Dick Butkus is frequently referred to as the meanest guy in football. He’s an NFL hall-of-famer, one of the greatest linebackers of all time, and also happens to be a Chicago-born Lithuanian.
He was a great player with an exceptional attitude.
He took the game that much more seriously than everyone else on the field. He was famous for having no tolerance towards slackers and people who weren’t willing to give their 100 percent. He was also merciless towards his opponents.
People noticed – “He tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”
We asked him wether his tenacity had anything to do with his roots. He said he came from a family of hard working people who always took pride in what they did no matter how menial the task.
“We were brought up to do our best. It’s easy to quit when the odds are against you.” Dick made the MVP (most valuable player) twice in a row on an underperforming team. “We had to be tough as nails, fight every inch, and not give up when things weren’t going your way.” He took great pride in being the under-dog and making his opponents know who it was that hit them, no matter the score. That sounds awefully “Lithuanian” to us.
By balancing his fierce reputation with his docile charm he became a household name in the US, filming over 300 commercials, starring in several TV series, and working as a sports-commentator.
During our interview he admitted that he wasn’t active in the whole “Lithuanian thing”. His family wanted to assimilate. “The deal back then was that we are going to be American and we’re going to speak American.” He noted that the younger generations seem more keen on reconnecting with their Lithuanian roots. He mentioned the sportsmen that flaunt their roots with flags and T-Shirts during events and recalled that his trip to “Plungė” a couple of years back was driven by his son’s motivation to find out more about their family’s heritage.
– Tell us about yourself.
– My name is Dick Butkus. I’m from Chicago. I’m the youngest of nine children. My father came from Lithuania. I guess the best or closest we could figure where he came from was Palanga. I think he came to the United States maybe in the 1900s or whatever. I think he was born in 1881.
The thing about it was, Chicago has a very large population of Lithuanians. And I remember when I was a kid we had some Lithuanians who lived in the next street behind us and I would go there with my mother. She would talk Lithuanian to the friend there. But I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Because I was the youngest of the nine kids. My oldest brother and two oldest sisters, they spoke a little bit of Lithuanian. But it was the deal back then that “we are American now so we are going to talk American” right? And that’s probably why I never learned to speak the language.
My mother’s parents were from Lithuania. But I never knew where from. And so I guess they’ve met in Rockford, Illinois and they came down to Chicago where there are lots of Lithuanian gatherings, what have you. But as a time went by, as I got older and older, you know, high school. I played football there and I remember my parents would come to the games, but not really totally understand what I was doing. But I always felt support from them. I went to college. I was fortunate enough to play nine years professionally with Chicago Bears. And a kind of unique thing was that in 1979 I was selected into a pro football Hall of Fame. You know Johnny Unitas (Jonas Jonaitis)? I’d heard that he too was Lithuanian. I was always getting along with Johny, he was a quarterback Baltimore Colts back then. I will never forget when we went to the ceremony in Ohio in 1979. It was like two lost friends. My mother and Jonaitis’ mother were really chatterboxin’ in Lithuanian. No one knew what’s going on there, but they were really going out there. Talking about the old times.
So I forget the year, but it was a father’s day. My oldest son said let’s go find out where his grandpa was from. So we began investigating. When we were in Lithuania, in Vilnius, we spoke to some folks who said they thought maybe he (my father) was from the town called Palanga. So we drove for a while there. Went to the church, but everybody spoke Lithuanian. And nobody spoke English. We ended up going around the country.
I remember the day before we left, we ended up back in Vilnius and someone said “one of the problems is that your name is very common” and I was like “common? Man, every time I’m in America everybody thinks it’s shortened or it’s Polish or whatever”. I’ve looked at the phone book since then and yes, it turns out there were a lot of “Butkus’” around.
