By Sam Fiske
Up until his final days, legendary Bears linebacker Doug Buffone related more to the hard-working people of Chicago than any type of celebrity.
“We had more in common with the fan,“ Buffone said of he and his teammates in a phone interview with Medill Reports last Thursday. “We’d work our asses off, [the fan would] work his ass off.”
Buffone, 70, died Monday at home in Chicago. Buffone played all 14 of his NFL seasons with the Bears and is widely considered the team’s best linebacker not in the Hall of Fame. His 186 games played are fifth all-time in franchise history, and his 24 career interceptions are the most by any Bears linebacker.
“I’m just hoping people will remember how good he was,” said Don Pierson, who covered the Bears for the Chicago Tribune for 12 of Buffone’s 14 seasons. “Those were really forgettable years. I remember the coach saying ‘We’re playing with old Continental players.’”
The Continental Football League, which folded in 1969, was a pro league made up players who couldn’t make it into the NFL.
“[Buffone] had to have a sense of humor to be on that many losing teams,” Pierson said of a career that included only three seasons with winning records. “We would unfairly lean on him to explain what happened [after losses]. One time he said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t do it [anymore].’”
More than his stat totals, Buffone was celebrated for his toughness, passion and dedication to the Bears. He enjoyed reiterating his decision to join the Bears by telling the San Diego Chargers, who drafted him in the AFL, that, “I can’t play where there are palm trees.”
While he cracked jokes last week about “real football” being in cold weather cities, he acknowledged the success of the NFL came from the heavy travel and constant promotion by the teams and their owners, such as the original Bears owner George Halas.
“The seed was planted even before me,” Buffone said during the interview for the upcoming NFL Draft. “George Halas would travel around, scheduling three games a week, he promoted this game.
“[We would go from] Iowa to Oregon by train trying to get the nation to see what the game is all about.”
Other than his NFL career, Buffone was well-known for his success in the restaurant/bar business, which he got into after his second NFL season, and his sports radio work as a commentator and talk show host for WSCR-AM 670 after retiring.
It is easy to forget that Buffone was a multi-talented athlete before joining the Bears as a fourth-round selection in the 1966 NFL Draft. In addition to football, he played basketball and baseball at the University of Louisville.
“I had my sights to play baseball,” Buffone said. “I wanted to be drafted for the Dodgers.”
He even had an eye for basketball, though that was short-lived in his time in college. “I played against guys that were 6-7, 6-8 and long arms,” said Buffone, who was 6-3. “I had no chance.”
His feelings, however, were not hurt.
“I realized I had the stuff to play football, so I went ahead and did that,” Buffone said. “I think I made the right decision.”
His decision made him an icon in the city. He may not have been of the same caliber as Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, but he was of the tougher-than-nails-caliber that characterized the Bears defense, and had a warm, camaraderie-building persona that served him well on the field, in business and in radio.
“Football, there was nothing like it,” Buffone said.