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Butkus knows what Urlacher's going through

Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker did everything he could to solve knee problems

Fred Mitchell

7:06 PM CDT, August 24, 2012

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Dick Butkus can feel Brian Urlacher's pain.

From one Hall of Fame Bears middle linebacker to a future Hall of Famer, Butkus knows first-hand about knee soreness, immobility and desperation to find a cure.

While sources told the Tribune this week that Urlacher traveled to Germany in the spring to seek an unconventional remedy for his sore left knee before recently settling on arthroscopic surgery, Butkus had no such alternative 39 years ago.

Instead, the then 6-foot-3, 245-pound Butkus traveled many Fridays to visit orthopedic surgeons around the country.

If the non-invasive Regenokine therapy remedy existed in Europe at that time, Butkus would have grabbed his passport.

"I would have done everything," Butkus told me via phone Wednesday night from Las Vegas. "That's why I was trying everything. I was trying acupuncture; I was flying all over the place, trying to find that magic cure. I just couldn't do it."

Each surgeon recommended a complicated and risky operation called a tibial-osteotomy that involves partial removal of the shin. The procedure would have jeopardized his ability to continue playing football and perhaps function normally after football.

When Redskins coach George Allen, a former Bears defensive coordinator, recommended a visit to yet another surgeon in 1974, Butkus visited Dr. Don O'Donahue in Oklahoma City. O'Donahue carefully examined Butkus' knee in front of Allen, who was interested in acquiring the aging linebacker. However, O'Donahue also suggested the tibia-osteotomy procedure.

"The knee was gone," Butkus said. "I mean, I saw about eight or 10 (doctors). They all gave me the same diagnosis. And finally when I approached (Bears team physician) Ted Fox about this tibia-osteotomy, he said: 'Yeah, yeah. If you get that you will be the first guy to play with it.'

"… It relieves the grinding of the bones on either side of your knee, but it is only good for like four or five years. "

Butkus, the Chicago Vocational and Illinois product, decided to retire from football at 31.

"I couldn't go no more, no matter whether they shot it up or not," said Butkus, who later became a respectable Hollywood actor. "The knee was gone, which these 10 other doctors had said. When I told that to Dr. Fox, he wanted to do the tibia-osteotomy."

In 1974, Butkus filed suit against the Bears and Fox, asserting they kept him on the field previously with painkillers while discouraging him from enlisting the services of other doctors. Butkus had signed a five-year, $575,000 no-cut contract before the '73 season that he was unable to fulfill because of the knee injury.

Butkus eventually received a $600,000 settlement in 1976.

Butkus wonders why Urlacher and the Bears have not been more forthright about what is going on with Urlacher's knee treatment. He sprained the medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament against the Vikings last Jan. 1.

"What's the big secret?" Butkus said. "Maybe they are just being coy about it because he wants to re-structure his contract or something."

Butkus only can speculate about the condition of Urlacher's knee, but he knows how it feels to lose the mobility that once defined a premier middle linebacker. Butkus had 22 interceptions over nine seasons; Urlacher has 21 in 12.

"… It's not so much the pain, it's that you just feel like (the knee is) going to buckle at any time," Butkus said. "You have to watch the way you walk. Maybe you can't run and cut as fast as you used to.

"You just have to hope that your defensive tackles do a job because you just naturally slow down. … Sometimes you can't get rid of the (blocks) and there's no sense in really screwing yourself up. With Urlacher, I just worry about the linemen in front of him keeping some people off of him so he can roam around like he could years ago."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34