He pointed out his family, his coaches and teared up while talking about his wife of 56 years, Helen. The most feared linebacker on the planet, who has an award named after him, admired the statue that took more than a year to complete from clay to patina.
"Awards are one thing," Butkus said, "but this statue is the best, don't you think? ... It was always my childhood ambition to play football and I always did my best. I thank the good Lord for giving me that gift. I have so very much to be thankful for, and I appreciate, from all of you, your recognition. From looking at this statue, I hope you would also appreciate all of my teammates and my family."
Before the statue was unveiled and Butkus was introduced to the crowd, Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman called Butkus the "greatest living Illini."
“Dick Butkus redefined the linebacker position as we know it," Whitman said. "He is now the standard against which all future linebackers will forever be measured."
About three hours prior to the unveiling, Butkus held a press conference that lasted more than 30 minutes, addressing everything from the statue, to this season's Illinois team to the Chicago Bears — the only professional team he played for. He's regarded as one of the best linebackers in the history of football, a fierce hitter who is the baddest man in nearly every room he steps inside.
He is one of two former Illinois players honored with a statue, joining Harold "Red" Grange.
“It’s a very humbling experience, to tell you the truth," Butkus said. "I didn’t come here to play for a statue after all this time. ... What the hell can you say? Usually it’s something for dead people. It’s pretty nice."
The statue, which sits on Fourth Street, stands 12-feet tall, weighs more than 1,000 pounds and is made of bronze with a stainless steel structure supporting the piece from the inside.
It was produced by University of Illinois alumnus George Lundeen at his studio in Colorado. Lundeen also created the statue of Red Grange, which has become a gathering point for fans. Butkus, though, admits he wasn't initially receptive to the idea of a statue, a story confirmed by Whitman and Matt Joyce, who, along with his wife Sara, donated the funds to build the statue.
“I really made it tough for George," Butkus, 76, said. "I really wasn’t for it. How can I insist on anything? He did an excellent job. I helped him a little bit, but not much. He did it all on his own. He did all the research. It’s amazing what they have to do to make these statues, to make it authentic looking."
Butkus played at Illinois from 1962-1964, where he accumulated 374 career tackles for the Illini and eventually had a national award named after him, "The Butkus Award," which is awarded to the nation's best linebacker. He was an All-American for two seasons.
“He’s one of the greatest of all time," Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen said. "I’ll be excited to ask him some questions, see what advice he has for us and I think he can be a big motivator for us this week."
After playing at Illinois, Butkus played for the Chicago Bears from 1965-1973, and wore the same helmet that he wore at Illinois for his first two professional seasons and the shoulder pads "until they rotted," he said.
He's been inducted in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and was inducted into the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017. His No. 50 was retired by the university in 1986, and it sits at nearly the highest point of Memorial Stadium: above the pressbox on the west side of the stadium. His No. 51 jersey was also retired by the Chicago Bears.
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“It’s not what he did for the University of Illinois, but what he did for football in general," Illinois football coach, and former Bears coach, Lovie Smith said. "To see a statue of Dick Butkus there makes sense. It seems right. ... Dick’s presence is here anyway. Of course, if you go into the stadium you see his number there at the top. That gets your attention if you don’t know it. I think most people associated with Illinois football, every one of our players, of course, knows who Dick Butkus is."
The Illini went 0-9 in 1961 before Butkus arrived in 1962, playing center on offense and linebacker on defense. In 1962, Illinois went 2-7 before going 8-1-1 in 1963 and a win over Washington in the 1964 Rose Bowl. The University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana carry a deep meaning to Butkus, who arrived at Illinois after playing high school football at Chicago Vocational High School.
“It’s the start," Butkus said of the university and of Champaign-Urbana. "High school was one thing, but choosing the university after high school is over is a big step. I guess I made a good step. I guess I can thank Coach Bill Taylor for that, who recruited me here.
"It’s not only just the university and the coaches that you’re involved with. It seems like you get involved with the people of Champaign and Urbana. I met some wonderful people. To tell you the truth, it wouldn’t be a bad place to live.
“I have good feelings about Champaign-Urbana and the people here. I was very fortunate. We changed a losing program to a winner. That’s all you can ask. It worked out well."
There's a long lineage of successful linebackers at Illinois from Butkus to Dana Howard to J Leman to Decatur's Brit Miller, all of whom were on hand Friday. Miller remembers the first time he saw Butkus: before the Illini played USC in the 2008 Rose Bowl when Butkus spoke to the team.
"I think it was my first chance to meet a guy I consider a true legend and a guy who changed the game," Miller said. "To be here (Friday), I was debating not coming and I was like, 'What are you thinking, man? You better get here.'"
Butkus has a reputation of being one of the most feared linebackers to ever play the game. Even at 77 and after a series of delayed flights that landed him in Champaign at 3 a.m. Friday, he still carries a bit of an attitude. He speaks with colorful language and passion.
But through it all, his humility shines through.
“It’s a very humbling deal," he said.