The Badassest Rookie Linebacker The NFL Has Ever SeenS

I was never a Bears fan, although I do admire the uniform — orange, black and white together just feels football-y, somehow — and I bawled like a crazy person while reading I Am Third and again while watching Brian's Song. (Damn you, James Caan. Damn you to tearjerking hell.) But recently I came across an old LIFE article about the force of nature known as Butkus when he was a 22-year-old rookie, and found myself wishing that I was a Bears fan.

[See rare and classic photos of Butkus being Butkus. Fair warning: In some of them, he resembles Kevin James to a distressing degree.]

The Chicago Bears [LIFE wrote] paid Dick Butkus nearly $1,000 a pound to play football for them and every time Butkus crashes into an enemy blocker he returns full value on the pounds, all 245 of them. In his first pro year, he has taken over the middle linebacker's job and helped restore the legendary ferocity of the Bears' defense. In the National League, so many first-year men have muscled into the starting lineup — a record 25 — that this has proved the Year of the Rookie. Among the rookies, Butkus so far is the best. A teammate halfback, Gale Sayers, has been the offensive star — he scored four touchdowns in one game and at mid-season led the league ins coring. Olympic sprinting champion Bob Hayes scored three touchdowns for Dallas, the first four times he got the ball. The Giants have sometimes had more rookies in the lineup than veterans — and won more games the first month than they did all last year. The rookies had to make it by brawn and book learning in a rough world full of strange codes and crafty old pros.

As the 2013 NFL season stumbles toward the playoffs (How many teams have a shot at the postseason this year? 20?), I've been thinking about all the great players who were around in the mid-1960s, and especially the one rookie who not only lived up to the hype around his incendiary talents, but on every single play exultantly, ferociously slammed that hype headfirst into the turf.

Nothing in the game has really changed all that much since then. And yet everything in the game has changed, changed utterly. That's life, I guess.

I wish I was smart enough to add something profound here — something about sports, the passage of time, the brutal and implacable arithmetic of aging. But I'm not. (Luckily for all of us, someone else is.)

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly, and occasionally more frequent, feature for The Stacks.

Photo Credit: Bill Eppridge—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images