The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dave Butz, who helped anchor Washington’s 1980s defenses, dies at 72

Dave Butz helped anchor Washington's defense during the franchise's glory days in the 1980s. (Allen Steele/Getty Images)
5 min

Dave Butz garnered a reputation as something of a gentle giant over his lengthy NFL career, a notion he disabused in the 1980s by becoming a menace to opposing quarterbacks.

“Every quarterback I hit knows I hit him,” Butz said upon his retirement after the 1988 season.

Butz, the massive lineman who helped anchor the defense for Washington’s NFL team in the 1970s and ’80s and was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams, died, the team announced Friday. He was 72. The cause of death was not disclosed.

After a standout college career at Purdue that eventually landed Butz in the College Football Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Cardinals selected him with the fifth pick of the 1973 NFL draft. Butz played only two seasons with St. Louis before departing acrimoniously (a hatred that would fester throughout his career with Washington, which then played the Cardinals twice a year as NFC East rivals). Though Butz technically was a free agent who could sign with whichever team he chose, at the time NFL rules stated the team that signed a free agent had to compensate his former team. That didn’t bother Washington Coach George Allen, who in 1975 paid the Cardinals what was then the largest compensation for a free agent in NFL history: first-round draft picks in 1977 and 1978 plus a second-round pick in 1978.

Allen would call it “one of the best trades I ever made,” even though Butz came to Washington soon after suffering a serious knee injury and would start only 18 of 42 games his first three seasons in D.C. But Butz eventually became a dependable presence at left tackle, starting all but one game for the rest of his career.

Simply massive at 6 foot 7 and 300-plus pounds — he also wore size 12EEEEEEE cleats — Butz eventually became Washington’s primary run-stuffer, his helmet annually showing the scars of his trench wars with offensive linemen.

From 1984: When Butz is inspired, mountains are moved

Butz’s pass-rush skills would soon present themselves as well. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Butz tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks as Washington won its first Super Bowl title, with its defense limiting the Miami Dolphins to 16 yards in the second half of Super Bowl XVII. The next year, Butz’s finest, he recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks and earned Pro Bowl and all-pro honors for the only time in his career, rebutting critics who questioned his supposed lack of a mean streak.

“If you mean do I have the ability to blindside a quarterback or hit him in the middle of the back as he’s throwing the ball, I have absolutely no problem with that whatsoever,” Butz said of his methods. “To hit him with 300 pounds, plus another 30 pounds of equipment.

“Because my problem is I’m immense. Once I’m there, I’m going to hit him. But if I had to hit that quarterback — and I could take his legs out from under him, break his legs or whatever — I wouldn’t do it. I’d still hit him high.

“I’ve broken collarbones, dislocated a few shoulders on some quarterbacks. On one quarterback, I heard the bone break, when [teammate Karl Lorch] and I hit him. He was trying to get up and I said, ‘Stay down; you’re hurt.’ ”

Still, Butz developed a reputation as an enigmatic player who was “equal parts serious and sensitive,” as The Washington Post’s Gary Pomerantz put it in a 1984 profile.

“He kids around a lot, but sometimes it’s hard to tell,” Darryl Grant, who lined up to Butz’s right on Washington’s defensive line, told Pomerantz. “I try to stay clear of him when I’m not sure what his mood is.”

Butz’s 59 career sacks rank fifth in Washington history.

No one questioned Butz’s toughness after a 1987 game against the New York Jets. Butz had been hospitalized for an intestinal virus but checked himself out of an Arlington hospital on the morning of the game. He finished with three tackles and a sack in the 17-16 Washington victory, even though he had lost 26 pounds because of the virus.

“It was,” he said after the game, “the first time in 15 years that I’ve weighed under 300.”

Washington won its second Super Bowl that season, and Butz had two tackles in a 42-10 dismantling of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.

In his final season in 1988, Butz played in his 197th game for Washington, at the time a franchise record. In an interview with The Post around the time he set the record, he recalled coming up six inches short of a touchdown on one of his two career interceptions, in 1981 against the Chicago Bears.

“Only good thing was Walter Payton didn’t catch me,” Butz said of his near score, mentioning the Bears’ legendary running back. “Bad part was that the center did.”

Butz got the game ball the day he broke the record. It was inscribed, “Six inches too short.”