The Sad Reason Dick Butkus Quit The NFL

Dick Butkus was a monster on the gridiron. But even monsters have weaknesses. In the case of the Chicago Bears' middle linebacker, it was his right knee. On October 14, 1973, after years of suffering, Butkus took himself out of an away game against the Atlanta Falcons. "I just couldn't stand the pain," he told The New York Times in 1974. "It hurt so much I had tears in my eyes." On top of that, Butkus believed the Bears' management had made his injury worse by refusing to allow him to have surgery that season.

After Butkus' death at age 80 on October 5, 2023, Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey released a statement on X, formerly Twitter, calling the player "the ultimate Bear." The 6-foot-3-inche, 245-pound Butkus — known as "The Animal" and "The Maestro of Mayhem" for his unstoppable tackling — only played for the Chicago Bears in his nine years in the NFL. But by the end, the then 31-year-old had grown estranged from the team and its owner, George Halas, to whom he had given everything and more.

Butkus sues

The saga of Dick Butkus' right knee began in 1970 when he injured it during a game and then had surgery that wasn't fully successful, per ESPN. By the end, it wasn't just playing pro football that his injury had affected, but doing activities off the field like taking a jog, or riding a horse or a bike, according to The New York Times.

In 1974, after being unable to play the five final games in the 1973 season, Dick Butkus retired from the Bears and then sued his former team, per the Oakland Tribune. He alleged in the suit that the team's doctor had given him injections in his knee that caused "irreparable damage" and that the Bears' management had "willfully and wantonly" forced him to play when he should have been recovering. "I think if I had it operated on at the end of last season, I might be alright now," Butkus lamented to The New York Times.

A new knee

By the time Dick Butkus sued the Bears, he'd already had five knee operations going back to 1971, with two of them in 1974 alone. His orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Don O'Donoghue, told the Oakland Tribune that it "would be foolish" for Butkus not to retire. "He'll just keep reinjuring the knee," O'Donoghue added. Butkus felt he'd been used up and tossed away by the Bears. "I guess I'm not supposed to come to the point where the pain is too much," he told The New York Times in 1974. "Now that the Bears got enough use out of me, I guess they want to throw me in the sack."

Butkus and the Bears eventually settled out of court. In November 1997, he received an artificial knee, which finally relieved years of suffering, according to ESPN. "There are hazards in any profession," Butkus told The Town Talk in 1982. "Football was something I was made for. And I gave the game all I could for as long as I could. My only regret is that my career was too short." Butkus, enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame since 1979, ended his career with 22 interceptions, 25 fumble recoveries, and eight straight pro-Bowls, among other accomplishments.