Legendary NFL Films President Steve Sabol, in his 48th year filming the NFL, labeled Dick Butkus the “greatest defensive player” of all time. “A force of unmanageable proportions, he was Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl,” Sabol wrote. “His career as the middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears stands as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on a football field by anyone, anywhere, anytime. …No one played harder or better than Dick Butkus.”

The Butkus Award sets out to recognize those qualities that defined Dick’s career, heavily factoring the following five traits: toughness (playing through pain with a warrior mentality), on-field leadership (intimidating presence and respected tone-setter), competitiveness (passion, intensity and relentless effort), football character (work ethic, drive and determination) and linebacking skills (instincts, tackling, striking, balance, knee bend, shedding, cover skills, blitzing).

In 2008, Butkus took stewardship of the Award with the intent to support the “I Play Clean” campaign aimed at educating the youth of America and the world on the dangers of performance enhancing drugs. In addition to honoring the top collegiate linebacker, recognized since 1985, the Butkus Foundation began to pay tribute to the top linebacker at the high school and professional levels.

The Butkus Committee is comprised of 51 voters stemming from the NFL, college and high school ranks, including many NFL general managers and head coaches, NCAA head coaches and defensive coordinators and seasoned NFL talent evaluators who have been heavily exposed to the nation’s top linebackers. The committee was initially constructed to equally represent all regions of the country to eliminate any bias. Neither Mr. Butkus nor any of his family are members of the committee.

Watchlists are compiled for the high school and college awards in August at the direction of the committee, with heavy input from high school and college coaches, recruiters and pro scouts. No watchlist is supplied for the NFL, where nearly every linebacker is truly deserving. A Butkus winner need not be on the preliminary watchlist to earn the award, as some candidates tend to emerge from the shadows.

A list of about 15 high school and college semi-finalists is determined in October after careful consideration and dialogue among the Butkus Committee and again trimmed to five finalists in late November, based on input from the committee who has spent the year closely scrutinizing the candidates.

In cases where ties need to be broken, the Butkus Committee recognizes the players who have best demonstrated strength of character on and off the field and who can be trusted to serve as role models to the future generation of linebackers.  

Voters who have not been exposed enough to the group of finalists at any level are asked not to vote, as only the most informed opinions are sought. Select committee members are sent tape of the five high school finalists and asked to rank them 1 through 3, with the first-place winner receiving three points, the second-place finisher two and third, one. Votes are tallied in the same manner at the college and NFL levels, with voters asked to rank their top three linebackers. All committee members’ votes are submitted in secret and kept completely confidential. The selection committee coordinator compiles and tallies votes and only the vote totals are released to the public after a winner is selected. Voters are allowed to write in candidates.

The Butkus Foundation strictly adheres and complies with all rules and regulations of the NFL, NCAA and high school governing bodies. It is a member in good standing of the National Collegiate Football Awards Association (NCFAA).