CHAMPAIGN — For the 1970 Sports Illustrated issue that previewed the coming National Football League season, the hulking image of Dick Butkus stares from the cover with a nasty scowl.
The headline next to his photo tells his story.
“Dick Butkus of the Bears. The Most Feared Man in the Game.”
Butkus was the embodiment of a larger-than-life warrior who terrorized the football field. He set the standard when he played and even today his name is said with a certain reverence in football circles.
Soon a statue will stand to commemorate his place in University of Illinois football history. While legendary running back Red Grange has a statue that oversees the west side of Memorial Stadium, a similar statue of Butkus will greet visitors to the new football performance center on the east side of the stadium.
Illini Athletic Director Josh Whitman, who announced plans for the statue on Monday, said the $79 million center, and the statue, will be unveiled in time for the 2019 season.
Whitman described Butkus as the perfect person to help add definition to Illini athletics.
“When we talk about toughness, competitiveness, loyalty, selflessness … all of those things describe Dick Butkus,” Whitman said. “We’ll get to celebrate all he has meant to this university and the game of football in the form of a statue.”
Even Butkus acknowledged that this kind of honor rarely comes to someone still alive.
“I am very humbled about this,” said Butkus, 74, who was on campus just two months ago when he was a member of the inaugural class of the Illini Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Usually when you get a statue you are in the dirt,” Butkus said. “So this will be different.”
Whitman said Butkus was moved when he first learned of the plan to honor him with a bronze statue that will be created by Illini alum and sculptor, George Lundeen, who also created the Grange statue.
“He (Butkus) is an incredibly humble person,” Whitman said. “He’s very emotional. He got emotional when we had the opportunity to talk with him about this. We didn’t have to break his arm, but we had to twist it a little bit to convince him that this was a great opportunity to celebrate what he means.”
Illini head coach Lovie Smith said it will be inspiring to have the Butkus statue look out over the team’s practice fields just south of the performance center.
Smith said he got to know Butkus when Smith was head coach of the Chicago Bears.
“I knew him enough to know it was an honor every time you talked with him,” Smith said. “I appreciate everything he’s done for the game and really appreciate everything he does for our university.”
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, like Butkus a former NFL linebacker, said it’s appropriate that the Butkus statue will stand guard over the Illini football complex.
“To have a statue of the most dominant defensive player in the history of the game is just huge,” Nickerson said. “When you talk to people about defensive football, it all starts with Dick Butkus and it ends with Dick Butkus.”
Whitman said Lundeen will work with Butkus and his family to choose a design that best represents one of only two players who have had their uniform numbers retired by the Illini. Butkus’ No. 50 and Grange’s No. 77 are those numbers.
Whitman said he’s had “a handful of people step forward in (financial) support of this project.”