In a dimly lit science classroom last week at Mount Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side, a couple of dozen sweaty teenagers sat watching film of that evening’s football practice. A clock on the wall ticked past 6 p.m. The quarterback took a snap, dropped back, and hesitated for a split second before releasing a pass.
“Faster, Don,” bellowed the coach from the back of the room. “You have to be faster.”
“Yes, sir,” said the quarterback, Don Butkus.
Seventeen-year-old Butkus is the great nephew of Bears legend Dick Butkus, and the latest in a long line of football-playing Chicago Butkuses. On the field, his deep voice booms, matching the image of the famed middle linebacker. In most other ways, though, the comparison falters.
Don Butkus does not scowl. Even in pads and listed at six feet tall, he looks small. Peach fuzz dots his upper lip, and he smiles much too easily.
“I blame my mom,” he said with a chuckle, noting that his father is 6-foot-2 and his grandfather 6-foot-6.
Butkus has no rocket arm, no lightning speed, and no Division I college scholarships dangling. Still, he is the quarterback leading the storied Mount Carmel program into the 8A state finals Saturday night, a feat in any family but perhaps more treasured in this one.
“I married into football,” said Beverly Butkus, Don’s mother. “It’s a pretty big deal for us.”
Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, who played for the Bears from 1965-73, was a product of Chicago Vocational on the South Side. Don Butkus’s father, also named Don, grew up in Roseland and played football at Thornton Fractional South where he met his wife, a cheerleader. Don played safety and quarterback for the Rebels and then added a year at Thornton Community College in South Holland before settling in Lansing in the 1970s and moving to Dyer, Ind. a decade later. His baritone voice resounds in “deeses” and “dems.”
Don Butkus, 51, works the night shift as a machine repairman at a Ford stamping plant in Chicago Heights, while Beverly works in the payroll department of the Canadian National Railway.
To the elder Don, Dick Butkus was Uncle Dick, “just like Uncle Ron or Uncle Dave or the rest,” he said. To the younger Don, Dick is best known through old videotapes. “You watch and you go ‘Woah!’ because he’s vicious, he’s trying to hurt guys,” the young quarterback said.
But young Don Butkus does not brag about his heritage. “The only time he ever brings it up is when guys like you ask him about it,” Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti said.
The legendary Bear attended one of Butkus’s high school games last year—a loss to rival Loyola—but there are often a dozen Butkuses in the grandstand at Mount Carmel games cheering on Don.
“In a lot of ways, it’s how we all stay in touch,” said his father.
Butkus makes the 25-mile trek each day from Dyer to Mount Carmel, located in Woodlawn. The school’s hallways are lined with framed newspaper clippings chronicling the Caravan’s triumphs through the decades. One headline from 1927 reads, “50,000 See Mt. Carmel Beat Schurz 6-0.”
Attending Mount Carmel was the most important football decision Butkus ever made. “I decided I wanted to be a football player, and this was the place for it,” he said. His father talked to Uncle Dick about the decision. “Dick was real happy about it,” the elder Don said. “He knew what kind of school it was and the history there.”
After a freshman season playing linebacker, Butkus, who was a quarterback in Pop Warner, was called into Lenti’s office with another teammate and asked if he wanted to compete for the backup quarterback job on the varsity team. Butkus jumped at the chance, while the teammate soon transferred.
After a year as the understudy, Butkus assumed the starting job in his junior season. He rushed for 13 touchdowns. “He’s just a smarter player,” Lenti said. “He has an awareness about him.”
Butkus was voted the team’s first captain this season, and matched his 13 rushing scores, while adding another 13 through the air. In Saturday’s semifinal win over Neuqua Valley, he threw three touchdown passes. He left the game in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, but a day later did not sound like a player who would be watching his final high school game from the sidelines.
“You take pride in the bumps and bruises,” he said. “Especially as an option quarterback.”
In a 1970 Sports Illustrated story, Robert F. Jones attempted to find the human side of Dick Butkus, the most fearsome football player on the planet. What he discovered was a man struggling with his identity. Dick Butkus told the writer:
“Last year I cut a record of Shakespeare quotes—you know, a parody, like ‘Once more unto the bench, dear friends.’ The record company said it was too good. Not enough deese, dem and doses. What the hell is this society doing to people? I did what it told me I could do. I wasn’t any freak. I didn’t have any identity crisis.
In the fifth grade I knew what I was going to be: a professional football player. I worked hard at becoming one, just like society says you should. It said you had to be fierce. I was fierce. Tough. I was tough.”
Football has changed since then, along with everything else. Don Butkus would like to play in college, but his greatest ambition is to pursue a degree in kinesiology. If he does not find a place to play in college, Saturday’s game could be his last—and the last for his generation of Butkuses.
“It’s sad to think this might be it for our family for now, but I have lots of young cousins” Butkus said. He added: “I hope I’m not the last Butkus.”