Dear Dick Butkus,
If this letter is being published, it means your time on this planet has come to pass.
It means that the Illini fan base is mourning the loss of the person most synonymous with Illini football this side of Red Grange.
This week’s game, whatever it may be, doesn’t mean as much.
Wins and losses are the currency of this game we love, but some things are priceless.
If “Illini” took an idealized form…an avatar, it would be you, Mr. Butkus.
As a Chicagoan and an Illini, nobody screams out “one of us” to me like you always have.
You represented everything Illinois fans envision the program representing.
Old-timers would say that you played the game “the right way.” The rest of us cringe at some of your vicious hits. But both are in awe of the prodigal talent and intensity you brought to the game we love.
I never got to see you play. I saw Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher have Hall of Fame careers in the trenches you dug.
I never heard one of your bone-rattling hits in person at Soldier Field. But I watched a defense called the Monsters of the Midway take what you did to the most memorable Super Bowl win in history.
(If you don’t believe me, people in Chicago still talk about that day more than any other day in the history of the city.)
But there is something bigger than football.
The word that comes to mind when it comes to you isn’t toughness. It isn’t viciousness. It isn’t ruthlessness. It isn’t even linebacker.
You took true pride in putting on two sacred navy and orange jerseys and represented both with exceptional football integrity.
But it’s pride in who you are and where you’re from.
Mr. Butkus, I grew up where you did: the south side of Chicago.
Yes, the city changed. There have been demographic shifts and geographic migrations.
But you were an absolute superstar at Chicago Vocational High School (CVS) in your prep years.
When I was a kid, my mother taught English at CVS. This was during the Chris Zorich/Juwan Howard years.
The neighborhood changed, Mr. Butkus. It’s not the same as it was when you went there.
But you went to major rallies at CVS and, despite cultural and generational differences, you connected with the student body like no other. You whipped a crowd of jaded kids into a frenzy every time you came for a visit to your alma mater.
As for your other alma mater, well, you know how beloved you will always be at the University of Illinois.
Your statue was earned, much like your reputation.
Your presence will always loom large at a school that clings to hope of things unseen. You always served as a tangible reminder of what could be.
Thank you for being the University of Illinois to generations of fans.
Your unforgettable legacy will forever be on display to legions of thankful Illini, Bears fans, Chicagoans, south siders, and football junkies whose lives you impacted.
You will always be our once-in-a-lifetime Howitzer.