Editor’s note: Chip Marshall is a Cedar Rapids native and former Gazette sports writer who now lives in Glenview, Ill.
By Chip Marshall, community contributor
Doug Buffone died on April 20 of natural causes. In his home. Gone, just like that.
The former Chicago Bears linebacker and popular Chicago sports radio personality was 70. He wore number 55 with the Bears.
Buffone was a sports hero of mine. And of many other lifelong Bears fans, who, at our age, of the baby boomers era, are faced with the departures of our favorite athletes and pop culture icons on what seems like a weekly basis. We’re “Old School,” as was Doug Buffone.
For those of us who grew up as Bears fans in the 1960s and ’70s, the news of Buffone’s sudden passing hit us like a forearm shiver. His former teammates and pals, like Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka and Ed O’Bradovich, were devastated. Emotional radio colleagues at WSCR-AM (670) the Score radio station in Chicago, where Buffone was a passionate and fun-loving Bears football analyst and program co-host for 20-plus years, were comforted by callers sharing happy memories.
Having watched these now-old Bears play the game, under franchise founder and head coach George Halas and his successors, we take these news headlines especially hard, if only briefly to reflect. Part of our childhood has left us.
Doug Buffone was one of ours. We knew he was one of the greatest Bears of all — without Hall of Fame status or even a single Pro Bowl appearance to show for his 14-year career. We knew he was blatantly underrated, and didn’t garner the recognition he deserved. After retiring following the 1979 season, his Bears career totals read: 186 games, 1,257 tackles, 24 interceptions (most by a Bears linebacker), 10 fumble recoveries, nine forced fumbles and 37 sacks. For eight of those seasons, he served as defensive captain. He recorded 100-plus tackles in seven seasons.
We complained, but we knew why Buffone was overlooked. He played alongside Hall of Fame middle linebacker Dick Butkus, arguably the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL. To say Buffone played in the shadow of the feared and legendary No. 51 is nothing but the truth.
Together, Butkus and Buffone were synonymous with the rough and tough Bears defense of our day.
Steve Wampler, 61, is a lifelong Bears fan who teaches at Linn-Mar High School. He knows.
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“I have a picture of Doug Buffone down in (my) man cave,” he said. “It shows Buffone getting up off the ground next to Butkus. They had just destroyed a (San Francisco) 49ers running back that is still on his back. That’s the way it was during my years growing up watching football. Buffone, right next to Butkus, taking care of business. Butkus got the press, for good reason, while Buffone was more of a quieter, steadier wrecking machine and leader right next to him. They were so much fun to watch.”
Cedar Rapids native and University of Iowa graduate Howie Beardsley, now living in Comstock Park, Mich., remembers being inspired watching Buffone and the Bears as a youth. He went on to a 24-year career as a sports writer for the Grand Rapids Press newspaper.
“First of all, I apologize to the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. But, as a baby boomer growing up in Cedar Rapids, you weren’t a true NFL fan if you weren’t a Chicago Bears fan,” said Beardsley, 58, who now works with special needs adults as an employee of Hope Network and moonlights as a high school and college referee and umpire. “And when you think of the countless Bears legends back in the day, then you thought of linebacker Doug Buffone, who, truly, stood side-by-side next to the great ones, like Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and the likes.
“But what made Buffone even more special than those NFL Hall of Famers,” Beardsley added, “is that he played 14 seasons, was the last active player to compete for legendary Bears coach George Halas, and played in 186 games for such a proud, historic pro football franchise. To me, that makes Doug Buffone a truly special, and very admired Chicago Bear.”
Don Muret, 54, a facilities reporter at SportsBusiness Journal the past 12 years and a Cedar Rapids native now living in Charlotte, N.C., enjoyed watching the Bears’ hard-hitting defense in Buffone’s day, but also remembers how awful the Bears’ offense was on those teams.
“I remember Doug Buffone as a tough linebacker who mostly played on horrible Bears teams,” said Muret, a former sports writer. “I did a little bit of research and came across one stat that Buffone played under five Bears head coaches, unofficially the highest number for any player in team history.”
Like Beardsley, Muret was most impressed with Buffone’s tenure.
“It is amazing that he lasted (14 seasons) in the NFL and was a teammate of both Gale Sayers and Walter Payton,” Beardsley said. “In the wake of his death, I wonder why he is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Some say it’s because he played in the shadow of Dick Butkus. I feel Buffone’s stats as well as his longevity call for inclusion in Canton.”
I’ve grown to know my old football hero, Doug Buffone, better as a younger generation has — the ever-popular radio sports personality and Bears weekly expert analyzer on the Score. He teamed with O’Bradovich as co-hosts of the “Doug and OB” call-in show following Bears game broadcasts. It serves as an on-air podium for fans of the beloved to vent and bemoan losses with the equally riled up ex-Bears.
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“It became must-listen radio for all Bears die-hards,” said Muret, who spent 13 years in Chicago. “They held nothing back in their criticism after a loss but also gave praise when necessary after a win.”
I was a regular caller to the show, and I had the good fortune of meeting Buffone on several occasions over the years, including our initial face-to-face at a long ago Bears Fan Convention. I felt as if he still recognized me from the photo op, you know, of the star-struck-kid-turned-adult fan of his who could barely blubber: “I can’t believe I’m standing here with Doug Buffone! My brothers and I were always imitating you and Butkus in our backyard games.”
He probably didn’t remember me from Adam after meeting those few times, but I always got a charge when Buffone cued up the Score’s holding fans with his Bears-like voice. “Let’s go up to Chip in Glenview. What’s up Chip?”
Rest in peace, Mr. Buffone. And, thank you.