Arthur Jones, Dick Butkus and the Long Con

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Controversial to the nth degree, Arthur Jones was a man known for his pull no punches approach. Wonderfully innovative, the founder of the Nautilus exercise phenomena had a strict sense of right and wrong when dealing with his small circle of clients.

This was demonstrated, most spectacularly, when Jones was approached by Dick Butkus, then linebacker for the Chicago Bears, in 1973. One of the most feared players in the NFL, Butkus had by then built a legacy based on ferocious tackling and a dogged determination to make quarterback’s lives a living hell.

On the first meeting of the two men however, Butkus was something of a sorry sight. Despite a physically imposing frame (Butkus stood at 6ft 3 and weighed over 240 lbs.), the Bear’s legend was almost crippled with the knee problems that would soon force him to leave the NFL. Compounding matters was the fact that Butkus was now out of contract with the Bears, meaning that any idea of a last payout was becoming slimmer by the day.

Somewhat reluctantly, Jones began to examine the linebacker’s frame. Writing on their first meeting, Jones would later comment that

When I first started training him in the Summer of 1973, it was immediately obvious that Dick is a very strong man, far stronger than many men who have trained heavily and regularly for years.

Although I had no way to test his neurological efficiency, it is almost certain that it is far above average. But some his other “natural advantages” are obvious at a glance…(1) he is tall, but not too tall…(2)…for his height, he has a long torso and short legs…(3) his hips are wider than average. All of which bodily proportions offer enormous advantages for strength, because they improve some of the leverage factors.

Upon looking at him for the first time, I remarked…”If I was going to design a man to fill his slot in football, the result would be little if any different from the real Dick Butkus.”

But he could have been better. A proper program of heavy exercise could have given him far better “fatty tissue to muscular mass” ratio…making him stronger, faster, and far less likely to suffer injury.

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Jones training Butkus

Despite Butkus’ undoubted genetic advantages, his knee was a glaring problem for both trainee and trainer alike. Returning to Jones’ writings helps gain an appreciation of the severity of Butkus’ problems

When I first saw the injured knee I told Butkus that the knee was almost gone, that he would be lucky of he did not lose the lower leg, that he should not even be walking on that leg and certainly should not consider trying to play football again

When he was standing upright, the injured leg was bent sideways so far that it appeared to be on the bare edge of breaking off at the knee.

Rather than sending Butkus away there and then, Jones stayed long enough to learn of Butkus’ off the field predicaments.

Having explained the gravity of the situation to Butkus, he then told me that he had to continue to play football, that he had played-out his previous contract and would be required to pass a very detailed physical examination performed by a doctor employed by the Chicago Bears professional football team in order to get a new contract.

Then he told me just what the coach of that team had been doing to him during the previous year’s playing season: they had been injecting his knee with pain-killing drugs and then sending him onto the field to play.

For those readers unaware of Jones’ public persona, he displayed an remarkable intolerance for many in the medical profession, who in his eyes did more harm than good for their patients. While this was not the case for all physicians, as Jones himself would admit, the actions of the Bears’ medical staff quickly earned Jones’ ire.

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Writing in the 1990s, two decades after the meeting, Jones revealed that

Having heard Dick’s story, I then told him . . . “While what I am going to suggest comes very close to outright fraud, I am prepared to do it only because of what they have been doing to you, which actions were nothing short of an outright crime. I cannot replace or repair the knee joint, it is simply gone, but, if you can stand the pain, and it will be very painful, I can make the muscles of your leg very strong in spite of the injured knee. Then, if their supposed “experts” are dumb enough to sign a one-legged man to a contract to play football, then that is their problem. Tit for tat.

Over the next few months, Jones put Butkus through a serious of strenuous workouts aimed firstly at building the muscles around his knee joint and secondly at improving Butkus’ overall body composition. Known in the bodybuilding community as one of the fiercest trainers around, as a man who pushed people as close to, and at times past, the point of exhaustion, there is little doubt that this process caused Butkus immense discomfort.

Thankfully, at least in Butkus’ eyes, his results paid off. Returning to Chicago for preseason, Butkus, then in his early thirties, passed his medical examination with flying colours. In fact, so impressed were the Chicago medical staff that Butkus received a five year ‘no cut’ contract, which meant that the team would be required to pay him for the following five years regardless of injuries.

As Jones’ had foretold however, Butkus’ recovery was truly illusory. In his ninth game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons, Butkus pulled himself out of the game due to injury. Several weeks later he retired.

Aftermath

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While the Bears initially sought to renege on their contractual obligations with Butkus, the player eventually won out. In 1974, Butkus brought a court case against his former employers for alleged mismanagement regarding his injuries and revealed to the judge and the public that he had been on the receiving end of a litany of cortisol shots and painkillers to help him make it through the NFL season.

Under immense pressure both publicly and privately, the Bears soon settled the case for $600,000, a figure it was hoped would allow Butkus to set about recovering his health. Sadly this wasn’t the case.

Though Butkus underwent surgery on his knee in the late 1970s, it is said that he struggled on a daily basis to run, jump or at times walk. While matters improved with another surgery in the 1990s, the damage was never truly reversed.

Athur Jones for his part hired Butkus soon after the athlete’s retirement as a promoter for Nautilus products and in the early 1990s released a book detailing his involvement in the Butkus injury fiasco. Though Jones’ work has been in circulation for two decades now, few journalists or authors had attempted to verify his influence over Butkus at the time.

Did the two men collude to defraud the Chicago Bears? Or were the Bears rightly punished for pressuring players to play? For Jones the answer was crystal clear

Fraud upon the part of Dick and myself? Perhaps, but given the circumstances I believed it was justified.

Fans of Butkus and/or the Bears, will have to make up their own minds.

Sources

Arthur Jones, The Future of Exercise (1997), Chapter Two.

Arthur Jones, The Relationship of Muscular Size to Strength (Unpublished). Both available at ArthurJonesExercise.com.

Barry McDermott, ‘Exercise you later alligator’, Sports Illustrated, 21 April (1975). Available here.

Thomas George, ‘Pro Football; Care by Team Doctors Raises Conflict Issue’, The New York Times, 28 July (2002). Available here.

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