When legendary Washington Redskins defensive tackle Dave Butz and I last spoke in March, we talked about his birthplace — a small Alabama town called Lafayette — where coincidentally another great champion, heavyweight Joe Louis, was also born.
Butz had fond memories of growing up a country boy.
“We had 1,500 poultry and 150 head of cattle and a couple of pigs,” he said. “All I had was a pair of shorts on, no socks, no shoes, no shirt. My dog would pick me up in the morning and my parents wouldn’t see me until late evening. I accused them of having the dog be my babysitter and my Mom said, ‘Dave, that dog would never leave your side.’”
Those days were a lifetime ago. Butz died last week at the age of 72. The cause of his death was not revealed. He lived a life that a country boy from Alabama might have only dreamed of — a star football player who would go on to glory as a two-time Super Bowl champion and a beloved figure in the nation’s capital.
Butz was named to the 70 Greatest Redskins when the team celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2002 and is in the team’s Ring of Fame. He was a two-time All Pro and is a member of the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team.
At Purdue University, Butz was a 1972 finalist for the Lombardi Award, given to the college football player who “best embodies the values and spirit of NFL legendary coach Vince Lombardi.” He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
Butz was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round in 1973 but he was granted free agency two years later because of an error in his rookie contract. He signed with George Allen and the Redskins, who in turn had to compensate the Cardinals with two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick.
“My wife, probably before she was my wife, and I were sitting at the Dulles Marriott having lunch, and George is there,” Butz told me for interviews for my book, “Hail Victory,” the oral history of the Redskins. “This is the preseason. He took my menu, when they gave you a paper menu, and wrote down seven things that I needed to do to play a long time in the league. I still have that. He cleared my plate, turned my menu over, wrote seven things and signed it Coach George Allen.”
He certainly would play in the league a long time and loved playing in Washington.
“We sure provided a lot for our fans, didn’t we?” Butz said. “When we beat Dallas to go to the Super Bowl, my wife and I drove through Georgetown to get to the George Washington Parkway to get out to Reston, and people are in the streets, bouncing off the car and yelling, ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl,’ which my wife and I thought was an awesome thing to watch.”
Butz was a dependable force in the middle of the Redskins’ defensive line, the anchor of Super Bowl champions in 1982 and 1987. He played in 216 games in the league — 191 as a starter — from 1973 to 1988, and when he retired, he was the oldest starting player in the NFL.
There was one particular start that was memorable in 1987 against the New York Jets. Washington was losing 13-7 in the fourth quarter before coming back to win 17-16, with Butz’s sack of quarterback Ken O’Brien the game-changing play.
He had no business being on the field that day at RFK Stadium.
“I had two different types of parasites and went from 315 pounds to 272 pounds in one week,” Butz said. “On a Friday night, the night before we had to go to the hotel before a game, I drank a glass of water and it shot out of my mouth like the Exorcist. I couldn’t hold down water, so I told my wife to call the doctor, and he met us at the hospital.
“From 9 p.m. that night until 9 a.m. the next day I received 11 quarts of fluid,” he said. “They were pumping saline in my veins, but the pump couldn’t get it in fast enough. So they took a 16 gauge needle and I was getting a quart of fluid an hour. I was paid to play, and in the old school we did that. We got ready.
“The next day my blood levels were close to normal,” Butz said. “I played the whole game, sacked the quarterback, kept them out of the end zone, went back to the hospital after the game and received another six quarts of fluid. But I missed no practices and no meetings.”
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