Almost no athlete gets everything he wants from his career, including — maybe even principally — final glory.
Think of Ted Williams never winning a World Series or Eric Lindros never winning a Stanley Cup. Recall the way 39-year-old Muhammad Ali lost to young Trevor Berbick at the end, hair dye dripping down his temples.
Yet those men at least got the chance to play for everything on the biggest stage during their careers, some many times over, win or lose.
Think of those who never stepped from the wings into the bright lights. Think of Dick Butkus.
One of the two greatest middle linebackers ever — Ray Lewis is the other — Butkus is likely the greatest defensive player never to play in a Super Bowl. Defensive end Deacon Jones is in the mix, but at least Jones’ Rams teams won their division several times during his career. Butkus’ Bears teams went 48-74-4 during his nine-year career and won nothing.
With the Super Bowl coming up Sunday, you have to wonder how much the lack of a crowning achievement means to the now-80-year-old Butkus, to his sense of accomplishment.
”You know, I never thought much about it,” he says on the phone, pondering this from his longtime California home overlooking the Pacific. ”I mean, to do something like that, you have to have the other 50 guys all in, too.”
Clearly, the rest of the Bears, including coaches and management during Butkus’ career, weren’t along for any Super Bowl drive. The great Gale Sayers was also on those anemic teams, and, as good as he was, he never reached championship status, either.
Butkus has factored all that in and basically made it irrelevant.
”Maybe this is a little bit selfish, but I felt winning the MVP award in 1969, when we won one game [1-13], was important,” he says. ”We weren’t worth a [bleep], but it didn’t mean I didn’t play as hard as I could. You always play as hard as you can.”
The MVP trophy Butkus is speaking of was the prestigious Newspaper Enterprise Association NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, which was voted on by players. Remarkably, Butkus won it again in 1970, when the Bears were 6-8 and once more finished last in the then-NFC Central.
The thing about Butkus was that he played in a white-hot fury. People who don’t know this can go online and watch some of his hits afield. Back then, with all the great winners in the league, a panel of NFL coaches nevertheless named Butkus as the one player they would want to build around if starting a team from the ground up.
Yet Butkus never played in a single postseason game. Some things, a man can’t control. Learning to accept that is what star players with bad luck or weird rolls of the dice must do, a kind of zen/life agreement. If they don’t, the hurt might never leave.
It’s not as though Butkus doesn’t have real pain from his career. Shoulder, back, hips, knees, ankles, feet — they’re messed up from the game he loved. He used to think there was something wrong with him for needing football so much.
”I talked to a shrink not that long ago, and he said, ‘Did you ever think you were ADHD?’ ” Butkus says. ”I said: ‘You know what? I do! When I was a kid, I didn’t give a [bleep] about school; all I could think about was football and recess.
”So I took some tests, and the doctor said, ‘Well, you’re not.’ ”
Butkus is just what he is.
He’s diminished, for sure, hobbled a bit, falling frequently from toe neuropathy, traveling now with his trusty, sit-down, collapsible scooter, spending hours in his home hyperbaric chamber to (hopefully) aid in any CTE that might settle in from years of annihilating stupid running backs and idiot blockers.
But he’s also cheerful. He does a lot of charity work, and he gives out the Butkus Award each year to the best college linebacker.
He’s in a special group with Jones, Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Dan Fouts and other greats who never played in a Super Bowl. But he and his deceased pal Sayers are by far the greatest never to have played a single postseason game.
Wouldn’t you know they both would be Bears.