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Butkus put the fight in the Illini

January 01, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Ask him about the time he got kicked out of the dorms for a semester, and Dick Butkus ponders a moment.

"I think it was because I brought a lamb up to the room," he says. "It might have been something else."

A lamb?

"I was telling everybody, 'You watch, this thing goes right into the corner,' " he explains. "You put him in the middle of the room and he'd go stand in the corner."

Forty-four years have scrambled by since Butkus was a college kid raising hell -- early 1960s style, lambs and all -- and helping transform woeful Illinois into a Rose Bowl team.

That was before he became a Monster of the Midway, an icon at middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Before he pitched light beer on television.

With the Fighting Illini back in Pasadena to face USC, Butkus finds himself sitting in a Malibu restaurant not far from his home, talking about the good old days, dressed in an Illinois shirt and cap of startling orange.

"I take real pride in how well they're doing," he says. "People don't understand how difficult it is to win there."

After all this time, Butkus remains the real thing. Big and gruff and friendly with a rasping laugh. Not so hard to picture him as a high school phenom from Chicago, sifting through college offers.

Miami screwed up by assigning "a real jerk, a hot dog player" to show him around. Florida State took him to a frat party and he thought: "This isn't what I'm here for . . . I'm here for football." Notre Dame just didn't feel right.

"None of them was my answer," he said. "It was, of all places, Illinois."

A state university set among corn and soybean fields, two hours and a world away from his South Side neighborhood. The football program was awful.

"I had no clue if we were going to win," he recalls. "I just liked the coaches. I liked the small town thing."

Freshmen couldn't play then, so Butkus and a few other blue-chip recruits watched the hapless varsity go 0-9. When they finally got on the field as sophomores, the team stumbled to a 2-7 record.

Didn't matter. The young guys figured things had to improve. Meantime, Butkus was having fun, a city kid teaching his Peoria roommate some tricks.

"I feel like a pizza," he'd say.

"We don't have any money."

"Don't worry."

Order a pizza for your dorm and one for next door. When the deliveryman walks into the other building, sneak out to the car and snatch dinner.

"Then I got caught one day," Butkus says. "We were eating pizza by the window and the guy called the cops."

Football-wise, everything changed in the summer of 1963. When the Illini arrived in camp, coaches ran them through two-a-days followed by sprints like they were a track team. One assistant, a former Marine, "had us doing this Marine crap," Butkus recalls.

"When I look back," he says, "we just out-conditioned everybody."

By that time, the junior linebacker showed definite indications of stardom. Speed and smarts. An all-consuming passion that bordered on malice. Raw emotion distilled into each furious tackle.

The Illini went undefeated through six games and, after a slip against Michigan, won two more. Not until the final weeks of the season did the players realize they were headed for the Rose Bowl.

It was a big enough deal that Butkus brought his father and mother to Pasadena by train.

"The old man got shingles because he was all nervous," he recalls. "He just couldn't believe it seeing oranges on trees in December."

The thing is, all this week, reporters have been asking the current Illinois players if they are content simply to reach a bowl game, if there is a chance of easing up.

Talk to Butkus about that.

He hated standing beside the other team, Washington, at Disneyland a few days before the game.

"We were going to play against these people," he says with a disgust that transcends the decades.

When kickoff came around, his coach made an unorthodox request of the defense.

"The first play, when they come up to the line of scrimmage, everybody take a pop at the guy across from you," Butkus recalls Coach Pete Elliott saying. "Jump offside and crack everybody, let them know we're playing."

It worked out even better than that. Washington lined up and ran a play so quickly that Illinois ended up timing the snap perfectly.

"We smacked 'em," Butkus says. "No penalty."

The Illini trailed for much of the game, until the defense clamped down in the second half.

Sophomore running back Jim Grabowski rushed for 125 yards and Butkus ended Washington's final drive with an interception as Illinois won, 17-7.

"We were supposed to be the fat, slow Big Ten team," Butkus says. "After the game, some of the guys took laps around the field. I didn't. I was dead."

There was so much more to come. Another season at Illinois and a third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting. A Hall of Fame career with the Bears. Those Miller Lite commercials with Bubba Smith.

These days, Butkus spends his time educating young athletes about steroid abuse, playing golf and working on a screenplay about his youth.

"Sometimes I think, if not for football, what would I be doing?" he says. "Maybe I'd be just like everybody else in the neighborhood, just end up getting a job and working because you have to.

"I wouldn't have gone to college," he says. "Wouldn't have been able to."

Forty-four years after the 1964 Rose Bowl, he stands on a practice field, that orange cap tugged down against a chilly afternoon. The current Illinois players gather around.

He tells them to play hard, give it all they've got against USC today. He says this is a game they will remember as long as they live.

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