Doug Buffone: ‘Great guy, great friend, hell of a football player’

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Mike Ditka first met Doug Buffone as a teammate in 1966, when Buffone was a fourth-round draft pick from Louisville. But he soon learned that he was much more than just a teammate.

“He was a great guy, a great friend and a hell of a football player,” Ditka said of Buffone, the former Bears linebacker who died suddenly at 70 on Monday. “But forget the football — he was one of the good guys. For a sports guy who was pretty big in our town, he handled himself very, very well. He was very humble. He was a good guy — period. I don’t know any other way to put it. I never heard anybody say anything about Doug that wasn’t complimentary.”

Buffone, who played 14 seasons for the Bears (1966-79) and was a defensive captain for eight years, was found dead of natural causes at his West Side home, according to police spokesman Thomas Sweeney.

“I will always remember him for his football talent, sense of humor and enduring friendship,” Bears Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, who played next to Buffone for seven seasons, said in a statement. “He was a very special guy.”

Douglas John Buffone was a player of many distinctions in his 14-year career with he Bears. He played for George Halas. He played next to Dick Butkus. He played with Gale Sayers and Walter Payton. He still is the best Bear never to make the Pro Bowl. He played only for the Bears.

In Buffone’s first season as a starter in 1967, he was credited with 18 quarterback “sacks” — an unofficial statistic at the time. But nobody made a big deal about it, because Butkus also had 18 sacks of quarterbacks that year and probably ate 10 of them alive. Buffone’s only recourse was longevity. His 24 career interceptions are two more than the great Butkus (22).

Buffone was the Bears’ defensive captain for eight seasons (1972-79). When Buffone retired after the 1979 season, he held the team record for most games (186) and tied Bill George for the team record for most seasons (14). At the time, only four NFL linebackers had played more games than Buffone.

While Butkus, Sayers and Payton were Hall of Fame-bound superstars, for many Chicagoans who came of age in the  1970s, Buffone represented the hope and heartache of Bears fans as much as anyone. Sayers and Butkus were all-time greats, but their careers were fleeting — neither played in a playoff game. Buffone played for Jim Dooley’s 1-13 team in 1969, but also Jack Pardee’s invigorating 1977 team that made the playoffs on the final play of the season and Neill Armstrong’s 1979 team that also made the playoffs.

But besides being one of the best Bears of all time, Buffone might be the best ex-Bear of all-time. A Yatesboro, Pa. native, Buffone loved the Bears and he loved Chicago. He spent much of his NFL retirement in the city, investing in businesses and talking Bears football. He founded the “Bear Report,” an independent newspaper covering the Bears. An engaging story-teller, Buffone hosted a daily radio show on the Score (“The Bull and the Bear”) with former Bulls star Norm Van Lier.

Every Buffone appearance on the Score in recent years was a treat. After a Bears loss, his post-game shows with former teammate Ed O’Bradovich were the definition of appointment radio. It was an emotional, angry, over-the-top outlet for their frustration and ours. But more than anything else it was all about passion. Buffone was passionate about the Bears, about sports, about his family, about hunting in Western Pennsylvania every year — he was passionate  about probably everything in his life. You only had to talk to him once to know it.

For the last seven seasons, Buffone was on the panel of the “Cheat Sheet” in the Sun-Times, picking NFL games against the spread. It was a light, breezy responsibility, but Doug took it seriously. He did his homework and never failed to call in his picks each week. If he was going hunting in Pennsylvania that week, he’d make sure to call in a day early to just get his picks in.

In 2013, Buffone was the “Cheat Sheet” champion, going 134-112-9 in the regular season a particularly successful season picking games on Thursdays in a difficult year to pick NFL games. In Week 12 that season, he was a phenomenal 12-1-1. His only loss was the Bears, who lost to the Rams 42-21 as one-point underdogs. Doug considered picking the Rams, but just couldn’t pick against the Bears.

“I was hesitating on that game. I really was,” Buffone told me the following week. “But I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ I can’t go against the Bears. Because then the game comes on, and I’m like everybody else — I want to be right. That means I’d have to be cheering against the Bears.”

No matter how disgusted he became with the team, Buffone could never, ever root against his team. His death is a loss for not only the Bears family, but Bears fans and the city of Chicago.

“We are terribly saddened to hear of Doug’s passing,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said in a statement released by the Bears. “He will always be celebrated as one of the Bears greats for his contributions to his team and the fans who loved him.

“There was no one tougher on Sundays than Doug Buffone. And he proved it each week over his 14-year career, a tenure record he shared with another great, Bill George, for 33 seasons. His retirement ended a link to our founder as he was the last active player to play for George Halas.

“His special relationship with Bears fans continued beyond his playing days, first through founding the Bear Report and later as one of the pioneers and long-time contributors to Chicago’s first sports radio station, WSCR.

“It drove him nuts when we didn’t play well and we always appreciated that he wore his heart on his sleeve because we knew how much he cared. Doug’s passion for the game of football and the Chicago Bears was unmatched and he will be missed. Our prayers go out to his wife, Dana, and his children.”

What will Ditka remember most about Doug Buffone? “I’ll remember the person — he was a man of character,” Ditka said. “I could say the football player, because he was a very, very, very good football player. And sometimes when you’re playing next to Butkus you don’t get the credit you deserve. Doug was a hell of a football player. One of the greatest in the history of the Bears. But I’ll remember the person. He was just a stand-up guy. No BS. He was the real deal.”

Let the record show that Buffone chose to play for the Bears. “I had an offer to play for San Diego in the old AFL and it paid more money than the Bears were offering,” Buffone said in Chet Coppock’s book, “Fat Guys  Shouldn’t Be Dancin’ at Halftime.”  “But I told the Chargers, ‘I was raised in cold weather, I need snow. I’m not gonna play in some town with [bleepin’] palm trees.’”

That was Doug Buffone, not only a great Bear, but a great Chicagoan. As telling as that anecdote is, the title of the chapter on Buffone in Coppock’s book is more appropriate today, as we mourn his unfortunate and untimely passing:

“Don’t ever forget No. 55.”

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