CHAMPAIGN — A man some view as the toughest, meanest, hard-as-nails athlete in the world stood in the State Farm Center and fought back tears Saturday.

Dick Butkus punched his huge meaty fist into his other hand and shouted into the microphone, urging himself to finish his speech and take it over the finish line.

He barely made it, wrapping up an emotional, gratitude-filled University of Illinois Athletic Hall of Fame acceptance speech by breathlessly gasping, “Thank you. I’m outta here.”

That’s when Dick Butkus stalked off the stage as the crowd climbed to their feet and roared, shocked and thrilled at seeing the hulking man with the hardest exterior display a soft side he may have never previously shared.

“Who ever thought you’d see Dick Butkus get sacked?” emcee Ryan Baker said as Butkus was nearly swallowed up by his own emotions. “That was awesome!”

It clearly was a highlight in a series of heartfelt speeches by many of the inductees who made up the 28-person inaugural Hall of Fame class.

The class was honored this summer at a formal gala in Chicago. But Saturday’s ceremony was a free public event on campus.

Even those honored posthumously got a rich tribute.

Virginia McCaskey, the 94-year-old daughter of Chicago Bears founder George Halas, used a walker to reach the microphone and spoke eloquently on behalf of her father.

She even recalled another honoree, former Illini and Chicago Bears running back Harold “Red” Grange.

“He joined the Bears just before my third birthday and I knew him throughout all the years of his life,” she said.

Jerry Colangelo, the sports entrepreneur, said Champaign-Urbana will always have a special place in his heart. “I met my wife here,” he said, “and we’ve been married 57 years.”

Craig Virgin, the decorated distance runner from Lebanon, Ill., received a standing ovation from more than 20 teammates who assembled to salute their friend.

In turn, he gave an emotional salute to his former coach, Gary Wieneke, now 79 years old. “He was the most important professor I had at this university,” Virgin said.

Wieneke was seated just down from former Illini basketball coach Lou Henson, who has already been announced as the first member of the second Hall of Fame class, to be inducted next year.

“He has to learn to play in ball screens more, understanding that it’s not a 6-4 high school center that is hedging or helping. That it’s going to be a 6-9, 6-10 athlete and potential shot-blocker, that he has to learn to make those reads, learn how teams scout him. That will be drastically different than what he has seen at the high school level.

“He spends a ton of time on film. He lives and dies basketball and his commitment level is what has impressed me most.”

Illini Athletic Hall of Famers Mannie Jackson, the one-time owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Jerry Colangelo, regarded as the most powerful man in USA Basketball, each addressed the team prior to the start of Saturday’s practice, which Illini coach Brad Underwood said would last three hours.

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Mike Monahan covers area sports for the JG-TC.

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