NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus (center) promotes the ‘‘I Play Clean’’ program to steer high school athletes away from heart-harming steroids. | Old Spice
Updated: April 19, 2011 5:17AM
Dick Butkus waited for the punch line, waited for one of his friends to end the elaborate prank.
In August 2001, the Bears legend begrudgingly accepted a free specialized heart screening. The paperwork took 30 minutes, the scan just five.
‘‘We’re sitting outside [awaiting the results], and I’m thinking, ‘This is a scam here,’ ” Butkus recalled thinking. “ ‘They’re pulling something on me.’ ”
Dr. Larry Santora, an interventional cardiologist at the Orange County Heart Institute in Southern California, explained to Butkus that, despite looking like the model of health for his age, he had an alarming buildup of calcium in his veins.
‘‘I was like, ‘Come on, you guys. You’re pulling my leg,’ ” Butkus recalled.
They scrambled to schedule him for more testing the next day, and Butkus still was leery before he was prepped for an angiogram, an imaging technique to show veins, arteries and the heart chambers.
‘‘I had my hands out,’’ Butkus recalled, “ ‘Is the joke over?’ ”
Butkus flunked the tests and required immediate heart surgery.
Then, when he returned for a checkup, Butkus marveled at the sobering revelation from his surgeon.
‘‘He said, ‘Dick, you had one foot on a banana peel and the other in a grave,’ ” Butkus recalled. ‘‘In 30 days, it could have been over.’’
Butkus turned 68 earlier this month, and he’s grateful to celebrate another new year. He lives in Malibu, Calif., and remains famous as an actor, endorser and broadcaster.
He is passionate about the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top high school and college linebacker, the Butkus Foundation and the Dick Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness, which offers the heart tests that saved his life for free or at a reduced price. He also is active, along with son Matthew, in the ‘‘I Play Clean Campaign,’’ which raises awareness of steroids among high school athletes.
In late October, Butkus hosted his annual Charity Fight Night at Soldier Field, and he lamented the frustration of raising funds and awareness now.
‘‘How hard it is to put on something like this for good causes when there’s so many Ponzi schemes,’’ Butkus said, shaking his head. ‘‘They make it so difficult to do something good.’’
New lease on life
Santora couldn’t imagine a greater champion for coronary calcium screening and EBCT heart scans.
According to the Wellness Center’s website, sudden cardiac death is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, and coronary calcium is ‘‘more predictive of your risk of a heart attack than all of the traditional risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity or diabetes.’’
Butkus wanted to shed a few pounds, but he was still rigorously working out.
‘‘He was the poster child for this technology,’’ Santora said. ‘‘He had no symptoms, no family history, no risk factors.
‘‘But we had a database of 20,000 people, and we knew where he stood. He was off the chart. He had more plaque than 99 percent of the people.’’
About four years ago, several scientific studies supported the scans, yet insurance companies wouldn’t pay for them.
In September 2007, with Butkus’ blessing, the Dick Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness officially was changed. Through the center and his foundation, Butkus raises money to provide military personnel free screenings and police and firefighters reduced rates.
They co-authored a book about heart disease, and Butkus even was the first guest on Santora’s television show, ‘‘Health Matters.’’
‘‘He’s a friend, and I thought I would feel relaxed,’’ Santora said.
But Butkus — ever the practical joker — pulled out a flatulence noise machine and threatened to use it during the show.
‘‘I’m sweating bullets,’’ Santora said. ‘‘I said, ‘If you do it, I’m not going to take care of you again.’ ”
Butkus obliged, although he used it off set while in a discussion with some of Santora’s colleagues.
‘‘I make my living putting in [coronary] stents,’’ Santora said. ‘‘But preventing a catastrophe like Dick’s is more gratifying.
‘‘When you have the person without symptoms who is most likely going to die suddenly, and you can detect that and change their life? It changes everything dramatically.’’
The Butkus Award was introduced in 1985, but the Dick Butkus Foundation took control in 2008.
On the award’s official website, Butkus outlines his expectation of the high school and college winners.
‘‘When a player receives the Butkus Award, he will know two things,’’ he writes. ‘‘First, he is recognized as the best of the best linebackers in America. Second, and in the long run most important, he will understand that this recognition brings a responsibility to serve others by giving back.’’
Butkus said he’s bothered by the lack of awareness about steroids.
‘‘Steroids really isn’t on the tip of the tongue,’’ he said. ‘‘Look how everything has gone crazy with concussions.’’
Butkus met a bodybuilder through Santora who had congestive heart failure at age 35. A heart scan revealed hardened arteries.
Concerned, Santora asked him to rally other bodybuilders who had used steroids for at least 10 years.
‘‘More than half had severe hardening of the arteries in their 30s, like they were in their 80s,’’ Santora said. ‘‘And the only risk factor was taking steroids.’’
Then Butkus met a man whose son committed suicide and another — just 23 — who was deformed and already had suffered three strokes and a heart attack.
‘‘He was 14 or 15 when he started [using steroids],’’ Butkus said.
The goal is to educate students about the risks of steroids and parents about the warning signs.
‘‘These kids didn’t know or didn’t see any information,’’ Butkus said. ‘‘They see all the baseball players and they say, ‘Well, they do it.’ ”
Butkus was furious when ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger told a group of college journalism students in early October that professional athletes, under doctors’ supervision, potentially could use steroids to improve performance.
‘‘I feel he set us back for five years,’’ Butkus said of Musburger, who later stood by his comments in an interview with the Associated Press. ‘‘And we’ve been working our asses off.’’
Butkus, though, was encouraged when he went to Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla., to give Tony Steward the Butkus Award.
‘‘He’s a specimen,” said Ron Arp, president of Amplify Group, who works closely with Butkus. ‘‘He’s one of the top kids being recruited at any position, nationwide, but he is cautious about what he puts into his body.
‘‘He was elated to learn more about the ‘I Play Clean’ program.’’
In March, Francisco Barragan took advantage of the free heart scans through Butkus’ Wellness Center. Barragan, the commander of the United Mexican-American Veterans Association in Orange County, got an encouraging report.
But the former Marine also recruited his brother to get a test at a reduced rate.
‘‘It was a wakeup call for him,’’ Barragan said.
Through his organization, about 20 people have gotten the scans, and Barragan said he’s grateful to Santora and Butkus.
‘‘They’re saving lives,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s a phenomenal thing.’’
Although he has to put up with the endless array of practical jokes — Butkus once called and said he would be more than an hour late to a large event because of traffic, then showed up minutes later — Santora can’t believe the partnership and friendship he has struck with football legend.
‘‘Dick is still an American icon,’’ Santora said. ‘‘People still adore him.
‘‘He’s been a great person, a great friend for me to be associated with, and he gave credibility to this test.’’