Play Mean but Play Clean

dick-butkus-coverWhat comes to mind for you when you hear the name Dick Butkus? Immediately, I think along the lines of the caption on this Sports Illustrated cover … “Dick Butkus of the Bears – The most feared man in the game (NFL Football)”. No doubt, many others (especially those of my generation) share that same first thought. And, there’s ample justification for that line of thinking. The 6 ft 3 in, 245 lb Butkus, was known as one of the most feared and intimidating linebackers during his nine years as a player for the Chicago Bears.

Next, you may think of Dick Butkus as a celebrity endorser and actor. That’s my next thought too. And, here too, there’s plenty of good reason for thinking that way. The “most feared man in the game” persona of this Pro Football Hall of Fame member has been very effective in promoting brand names, from his Miller Lite commercials with Bubba Smith  to his “I’m sorry, Dick Butkus” spots for FedEx. And, Butkus has had numerous roles on TV and in the movies. He was even the namesake for Rocky’s English Mastiff, in both the Rocky and Rocky II movies.

So, if you met him today, wouldn’t you expect to meet a somewhat older version of the Dick Butkus you’ve come to know about over the years? That is, an imposing figure who still lives in his hometown, Chicago, whose time is mostly spent enjoying the leisure activities of retirement, along with some dabbling in the worlds of sports and entertainment. That’s what I thought when my Wife, Ruth and I had the pleasure of meeting him recently at a MarriageTeam Tailgate Party & Auction. I will say that the qualities I expected to find in his makeup all seemed to be present and undiminished. However, I also got to start becoming acquainted with some dimensions of the man that were a pleasant surprise. One of these is a campaign he started, called Play Clean™. It’s a program that encourages teens to “train hard, eat well, and play with attitude”, instead of resorting to illegal steroids. His willingness to take this stand against steroids caused USA Today to comment that Butkus may have a greater impact on the game in his 60s (now 70s) than he did playing in his 20s.With Butkus at Tailgate

When Ruth and I introduced ourselves to Butkus, I first asked if he had just flown in from Chicago. As I said, I assumed he still lived in his hometown. Later, I learned that his home has been in Southern California for quite some time. Since that was our home for decades prior to moving to the Pacific Northwest and we didn’t recall him having a lot of visibility in that community, this came as a surprise to us. Based on the Los Angeles Times article entitled Waiting for Dick Butkus, it seems that he doesn’t go out of his way to find the limelight. Anyway, he responded to our question by letting us know he had just come up from Southern Oregon, where he had met with the OSU Football Team. Again, I made an incorrect assumption and asked if he had been there as a motivational speaker. And, again, he kindly corrected me by letting me know that he had been there to talk to the team about Play Clean™. In the course of the evening, we learned that Play Clean™ represents the commitment Butkus has made to tackle the problem of steroid abuse among young athletes. This was the result of a process that began while he was filming a reality show for ESPN, when he began to become aware of steroid use among teenagers. This included learning that more than a half-million teens had admitted to using steroids and that 85 percent of all teens had reported never receiving any education on steroids. I’m pleased to report that Butkus has been joined by more than 100 upper level athletes and thousands of teenage athletes, coaches and parents who have taken the Play Clean™ pledge “to train hard and take care of your body.” No doubt, Butkus connects with aspiring young athletes because his message is down to earth and he speaks with the authority of his success. During our evening together, he summed up that message by saying:

“There is a myth out there that somehow anabolic steroids can turn a cub into a bear. Steroids won’t make you tough and competitive. If you’re an oaf, steroids will only make you a bigger oaf. (And) they will … ruin your health. It’s that simple.”

For more details on Play Clean™, check out the News page on the Play Clean™ website.

Mr & Mrs ButkusLearning about the tie-in between Dick Butkus and the MarriageTeam Tailgate Party & Auction held some pleasant surprises for us too. Without getting too detailed, the practical side of this is that Ron Arp, a former Nautilus executive and resident of our community, is the Director of  Play Clean™. Ron is, also, involved with MarriageTeam, the locally based ministry founded by Al and Autumn Ray. The more human aspect of this is just that Dick Butkus highly values marriage and family and he wanted to make his celebrity available to be of benefit to MarriageTeam. However, I found the more interesting tie-in to be the marketing aspect. The number that Butkus wore as a player for the Chicago Bears was 51. This year, he and his Wife, Helen, are celebrating 51 years of marriage. So, the number 51 was a key element of the Tailgate Party & Auction … the price of tickets, the last two digits in suggested prices for auction items, etc. Of course, learning details about the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Butkus and their family was most meaningful. They met where they grew up, in a blue-collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. They have three children and I lost count of the grandchildren. Along the way, they have lived the ups and downs of life and their relationship as a  MarriageTeam. Their goals, as a MarriageTeam, have included: being each other’s friend and partner, supporting each other’s endeavors, serving as each other’s refuge, cherishing their union, always doing good for each other and above all, to love each other gently. At the end of his conversational interview on this, Butkus added a comment that showed his humor and again, reflected that he’s a down to earth guy when he looked at the handout listing the couple’s Marriage Insights and he said, “Lets see. I think there’s one on here about Listening. That’s the one we put on here to remind me about my being loud when we argue.”

Hopefully, you’ve found what I’ve shared with you here about our evening with Dick Butkus to be interesting. But that’s not my primary purpose in writing this article. Back in September of this year I wrote an article entitled American Heroes and Idols. Its aim was to encourage shifting the focus of our culture away from idolizing public figures whose great wealth mostly goes towards living a lavish life of debauchery and, instead, looking to celebrities who, in spite of all that their success has made available to them, conduct themselves in a manner that makes them true role models, both on the field and off the field. I’ve looked to Dick Butkus as a sports hero since the time when he was a starting defensive player for the University of Illinois football team, while I was a starting defensive player on my high school football team in Indiana. Learning about what Butkus is getting done through the Butkus Foundation, with Play Clean™, The Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness and The Butkus Award®, as well as learning about his priorities with his marriage, his family and his faith; have definitely moved him into the category of True American Role Model for me. As I said in American Heroes and Idols, I think it’s crucial for our society to emphasize supporting and encouraging those who do make good role models, who are doing as much good as they can with all they’ve been blessed with, while not seeking the limelight in the process. I’ve found this to be a fitting description of Dick Butkus and thus, I wanted to share my related views and to encourage support for his activities, as described here.


Filed under character, commitment, community, Culture, entertainment, faith, Family, ideals, Love, Making a Difference, Marriage, society, Sports, Substance Abuse, values

3 Responses to Play Mean but Play Clean

  1. Thanks, Gary, for letting us know about some of our long-forgotten athletic heroes. I’ve always been a fan of Dick Butkus–both as an athlete and actor. Its nice to hear about his commitment to faith, marriage, and playing clean.

  2. Anthony F Grieshaber, Sr

    I was lucky enough (and am old enough) to personally witness Mr. Butkus , playing in his prime years, and I have always both admired and respected him. He played football the way it is meant to be played, and he did it without the use of drugs – just by being strong and truly TOUGH. I have been, and will always be a Chicago Bears fan…