URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Former Illini football players are reflecting on the life and legacy of national football icon Dick Butkus following his passing on Thursday.
Butkus was a two-time All-American, eight-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. An enshrinee of both the Pro Football and Illinois Athletics Halls of Fame, he was a U of I campus legend in the early 60s, perhaps the most fearsome of the Monsters of the Midway in Chicago from 1965 to 1973, and one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game.
The weight of Butkus’ passing is being felt all around the country. Former players and teammates highlighted the joy he brought to others — and not-so-fond memories he leaves behind.
“To say an interaction with Dick Butkus was a favorite… You mean most painful?” former Illinois teammate John Wright joked.
As the sports world grapples with the loss of Butkus, people are reminded of the impact — both physically and emotionally — that the Hall of Fame linebacker is leaving behind.
Just ask Wright, whose first interaction with Butkus came during his freshman year in 1964 when he got invited to practice with the varsity squad.
“I didn’t realize Butkus was the center. Butkus cuts off contain, actually probably flew five to 10 feet in the air when he hit me,” Wright said. “And they all thought that was a big deal. They were laughing.”
“And Pete [Elliott] said, ‘Let’s do that one more time,’ and I said, ‘Okay, coach, okay,'” Wright said. “Well, I didn’t get to the quarterback, Butkus didn’t get to me. That was my introduction: ‘John, this is Dick Butkus. Welcome to the Fighting Illini.'”
Juice Williams was a four-year starting quarterback at Illinois from 2006 to 2009, and he followed in Butkus’ footsteps as a Chicago Vocational High School star-turned Fighting Illini. He said the legacy No. 50 leaves on campus has been and continues to be larger than life.
“He will forever be a monument, right? He will forever be a name that’s associated with greatness, associated with success, tenacity, being fearless,” Williams said. “And really just going after what he believed in, and enjoying it at the same time.”
The Monster of the Midway believed in instilling fear in opponents on the field, and showing love, character and compassion in his community.
“I think he was a guy of great character. When he said he was going to do something, he did it,” Wright said. “And a lot of that was tackling the opposing runningbacks, or quarterbacks, or whoever, or receivers, anyone who got in his way.”
The Fighitng Illini honored Butkus with several tributes on social media and in other visible ways. Alma Mater was adorned with a No. 50 jersey on Friday and fans were invited to place flowers on his statue outside the Smith Football Center near Memorial Stadium.
During Friday night’s game against Nebraska, a moment of silence was held during the Marching Illini’s pregame show and the Illini took the field wearing decals on their helmets depicting the helmet Butkus wore during his college days. The two 50s at midfield were outlined in orange and the scoreboard frequently showed photos and videos of Butkus throughout the years.