There are so many names and images that it’s dizzying.
Who best represents the beloved Bears and their legacy?
Gale Sayers flashes by.
Mike Ditka forearms a lowly defensive back into submission.
Walter Payton high-steps down the sideline, stiff-arming foes, the football an apple in his hand.
Long-legged Dan Hampton bulls his way into the opponent’s backfield, long-legged Richard Dent close behind him.
In the haze, the even longer-legged Doug Atkins, 6-8 and 275 pounds, hurdles a blocker and demolishes a quarterback.
Squatty Mike Singletary. A bald, not hairy, Brian Urlacher. Punky quarterback Jim McMahon. They’re all there, living icons.
And, of course, mean old George Halas, his black coat flapping in the winter breeze like a pirate’s cape. He still hovers over the team he created.
But one figure emerges from the vaporous crowd. Only one.
Hunched forward, covered in tape and mud, ready to maim, snarling like a grizzly on a narrow trail, it’s Dick Butkus who carries the Bears’ flag.
The linebacker spent all nine of his seasons with the Bears (1965-73), entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and still is considered the gold standard for vicious, never-say-die middle linebackers. Butkus is what Chicago is at its most confident, proud, blue-collar, unapologetic and aggressive self.
Butkus embodied football as it was created. He was in the middle, shying away from nothing. He sought out collisions the way crash-test dummies seek out walls.
He has claimed he didn’t tackle with his head, which is why he still has all — or at least most — of his marbles at age 75. And it’s true: He didn’t tackle with his head. He tackled with his entire body, like a truck obliterating deer on a country road.
Butkus once famously said he wanted to rip a running back’s head off. He provoked three fights in a game against the Lions in 1969 and spectacularly picked up four personal fouls in — hold on — an exhibition game against the Cardinals in 1970.
That he played with a frenzy of purpose never has been doubted. Nor has the understanding that the game has evolved and that many issues regarding violence and brain protection have changed the public’s mindset about this most American of sports.
Butkus is old-school, and he would be limited today in a way that would be incomprehensible to him. He played years before Bears linebacker Wilber Marshall hit Lions quarterback Joe Ferguson so hard with his helmet that Ferguson was out cold before he hit the turf. The hit earned Marshall no penalty but a $2,000 fine.
‘‘What was I supposed to do, hit him softly?’’ Marshall said in disgust afterward.
That’s how the game has changed: Safety is important now. Back in the day, it was laughed at.
In that sense, Chicago’s frontier spirit still is represented by those old-school players who were barely under control in their fury and passion, sloughing off pain in favor of beating other men into defeat. Chicago is the City of Big Shoulders, as Carl Sandburg wrote, not a haven for surfers, whiners and slender aesthetes.
This isn’t where receivers and even quarterbacks not named Lujack get much respect. It’s no accident the Bears have four former middle linebackers — Bill George, Butkus, Singletary and Urlacher — in the Hall of Fame. Might makes right.
Jay Cutler might hold almost all the Bears’ passing records, but he holds none of the city’s reverence. Blank faces and emotional blah-ness don’t work in Chicago.
At its heart, pro football is still about beating somebody else into raising the white flag. Cutler would have been better off as a fast-food clerk than as a supposed leader of tough guys.
Football is getting more civilized, which is good. But you only can civilize a wild thing so much until it becomes something else, something tame and dull.
The Bears are rooted in tradition and remembering the past, no matter how primitive the old days seem to outsiders. The Bears are a huge part of Chicago history. Can you imagine being a fan of the Jaguars or Panthers?
No, Dick Butkus means the Bears to a lot of us.
Years ago, I visited him at his home in Malibu, California. He was gracious, funny and seemingly relaxed. But something bubbled within.
‘‘What I miss is the violence,’’ he said. ‘‘Life is very boring to me now.’’
The Bears, after all, are a gift.
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