It might have seemed liked one small jump for LeRoy Butler, but it was actually a giant leap towards becoming a legend.
When Butler received a lateral from Reggie White against the Los Angeles Raiders on December 26, 1993 and ran it in for a touchdown, he had no idea the impact his imminent celebration would have on him or the team he played for. That little hop into the stands was the first Lambeau Leap and would mark the beginning of something truly special, for both Butler and the Green Bay Packers.
Did the safety have any idea the Lambeau Leap would become the staple that it has for one of the NFL’s most storied franchise? “No. No no no no no. Did I say no?”, Butler said during media availability ahead of his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. “I remember that day so clearly,” Butler added, saying he remembers forcing the fumble and catching the lateral from White despite coach Mike Holmgren’s requests never to lateral a fumble recovery. “It’s Reggie White, right?”, Butler said with a smile.
What followed that game became stuff of legend for both team and player. The Packers made the playoffs for the first time since 1982 and Butler earned his first of four All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in his career, officially starting the path that would lead him to Canton as Green Bay’s 28th member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he is formally inducted on August 5. He will be presented for enshrinement by his wife Genesis and will be joined by former teammates.
Butler’s contributions of course go beyond a touchdown celebration and the stat sheet. He helped revolutionize the safety position. Normally safeties were asked only to cover the center of the field, but Butler would become a household name not only by covering tight ends and some opponents’ speediest receivers but also by rushing the passer. Butler racked up 20.5 sacks in his career, becoming the first safety in NFL history to accumulate both 20+ sacks and 30+ interceptions in their career (he finished with 38 picks). Since then, only five other safeties have joined him (Brian Dawkins, Adrian Wilson, Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Milloy, and Charles Woodson — though Woodson of course spent most of his career at cornerback).
The reimagining of how a safety can play started with former defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes when he arrived alongside Holmgren in 1992. But it was really Fritz Shurmur, who replaced Rhodes in 1994, whom Butler says took the new safety concept “to another level.”
“Fritz Shurmur, to say he changed my life, is an understatement,” Butler said. When Rhodes was still defensive coordinator, Butler said he was told he was moving to safety because the team was drafting Terrell Buckley. Rhodes had plan not only for Butler “to cover third receivers, tight ends, but (also) maybe go after the quarterback.”
Then Shurmur arrived and turned everything up to 11. He knew Butler could be something special, but he would have to accept coaching to get him where he wanted to go. For his part, Butler was ready to listen and reward his coordinator and other coaches for the long days they would put in. “If they’re going to put in those kinds of hours, I owe it to them to listen and let them shape me.”
Butler added that Shurmur was also the first coach he had “that would ask me, ‘What do you think?’” It’s not hard to see why the soon-to-be-Hall of Famer would run through a wall for the former defensive coordinator and that relationship resulted in Butler recording 15.5 of his 20.5 career sacks and 21 of his 38 career interceptions under Shurmur’s tutelage.
Shurmur’s defenses featured another Hall of Famer in White, and Butler was witness to both the Minister of Defense and a young quarterback named Brett Favre etch their own names in the story of the Packers. “When I looked over to my left or right and saw No. 4 (Favre) getting dressed and when I saw 92 (White) getting dressed, I said to myself ‘we got a chance to win today,” Butler said. He won’t say it, but having 36 in the lineup didn’t hurt either. White garnered a lot of attention and rightfully so, but Butler’s enshrinement shows he had a lot of say in how good Green Bay was on defense in the mid-1990s.
Aside from playing with White, Butler also had a front row seat in watching Favre develop from a wild stallion to the three-time MVP who dominated the NFL. When Favre was still an up and comer, Butler remembers telling Favre “Listen, if you think you can throw it over the cornerback’s head, between the linebackers and before the safety, do it. It’s my job to go get it back. Just play.”
The rest is of course history and the words Butler shared with Favre eventually came back around to the safety. Once on a rare occasion when Butler was had for a touchdown, it was now the quarterback’s turn to do the reassuring. “I’m upset, and he would come down to the bench and say ‘RoyLee, I got you.’ The he would go out and throw a bomb.” Butler said he appreciated Favre because he wasn’t scared — any player who thought he could go out and play would have number 36 in his corner.
Now Butler will be joining his quarterback and defensive teammate in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet according to Butler, he’s standing on the shoulder of everyone he played with regardless of historical pedigree. “If it wasn’t for my teammates, I wouldn’t be doing this interview,” Butler said. “The reason I want to play in the NFL is it’s the ultimate team sport. I get to actually have 10 other guys on the field help me win a game.”
Butler indeed did win many football games and in just over two weeks, he will make one last leap. The only difference is that instead of the Lambeau Field stands, this time he will be making the leap to football immortality.