So now I’ve got relatives all over. Everybody thinks they are my relative because of my last name. I wonder if I had that many ‘relatives’ if I hadn’t the same success in football. Funny I remember my mother being very angry one day, when watching “The price is right”. One of the contestants, her last name was Butkus. And the host asked “You must related to that football player?” and she said “Yeah. I am.” But my mother said “NO YOU ARE NOT!!!” 🙂
My sense was that my parents ere proud of their traditions and everything else Lithuanian, but it was just that they didn’t teach us. And you know… as I think back I wonder “What if I did learn Lithuanian. Who would I speak with? There were not many around”.
– That’s ok. Did you go to Lithuania after the fall of Soviet Union?
– Oh. YEAH YEAH. Each place we went to, different restaurants, trying different foods everything else. The boys, my son, really liked it there.
– Let me ask you something. When you grew up it was a very different America than it is now. For instance, I remember, that being Lithuanian when I was young – as I spent 8 years in Philly, from when I was 3 till I was eleven years old, and being Lithuanian was not necessarily “very cool” or something you can be loud and proud about. And there were many people who were more likely to say, that “you just have to fit in in America.” Where as now, there are many people, that feel that your background actually adds a certain color to who you are. So they now say “where are you from?” and say, I am “Lithuanian” and I have this heritage. So it’s interesting that your son was the one who brought this question about your father, his grandfather. Do you think that things in the States are now a bit different in terms of acceptance of your roots?
– I think in our family it is. Because I have so many brothers and sisters. Nine in our family plus all nieces and nephews. The younger kids are keeping the tradition. For example, Zack – my brother’s son is a bench presser. And he won while wearing Lithuanian shirt on. He won “Strongman” at south side Chicago tournament. Most of my extended family is in Chicago, and I noticed when they get together they talk about it a little bit. Certainly the younger generation in our family does. My brother, for instance, is always making KUGELIS.
– When you were in the league. Your reputation was as “the meanest linebacker”. And I remember also a little bit of Unitis (Jonaitis) legacy, where he seemed to be “a guy who came out of nowhere”. And who made a name for him really without much help. Did you ever hear anybody saying, that “those Lithuanians are rough”, “they are tough” or “they have a certain something to them” holding everything on their own shoulders?
– What I’ve learned growing up was from watching my father. He took pride in everything he did. He worked for the “Pullman company” and did some side jobs as an electrician to make extra money for our large family. I remember my parents arguing in Lithuanian whenever he’d have to return to finish up extra work, but he always wanted to make sure he has done the job right. And I kinda got that at my early age. From my older brothers too, that they were very hard working people and took pride in what they did no matter how menial the job was. Putting electric in “Pullman company’s” train cars or small jobs as an electrician. You know my brothers, we all had jobs. And I think he instilled that in us. Not to say that any other nationality works harder, but it was there for us all kids to see.
And I took that same character to my football days. When in high-school I was pretty successful. We played for the State championship for a couple of times and I was there. But when I went to the University of Illinois – they had lost eleven games in the row, but the next year, we won three, maybe four games. And then the following year we went on to the Rose Bowl.
When I played with the Bears professionally in 1969, I think we won one game. One out of fourteen and I was voted the best defense of the year. All the different successes and struggles were equally important. It all came from growing up in a household where we took pride in what we were doing.
– That’s interesting. I’ve listened to a couple of interview about you on Youtube. Most of the people were saying you were really good at getting the team to focus, despite losing in a streak, encouraging then to take what they were doing seriously. Is that is your work ethic and ability passing it to other people?
– Yeah. It’s really easy to quit when things are not going right, but it takes extra effort to go further when the odds are against you. And I guess … we didn’t have much. We had four boys in two bunk beds. Our house was 700 square feet, so I was always a bit on edge feeling that everybody looked down on you – as if you were a “scum bag” or whatever. Maybe people didn’t think it, but I thought they did. In a sense, it was a kind of incentive to get me not to be embarrassed by giving up like anybody else. No matter what the score was.
That’s why I probably have trouble being the coach today. I would expect everybody to play and practice like I did. And of course, they don’t now. It was different back in my day.