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Jim Murray

He Has Had to Endure Many Blows

January 28, 1988|Jim Murray

SAN DIEGO — A radio announcer said his helmet looked like a used car. Someone else thought it looked more like a condemned building or a short stretch of bad road.

Dave Butz himself looks like an abandoned pillbox that was well used in the war. But if you saw only his helmet, you would know that what Dave Butz does for a living is (a) dark, (b) dirty, (c) dangerous. And that not everyone in the world would want to do it.

It doesn't look like it, but Dave Butz gets issued a new helmet every year. He has to. Because by the end of the season, his old one no longer meets the safety standards of the National Football League which are just slightly above those of a Japanese kamikaze pilot.

His helmet is in the position where one more blow to it could probably produce a subdural hemorrhage, split personality and, doubtless, permanent impairment in his hearing--or all three of the above.

Butz's helmet is so bad, it has to be touched up periodically during the season with fresh paint, like a tank that needs re-camouflaging after a direct hit.

Butz retires his helmets at the end of every season. He arranges them in neat rows, like mothballed ships, in his trophy room. During the season, he has to hide them from the Board of Health, the National Safety Council and Ralph Nader.

The Redskins have a portrait of a plains Indian on the sides of their helmets. By the fourth quarter, Butz's Indian looks more like Custer. Or the loser in a bar fight. When the Denver Broncos say that, to beat the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, they first have to kick their Butz, they mean the man not the anatomy.

Butz's helmet takes a pounding because the man in it usually does. He draws a crowd of hostiles, like an ant at a family picnic.

The Washington Redskins are one of the few teams in pro football to still employ the four-man defensive front. They are able to do this because they do not have the manic fear of the forward pass that infests most coaching staffs. Their reasoning is that no one can throw the football successfully with his arm in Dave Butz's mouth.

The first look you get at Dave Butz, you're glad you only have to play football against him. Actually, with Butz, the Redskins don't have a front four, they have a front five. Or six. Butz is so configurated--somewhere between 6 and 7 feet tall and closer to the latter, somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds--if he were rolling down I-5, they'd make him stop at the truck weigh station. Also put a horn on. His shoes are so wide--7E--that they look like something you'd transport Japanese automobiles in.

Dave Butz will probably spend more time in the Denver backfield Sunday than John Elway. You can't miss him out there. It's either Butz or the Washington Monument, the two most prominent edifices in the nation's capital.

Butz is the nephew of Earl Butz, the former secretary of agriculture, which makes Dave the only member of the family famous for putting other people's feet in his mouth.

Butz has been around so long, people not only ask him what it was like to tackle Red Grange but whether the forward pass was legal when he started to play and if Calvin Coolidge liked football. But, actually, Butz has only been playing since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. As vice president.

In fact, Dave Butz was almost a Johnny-come-lately on the Redskins, football's version of the old folks' home. The Redskins were not a team, they were an old-boy network, as exclusive a club as the U.S. Senate, and they didn't trust anybody who had his own teeth and hair.

The Redskins at the time were coached by George Allen, who regarded draft choices about the way a sailor regards his shore leave pay--something to get rid of and in general circulation immediately, and George wanted Butz so badly he started to deal off draft picks like confetti, telling the St. Louis Cardinals, who owned Dave to "Say when!"

Even though the Cardinals extracted two firsts and one second-round pick for him, Dave never forgave them. He says with satisfaction: "The Cardinals have only beaten us three times in the 13 years I've been here."

Even though he didn't come cheap, Butz was as hard put to find acceptance around Washington as a Soviet ambassador.

"They had the Over-the-Hill Gang then and they were as clannish as Swiss bankers," remembers Butz. "George (Allen) used to pull you out of games if you made one mistake. It was hard to redeem yourself. If your foot slipped, you were out of there."

It wasn't long, though, before Butz was a full-fledged member of the old-boy network and today there are people who think Dave Butz is so much a part of the local scene that he should hang in the Smithsonian, properly identified so people won't think he's the Spirit of St. Louis.

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