by Bear team physician Dr. Theodore Fox, but never again played a game free of pain. Consulting with an independent orthopedic surgeon last September, Butkus was firmly discouraged from returning to football. Although he was unable to practice with the team and suited up only for games, Butkus nonetheless continued to play. Finally, in a game against Kansas City, he was hurt again and disabled for good. Strangely, the Bears refused to authorize surgery. “It was like they wouldn’t believe me,” he says in wonderment. “They didn’t believe I was in pain.”
Leery of being treated by Dr. Fox, who he says had assured him he was not badly hurt, Butkus preferred to consult outside specialists. He was told he needed surgery soon if the knee was to regain its mobility. The Bears, however, were discouraging. If he had an operation, they told Butkus, and was later unable to play, they would not be bound to honor his contract. Now, belatedly, the team has softened its stand, but insists it won’t pay Butkus “for nothing.” If he wants a salary, they say, he must accept an off-field job. One possibility, ironically, would be the position of “goodwill ambassador,” demanding a commodity Butkus no longer possesses. “People in other professions make their own decisions about their health,” he says bitterly. “But in football they govern your destiny. Now I’ve got to look to the future.” For the moment, at least, that includes no escape from pain. “He never tells you about it,” says his petite wife Helen, “but, oh, to see him try to run with the kids!”