CHICAGO (WCIA) — Illinois Fighting Illini and Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus has passed away.

His family said he died in his sleep overnight at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 80 years old.

Butkus is regarded as one of the best and most feared linebackers to ever play the game of football, and he played his entire career for teams in the State of Illinois. A native of Chicago, Butkus was a star at Chicago Vocational School before playing for the Illini from 1962 to 1964 under head coach Pete Elliott. He was a two-time All-American and three-time All-Big Ten selection. 1963 was a standout year for Butkus; he set a school record for tackles with 145, won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award, and led the Illini to the Big Ten Championship and a victory in the Rose Bowl. He finished sixth in Heisman voting that year and third the following season.

Butkus was drafted by his hometown Bears with the third-overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft. During a nine-year career, he was invited to eight Pro Bowls and was a six time All-Pro. He was recognized twice as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Butkus leaves behind a legacy in football that includes:

  • Enshrinement into the Pro (1979), College (1983) and Illinois Athletics (2017) Halls of Fame
  • No. 51 retired by the Bears
  • No. 50 retired by the Fighting Illini
  • Larger-than-life statue erected outside Smith Football Center (2019)
  • NFL 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams (1994 and 2019)
  • Sporting News College Coaches All-Time Team
  • Walter Camp Foundation All-Century (1989)
  • Big Ten Diamond Anniversary Team (1970)
  • University of Illinois All-Century Football Team (1990)
  • No. 10 player in NFL history (ranked by NFL Network in 2010)
  • No. 2 of the 100 Greatest Bears of All-Time (2019)
  • No. 8 of the 150 Greatest College Football players of all-time (2020)
  • No. 6 Big Ten Icon (named by Big Ten Network in 2010)
  • Named greatest middle linebacker ever by Sports Illustrated (2001)
  • Butkus Award given to top linebackers at high school, college and professional levels of football

Current Illinois head coach Bret Bielema and Director of Athletics Josh Whitman each released statements on Butkus’ passing:

I am saddened to learn of the passing of Dick Butkus, the greatest linebacker in football history.

As the head coach of his alma mater that he loved, I had the great honor to meet Dick, one of my childhood idols, last September. He was an amazing person, as well as football player, and a loyal Illini. 

Dick embodied everything that Illinois football has represented in the past and what we look to represent into the future. His deep love for Illinois football will be honored and remembered forever.

Bret Bielema

The Greatest Living Illini has left us.

Dick Butkus was a giant in a land of giants. In a game built on toughness and tenacity, he stood alone. One of the most imposing figures to ever wear a helmet, away from the field, Dick was self-effacing, humble, and generous. A cultural icon, Dick leaves a legacy on Americana that will never be forgotten.

On a personal note, the friendship I formed with Dick is something I will always cherish. I am so grateful for the time I was blessed to spend with him and for the many moments that we shared. I will never forget how touched he was when I told him he was the inaugural member of the newly formed Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame, or how emotional he became in learning that we were building a statue in his honor. Nor will I forget dedicating that statue – on a brittle, windy, rainy day that was tailor-made for a ceremony celebrating the toughest man in football.

We grieve for his loss. We take solace in the many wonderful gifts that Dick gave us, both on the gridiron and in the decades since he left it. On behalf of our entire Illini famILLy, we send our love and condolences to his wife, Helen, and the entire Butkus family, with a reminder that Dick Butkus may be gone, but his memory will live forever at the University of Illinois – a place that he permanently changed with his ferocious heart, his indomitable spirit, and his unshakable loyalty.

Our University is better, our game is better, and our country is better, all because we were graced by the presence of one Dick Butkus.

Rest well, my friend.

Josh Whitman