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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: