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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Jaylon Smith receives the Butkus Award on Saturday from NFL legend Dick Butkus during a ceremony at Bishop Luers.

Butkus a ‘wow’ moment for Luers star

– Bishop Luers senior Jaylon Smith knew about the Butkus Award given out to the top high school linebacker in the nation, but any knowledge of the award’s namesake came from his grandparents. This revelation drew a smile from NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus and laughter from the crowd gathered at the school’s gymnasium Saturday.

Butkus’ exploits on the football field at the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears in the 1960s and ’70s are legendary.

Selected third overall in the 1965 NFL draft, the Chicago native was an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro. He retired after the 1973 season.

Since 1985, the top college linebacker in the nation has received the award. In the last few years, the Butkus Foundation took over the award and since then Butkus has gone to the winner’s hometown, and often their homes, for the presentation.

“It’s just ‘wow.’ being able to receive so many things and meeting great people like Dick Butkus,” Smith said afterward. “It’s really an honor to receive his award, and I am just looking forward to the future. It’s just an honor to talk to a guy like him.”

Winning the award was not a surprise for Smith, who found out Dec. 3, but he received it as part of convocation that included speeches, a Butkus highlight reel, a question-and-answer session with Butkus, Smith and Butkus’ son, Matt. Then, Butkus presented Smith with the trophy, a likeness of Butkus, as Smith’s family, friends, teammates, coaches and others applauded.

Butkus, 70, said afterward that he came up with the idea of personally presenting the award in the winner’s hometown after looking at a picture of himself during his high school playing days in Chicago receiving an award as the city’s player of the year. So he decided to take it on the road.

“It is something that he should remember because we are doing it in his backyard with his family,” Butkus said.

The Butkus Award, sponsored by Pro Football Weekly, is selected by a committee of 51 people, including professional, college and high school scouts and journalists.

Smith earned the award by helping the Knights to a fourth straight Class 2A state championship while playing outside linebacker and running back.

He has also earned the 2012 Indiana Mr. Football and the SAC’s Euell A. Wilson Award.

“All the awards are doing nothing but make me work harder,” Smith said. “I had a workout at 6:45 this morning. It is a desire and a will to win and do whatever it takes to be successful.”

After high school, Smith will go to Notre Dame. The first winner of the high school version of the Butkus Award was Irish senior Manti Te’o, who received the college version Saturday.

“When I was at Notre Dame for my official (visit), I talked to (Te’o),” Smith said. “He was in New York for the Heisman at the time, but he told me congrats, and he was glad to have someone following in his footsteps. He was the first person I met when I first visited Notre Dame in March. He hosted me, and he is very nice.”

Butkus also uses the presentation ceremony for the winners to promote his “Play Clean” platform, which encourages athletes to refrain from using steroids.

“It was important that these are the kind of players that we pick for the award – leaders in the community and not deflect the American tradition of giving back,” Butkus said. “Kids around Fort Wayne are going to look up to Jaylon now, and he’s got kind of a stamp of approval because he has been recognized as the top linebacker in the nation, and that’s pretty significant. We couldn’t have ended up with a better choice.”

And now Smith won’t have to ask his grandparents about Dick Butkus.