Dana Howard, J Leman, Danny Clark, John Holecek, Darrick Bronlow and Jake Hansen all have something in common.
They are all past and present great linebackers at Illinois, filling up the legacy created by Dick Butkus in the 1960s.
But what separates that crew of linebackers from Butkus?
Only Butkus now has a statue in Champaign, commemorating his legacy at Illinois and as one of the behemoths of college football.
J Leman was the emcee of Butkus’ statue dedication ceremony, and he called the University of Illinois “Linebacker U” based on the legacy of great linebackers that have been produced by Illinois ever since Dick Butkus in the 1960s.
Butkus tormented offenses that Illinois played in the early ‘60s, and kept that up in the NFL for the Chicago Bears. The eight-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro selection was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 1979.
Butkus’ number 50 hangs at Memorial Stadium, a reminder of his on-field contributions, including back to back All-American seasons in 1963 and ‘64. The fierce linebacker was picked on the all-time Big Ten team in 1970, and the American Coaches Football Association named Butkus the Player of the Year in 1964. His jersey was ultimately retired in Champaign to join Red Grange as the only Illini football players with the honor.
And now, those two greats are on the only statued athletes on campus.
“It’s a very humbling deal,” Butkus said. “I did what I thought I was supposed to do.”
Butkus was extremely humble, giving recognition to his coaches and teammates before anything else.
The best college linebacker every year receives the Dick Butkus award, and the list goes on and on with Butkus’ accomplishments.
That is the type of precedent Butkus laid in Champaign in the 1960s, but his legacy is so well respected that head coach Lovie Smith chose to ask Butkus speak to with the team ahead of the Illini’s nationally televised contest with Michigan.
“Most people associate Dick Butkus with Illinois,” Smith said.
However, the Hall of Fame linebacker respectfully declined.
“My message is no message, I don’t speak to teams no more,” Butkus said.
Butkus later referenced a 66-3 loss the Illini took the last time he spoke to a team as the reason he chooses to decline the invitations.
Smith said that a player with that type of pedigree could certainly inspire the Illini to improve defensively.
“Every one of our players knows who Dick Butkus is,” Smith said. “As we talk about tackling better and playing better defensively, if you need a little more motivation, I know Dick Butkus can give you that.”
For Illinois in 2019, that all starts with Jake Hansen, a defensive leader and the most recent linebacker to perform well at Illinois.
Through six games, Hansen has 48 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and an interception for Illinois this year.
In his third year at Illinois and second as a starter, Hansen has tallied 150 tackles and an additional sack and forced fumble.
As a junior, Hansen was named as a captain and is known as a leader on this team and leader of the defense.
“Jake Hansen has made play after play throughout the year,” said Smith. “Great pass rush.”
As a captain, Hansen expressed that he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be a good leader and model for his teammates. Hansen also understands the legacy of linebackers that exists at Illinois, and adds some pressure to himself to uphold the legacy that Dick Butkus implemented some five decades ago.
“Any time we have greats or Illini legacy guys that have done it at the highest level, it’s motivating to make you want to be as great as them or accomplish some of the things they did,” Hansen said.
Growing up in Florida, Hansen never really dove into the Illini’s LB culture before arriving on campus, but he has made it clear that he has since embraced the legacy.
“Once I got here, I did pay a lot more attention to Dick Butkus and I think he has definitely been an inspiration for my playing here and motivating me as well.”
Butkus takes an extreme amount of pride in the linebacker position, saying that at Hall of Fame luncheons he would tease running backs and say “you all probably wish you were linebackers, but you can’t be because you have to be a great athlete.”
Butkus later added that the linebacker position was “fun to play”.
Hansen also shared that the history of success that linebackers have had at this university serves as motivation to him from game to game, especially since he gets to play where “arguably the best linebacker of all-time” once did.
“It’s obviously super important, and I think that having that legacy and a bunch of great linebackers as well, it means a lot and it’s a great legacy to go after.”
Since Dick Butkus is revered as one of the best linebackers the game of football has ever seen, Hansen said he even tries to emulate Butkus’ style that worked in the 1960s and to this day.
“Just aggressive at all times, he was never turning down any hits,” Hansen said. “He was always around the ball and I think you can implement that into anyone’s game.”
Take it from Butkus himself:
“Shit, I had fun knocking the shit out of people.”