The passing of football icon Dick Butkus was just announced, via a public statement from his family.
“The Butkus family confirms that football and entertainment legend Dick Butkus died peacefully in his sleep overnight at home in Malibu, California,” the statement reads.
“The Butkus family is gathering with Dick’s wife Helen. They appreciate your prayers and support. Additional information will be provided when it is available.”
— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) October 5, 2023
He was 80. To honor the memory of Dick Butkus, we now re-publish this exclusive that we had with him in the summer of 2017; in three parts. Below is part one.
Football legend Dick Butkus has a cause in which he deeply believes- keeping the next generation of athletes from resorting to illegal steroids and dangerous performance enhancing products.
Butkus and his son Matt formed the I PLAY CLEAN program in 2006, in order to educate and encourage high school students to make the choice of playing clean.
While steroid usage has been a major problem in young males for quite some time (and continues to be today), the program’s research has shown that the biggest recent increase is in female athletes.
We had an exclusive conversation with Dick Butkus ahead of the inaugural Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame Gala, and ‘roids was one of the many topics discussed.
At times, Butkus and the other program workers use humor to accomplish their mission. Butkus conveyed the issue through the lens of a young male athlete, concerned about steroid side effects in young females:
“I see this cheerleader in high school and she’s flipping all over, and she’s cut, and she’s jumping all over and I’m dying to ask her out, but I got to know if she shaved off her mustache before she put her make up on? Cuz that’s what happens.” he joked.
Of course, the side effects of PEDs are no laughing matter, but with such a small staff, you do whatever it takes to get your point across to people.
Butkus continued, switching his focus to the negative side effects for males:
“And that’s kind of the way we approach it, we don’t pull the skull and bones. We just say hey, you want to grow breasts? Fine, take steroids, cuz it will do it!”
The 74-year-old Butkus tells it like it is, and he has every right to do so.
He’s certainly earned it.
The Dick Butkus Award (which is bestowed upon the best overall linebacker in the nation, at both the high school and college level) was started in order to inspire kids to play the game clean. He asks high school and college kids to take a pledge to play without PEDs.
And if they don’t?
“Well then it gets into a character issue,” he said, before explaining the difficulty he has in trying to rally up support and donations to his cause.
“You know it’s weird. We don’t have too many people knocking down our door to support anti-steroid stuff, believe it or not. It’s difficult to raise funds for that; if you don’t have a kid (playing sports), you don’t want to be involved.”
It’s more than just a struggle at the grassroots level, as the Chicago Bears icon has also seen his pleas go ignored by National Football League higher-ups as well.
“I brought the steroid issue up to them and they didn’t want to touch it,” Butkus said.
Steroids are just one of the serious health crises that pose a severe, long-term threat to the game of football. Knowing all that we know today, Butkus doesn’t believe children should play tackle football at the Pop Warner level.
“Only because of the coaching, you get these disgruntled guys that thought they should be in the pros,” he said.
“And they’re going to teach my kid how to do it? You get so much of that, it’s unbelievable!”
His grandson, Ian Parish, was a 6-foot-9 star defensive end at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, but then Grandpa showed his mother the Will Smith movie Concussion “and that was it,” football career over, and Butkus was admittedly glad.
Parish switched his focus to volleyball, and he’ll be a middle blocker at UCLA next season.
“I said you’re better off – stick to volleyball!” he summated.
When Dick Butkus himself is happy to see a family member leave the game of football, it speaks volumes about the longer-term viability of the sport. The concussion crisis is going to be a game-changer, both literally and figuratively.
“The rules are going to keep changing, it’s never going to be the same; and whether that’s good or not, I don’t really care,” the member of the inaugural Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame class stated.
So can the gridiron game that we all know and love be maintained in the long term? At least in its current form?
“No, how can you! It’s going to be touch for Christ sake!”
“Not as we know it, it’s not as we know it from when I played and that’s not all that long ago. They don’t even have to practice, and then they wonder why guys get hurt”
With all the absurd amounts of money involved, football isn’t going away any time soon, and the powers that be will keep making changes in order to preserve it.
Eventually, the concussion crisis could become so severe that one day the only kids willing to play the game will be those with an unfortunate lot in life, and no other way but playing the game in order to escape it.
There are, of course, powerful people out there trying to balance preservation of the game in its current form with a heightened awareness of the health risks.
Dick Butkus discussed what Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll has been working on. It’s teaching a rugby style tackling technique that’s all shoulders, with no head involved.
Leading with the helmet is a maneuver that’s about as dangerous as it gets in football, and in Seattle, they’re preaching not to use the head at all, even in blocking.
“They feel kind of confident, because they were noticing a lot of parents pulling their kids out of football; and they’re trying to give them some kind of assurances that if you’re taught the right way- you’re not going to be all that susceptible to concussions,” Butkus articulated.
There are serious questions hovering over the game; and unless well thought out, comprehensive solutions are found, the game could eventually succumb to these issues.
It will likely all play out in the next generation.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.