The Butkus Award and Matt Russell

For many years, Mike Ryoko was the best newspaper writer in Chicago. The City of the Big Shoulders lived and breathed in the artful, insightful prose that comprised Ryoko’s column. Much like Studs Terkel, Ryoko’s columns were about people - the famous, sometimes, sure.

He had a running battle going with corruption and political shenanigans, and Chicago never has had a shortage of either. But most of the columns were simply about working stiffs - the effect of things on the actual people who lived, worked, and paid their taxes to Chicago - those people that made the city possible.  If you ever want a great read, his Chicago Confidential is still around.

Ryoko liked to tap out his columns on a portable typewriter, surrounded by a haze of tobacco smoke and the sounds of men drinking in a bar/restaurant located beneath State Street. Called the Billy Goat Tavern, it was the origin of the Saturday Night Live skit ‘Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger’ and also of the infamous Curse of the Billy Goat that troubled the Chicago Cubs for generations.

The story is that the owner of the tavern on a bright October day once bought a ticket for himself and one for his goat, Murphy, of whom he was unusually fond, for a game in the World Series. Predictably, the Andy Frain ushers in their bright blue and gold uniforms weren’t having any of it, Wrigley himself complained that the goat stank, and the people sitting around him, although mostly just amused, had some pikers who actually complained. When he and the goat were escorted out of Wrigley Field, the owner stood out on Waverly Avenue and pronounced what he said was a Greek curse on the Cubs, vowing that they would never again win a pennant until they let a goat back into the stands.

The history of the Cubs after that has been long and ugly. Things did reach a point where amid considerable media fanfare, the organization brought a goat in and ushered it to its seat for a game. It really didn’t help - the Cubs still lost a 2003 playoff game when an unfortunate fan named Steve Bartman reached too far out and interfered with a foul ball that, if caught, might have helped ensure a trip to the World Series. The fact was that the Cubs still had plenty of chances to win that game, but human nature being what it is, the team developed an immediate case of what we now know as the ‘yips’, and dropped both the game and the series, starting an eight-game playoff losing streak for the team that continues to this day.

Among the many tales with which Ryoko regaled us, one has always stood out in my mind. Ryoko wrote from the heart, and his article on the night that he realized that his marriage wasn’t going to make it, was as perfectly as I’ve ever read a man writing on the razor’s edge between his personal and professional lives. Even so, Ryoko’s tribute one day to Dick Butkus is the one that has never fully left my thoughts. Whenever they give out his namesake award, I think back to frozen feet stomping on the flooring of the bleachers, as much to keep warm as to cheer on the team. My youthful visits to Wrigley Field (coupled with my views of the Wrigley mansion on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where we’d vacation in the summer) - left me branded with a permanent love of sports.

Butkus was an old school middle linebacker. He was drafted in the first round in 1965 by the Chicago Bears, and since it had barely been a decade from the time that Sam Huff was the first to officially play that position, it was somehow fitting that Butkus would set the gold standard for what a middle linebacker should be. At 6-3 and 245 lb, not big by today’s standards, Butkus was a man who refused to lose. He left in his wake a confetti of torn jersey parts, busted helmets, and shattered shoulder pads. There’s an apocryphal story about his biting a ballcarrier’s leg in a pileup. That story’s true. Butkus also once said,

I'm not so mean. I wouldn't ever go out to hurt anybody deliberately - unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something.

But about his teammates he said, “My thing is trying to convince them they can win.” Leadership has many faces. One of them was his.

It was late in Dick’s career when he showed up at a cocktail party that also had Mike Ryoko in the crowd. Butkus was hobbling with the aid of two canes, and was still unsteady on his feet, even though he hadn’t started drinking yet. His wavering was caused by the battered and wounded knees that the game gave him in return. Later, the Bears organization would have to be sued by Butkus to get them to cover the cost of Dick’s new artificial knees. The people of Chicago overloaded the phone lines to the team’s headquarters with their vocal bitterness and disdain of the way that an icon of the game was being treated. Butkus had said before that the Halases “threw nickels around like manhole covers.” The courts threw out the Halases' absurd claim, which said that the knee injuries weren’t football related.

But as Ryoko stood there, drink in hand, watching Butkus wobble and weave his way to a chair from where he could enjoy the beverage that someone else had to bring him, Mike knew that the next day was game day. Butkus had assured people that he’d still start. He went out on the field that next afternoon with the horrible pain that his knees were giving him and literally, without a leg to stand on, notched 20 tackles that cold, windy afternoon. There’s a reason that they name the best linebacker in the country after him. In a word, it’s courage.

D.J. Williams was a semifinalist for the award at Miami. Von Miller took it home for Texas A&M. You have to be special to earn it. Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell was born in Tokyo, Japan, and lived in various parts of the US, as well as Japan, England, and Germany, before attending high school in Belleville, IL and moving on to college in Colorado.

Russell was awarded the Butkus Award for his brilliant college linebacker play in 1996. This past Thursday night, he was inducted into the University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame. He’d earned it.

Just as anyone who watched the CU Buffs back in the mid 1990s, I had an opportunity to watch Russell play. He was a four-season starter, an incredible linebacker who became a first team All-American. Russell finished his collegiate career ranked first in school history in unassisted tackles (282) and second in total tackles (446). He was selected in the fourth round by the Detroit Lions, but injuries forced him to retire in 2000.

Since then, I’ve seen his post-player career building. He started with the Patriots organization from 2001-05, then moved on to Philadelphia and worked with the Eagles from 2006-08. Russell was Denver's director of college scouting for three years before having been elevated to his current position in January. He now handles the job of finding both professional and college players who will improve Denver’s systems, and his background as a player helps him understand those issues from the inside. Ask anyone at Dove Valley and they’ll tell you - a lot of the best choices that the Broncos have made over the past two years started with the mind, knowledge, and insight of Matt Russell. He was a hell of a football player; he’s turned into a hell of an advantage for the Denver Broncos.

I can’t think of anyone whom I’d rather see be feted for the career they’ve had in Colorado. This award, as momentous as it rightfully is, only encompasses one aspect of the many skills of this man. I think that Butkus would have been proud to have his name associated with Russell’s in college. I think that he’d be proud of the man that Matt has turned into, and with what Russell gives to the game.

Making a university hall of fame isn’t a common thing. It takes a rare player to earn it. In this case, it also couldn’t happen to a more deserving person. I hope Matt's able to stay with the Broncos for many years to come - he's an asset to the team that a lot of fans aren’t aware of, but anyone who really studies the team and the game knows the impact he's had.

I’d like to thank him for all of the entertainment and excitement that he’s provided us, for the sweat and pain that it cost him, and the obvious commitment he brought to the position, to his school, and to the state of Colorado, as well as to the Broncos organization. They, and we, are lucky to have him.

May your life be long, your sorrows short, and may the road rise to meet your feet, Matt. It’s been an honor to have watched you, both in games and in business.

Congratulations. And, thanks.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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