In November 1965, LIFE magazine published an article titled “The Year of the Rookie” — a look at the remarkable crop of players making their debut in what LIFE characterized as “a rough world full of strange codes and crafty old pros.” The article, meanwhile, focused primarily on one rookie in particular, a force of nature named Dick Butkus, and featured photos by the great Bill Eppridge that caught something of the 22-year-old linebacker’s storied intensity on the field.
Here, as the 2013 pro football season wends its chaotic way toward the playoffs (How many teams have a shot at the postseason this year? 20?), LIFE recalls that 1965 season, and especially the one rookie who not only lived up to the hype, but happily stalked it, grabbed it and slammed it, dazed and bruised, to the ground.
As LIFE told its readers:
The Chicago Bears paid Dick Butkus nearly $1,000 a pound to play football for them and every time Butkus crashes into an enemy blocker he returns full value on the pounds, all 245 of them. In his first pro year, he has taken over the middle linebacker’s job and helped restore the legendary ferocity of the Bears’ defense. In the National League, so many first-year men have muscled into the starting lineup — a record 25 — that this has proved the Year of the Rookie. Among the rookies, Butkus so far is the best. A teammate halfback, Gale Sayers, has been the offensive star — he scored four touchdowns in one game and at mid-season led the league ins coring. Olympic sprinting champion Bob Hayes scored three touchdowns for Dallas, the first four times he got the ball. The Giants have sometimes had more rookies in the lineup than veterans — and won more games the first month than they did all last year. The rookies had to make it by brawn and book learning in a rough world full of strange codes and crafty old pros.