One of the first non-natives to land here in what would become Chicago was a French explorer named Robert Cavalier, sieur de la Salle, who said: “The typical man who will grow up here will be an enterprising man. Every day when he gets up he will shout: ‘Movement ‘I move, I move, I push.’ “
Dick Butku was not a typical man, but how easy it is to imagine him standing up every football game day and saying, “I move, I push, I bite.”
Butkus’ death triggers grief and brings back memories so vividly that one can almost hear the thumping of pillows, the grunts of hard tackles and the groans of sacks. This causes many people to think about not only the man, but also the image.
There are many people who helped define the city. For all the kind and talented creatures who shaped Chicago (among them Myra Bradwell, Jane Addams, Daniel Burnham, Ernie Banks, and Michael Jordan), it was always the less-than-kind souls who gave the city its most vibrant character.
Many Chicagoans still like to think of it as a rough-and-tumble town. Carl Sandburg, they say, got it exactly right when he called the city “lively, rough, strong and cunning” and endowed it with the oft-quoted “big shoulders.”
And for a certain generation the shoulders were Butku’s shoulders.
The home stands at Soldier Field may now be filled with more tech geeks than “Grabowskis”; “Some teams are fair,” then-coach Mike Ditka labeled the Bears a few weeks before their 1986 Super Bowl victory. haired. Some are not. Some teams are Smith, some are Grabowski. … We are a Grabowski.”
And Butkus was a Butkus, and Butkus was Chicago.
A child of Roseland, he embodied the work ethic of his generation in what was still a working man’s town and factories hummed. Find a good job and do it right. Marry your high school sweetheart and stay loyal to your city and family.
Others will produce the images, and Chicago’s image, though always shaped by varying degrees of violence, has always been our most fragile civic commodity. From the grisly massacres at Fort Dearborn and later on Valentine’s Day; From the horrors of Haymarket Square to current crime problems, the city has never reminded anyone of ancient Athens.
For decades, saying “I’m from Chicago” on foreign soil would result in imitation of machine gun fire.
We once had a mayor who threatened to punch the king of England in the nose, and until the OJ Simpson trial came along we had the “Crime of the Century” (thanks to Leopold and Loeb, homicidal academics at the University of Chicago).
If we were civilized, this was only on the surface.
I was lucky enough to watch Butkus in the intimate setting of Wrigley Field; In many dismal seasons, he and Gale Sayers were the only reason to watch games. But it was obviously violent.
I would later spend a lot of time with Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka, and poor Steve McMichael, writing cover stories about them for the Tribune magazine. They were all in Butku’s mold (they all admired him tremendously and called him a friend) and they were all tough guys. But below this surface, not so far below, were material, introspective and intelligent people. As McMichael told me when I asked about his nickname, “Mongo is a showman, baby. It’s a voice. This truth is a part of me, but it’s not even close to that big of a part. There were times when that Mongo voice got out of control and I got out of control. But there’s always been a method to my madness, baby, which isn’t madness at all.”
Towards the end of his playing career, Butkus was approached to write a book. He had the opportunity to choose among possible collaborators. He chose Robert Billings, a talented Chicago Daily News reporter and formidable athlete.
Billings and I played handball with his best friend, Mike Royko, and others. These two were also part of the “tough guy” crowd, and I would often pester Billings with questions about the “real” Dick Butkus. When he wasn’t telling me to “shut up” or “read the book again”, the stories he told me were about “much more than the guy you see on the field…much more.”
Image is a difficult thing to shake, and the image of the city has been stripped of some of the rough edges; It is not a place where Sandburg “takes pride in being lively, rough, strong and cunning.” The city softened. Chicago is no longer “a city of fighters,” as Nelson Algren wrote in his book “City on the Make.” Rahm Emanuel tried to play the tough guy and where did that get him?
But even so, and for all its pretensions as a world-class city, in some corners it’s not all that different from where Butkus was born and came of age.
The late Jeannie Morris was once married to Butkus’ teammate Johnny Morris, and she once said: “I was afraid of Dick Butkus, and he was on my team.”
A few years ago, Jeannie told me: “Football is a strange game, perhaps the most human of all sports because it is full of contradictions: complex and simple, malicious and artistic, vulgar and honorable. Like life at its most dazzling, football is all about risk.” Chicago is a Bears city, and I think the ‘city of big shoulders’ thing resonates. Chicagoans like tough mayors, too. And they love a good fight.
On game days, some venerable taverns are still crowded with ordinary people, some remind of the glory of the Super Bowl in the long past and have been alive with the stories of Dick Butku for the past few days.
Yes, it’s sad that he died, but didn’t we have him for so long?