Dick Butkus

Heart Scan Saves Dick Butkus’s Life

The Chicago Bears were lucky to have Dick Butkus on their side of the ball. One of the greatest defensive players in history, Butkus charged forward with strength, fortitude and determination. Following his football career, Butkus enjoyed success in business, broadcasting, and entertainment, including appearances in more than 200 movies, television shows, and commercials. Dick Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1979. An iconic 1970 Sports Illustrated cover described Butkus as “the most feared man of the game.” Butkus has made it a priority to give back to those who made his career possible and his ongoing commitment to philanthropy is why he created The Butkus Foundation. Butkus thrives on making an impact. He surely did when he was on the field, and he continues to do so off the field. What an enduring legacy!

MyEliteNetwork: Why did you get involved in the Butkus Heart and Vascular Screening Center?

Dick Butkus: Some years ago I went to a screening center to get a scan together with a friend. At the time I didn’t have any doctors to speak of; I felt completely healthy. They did the scan, and afterward, they told me the bad news; that I had some blockages. A doctor sent for the cardiologist. The cardiologist informed me that I had to go through a five-way bypass. I had no clue, and as I said, I had NO symptoms, so it was a complete surprise. Getting that scan saved my life.


After I recovered, I thought to start a heart, and vascular screening center would be an excellent way to pay it forward for the gift of life I was given. I got involved in the screening center because I saw the advantages of participating in the scan and wanted to let former players know that even though you feel good and everything seems okay, it’s worth it to go through a painless scan.

MyEliteNetwork: So if you didn’t have the scan you would have been a prime candidate for a major heart attack. You could have dropped dead if you had not had the scan.

Dick Butkus: Yes, because my arteries were all plugged up. When they performed the angiogram after the scan to check and see inside, they took one artery and just pulled it out, and that’s why they rushed me to the hospital to have the five-way bypass surgery. Otherwise, I’d be in the dirt right now.

MyEliteNetwork: Before we started recording I asked you how you were feeling today. Please share your answer.

Dick Butkus: I’m great. I feel so good; I ought to be arrested.

MyEliteNetwork: That’s awesome proof of your new lease on life. Speak to why is it so important for former players to get health screenings.

Dick Butkus: Well I’ll tell you, I think my case is very familiar to a lot of guys. You know when you’re in high school you have access to medical facilities, and in college and you have even more access to health care. And then when you get to the pros you have even more. Often when players retire, they let those things slip away. They think, I feel good I don’t have to go to the doctor, I feel just fine. That’s what happened to me. I just let my visits to the doctors fade away; I figured I’m working out and eating pretty well, so there’s no need. I think a lot of players feel that way and that’s why it’s important that they get a heart and vascular scan. We have the tendency in our post-career lives to start gaining a little weight, and then all of a sudden your eating habits may be changing, and before you know it, you’re loaded with cholesterol. Most of the time we don’t have any indication that something is wrong unless we get a test for it to see what’s going on. You can have a blood test to check your cholesterol, but the scan shows what’s actually going on in your arteries.

A lot of people besides athletes may think they cannot afford to get a scan. Years ago when I got scanned the first time, it was expensive, but now most insurance covers it. Typically, it’s about $150. And that’s why as part of the Butkus Foundation we take care of former military people or first responders; they’re able to go to the facility and get a free scan. Most people know that heart disease is the leading killer of men and women and that why I believe it’s important that everyone should get a scan.

MyEliteNetwork: Mr. Butkus, I’m just wondering, do you think athletes who play certain positions in the NFL are more vulnerable to unseen health problems in their post-careers; the big guys, the offensive linemen, rather than the lean wide receivers?

Dick Butkus: You know the argument would be what happened to the marathon runner, Jim Fix. He died of a heart attack, and he was a kind of a skinny guy. But to your point, I think if linemen don’t watch their weight, they’re very susceptible. More so than maybe the backfield, the receivers who have a lot thinner frame. But the bottom line is that everybody is susceptible to heart disease.


MyEliteNetwork:What exciting things are happening these days at the Dick Butkus Heart and Vascular Screening Center?

Dick Butkus: I think we’re going to have the Rams and the Chargers come over and do some testing. And then of course with the NFL Foundation we supply the facility for all retirees in the Southern California area; they just have to come in; a year ago we had 59 players. Nine of them needed further examination. We also worked with a hospital in Chicago, and many Hall of Fame players were there for a golf tournament. Six came to the screening center, and one player immediately had to get some further testing. The scan takes five minutes. What have you got to lose besides a few moments of your time?

MyEliteNetwork: What would you say to young players who think they’re still invincible and don’t see the need for health screening.

Dick Butkus: The good news is they don’t have to get a scan until they’re 40- to 45-years-old. If I were a young guy starting out again, I’d watch my diet more carefully. The advances in nutrition is a hundred percent better than when I was coming up, so the best thing I can tell younger players who have just left the league is to eat sensibly and continue to work out.

MyEliteNetwork: If the younger players want to be proactive with their health, do they go to their team doctor, or get some of these screenings outside the team?

Dick Butkus: Well you know, I’ve mentioned to Roger Goodell that during football season you have Breast Cancer month and Wounded Warrior month. From the first day of the Combine to the last day of the draft is a real big deal for sports fans. I said to Roger, wouldn’t this be an opportune time for the NFL to promote screenings for the fans? If there is enough advertising, fans might think, Look at my players; they’re all getting tested. Maybe I ought to get a test. Maybe seeing their favorite players engaging in screenings might excite them enough to get them on the couch. I’ve had people come up to me and say thank you because their father went to the clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital to have the scan and it saved his life. That would be a nice feather in NFL cap if they made the announcement and got people off the couch and into a screening center.

MyEliteNetwork: Where can former players find a listing of screening dates and more information on how they can register?

Dick Butkus: They can go to the Player Care Foundation website and get all the information they need to register for a screening.

Author: Michelle Hill
Interview conducted by Michelle Hill, Your Legacy Builder, at Winning Proof. Michelle is a sports ghostwriter, book collaborator, and author. She works exclusively with pro athletes, coaches, team owners, and other sports professionals, to march their book idea from concept to publication, from the Red Zone to the End Zone. You have a story to tell! Contact Michelle at winningproof@gmail.com or (714) 797.3731. You can also visit the Winning Proof website at www.winningproof.com

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