When you were growing up, how often did you look at a kid wearing braces on their legs and having difficulty walking and think how sorry you felt for them? That they wouldn’t be able to lead a normal life?
You can bet many of LeRoy Butler’s peers looked at him similarly and while some bullied him, others likely pitied him. Born with pigeon toes and sometimes spending time in a wheelchair as well as utilizing braces, the kid from Jacksonville, Florida who harbored NFL dreams was probably not even a second thought to many while growing up. After all, he couldn’t run and jump like other kids and quite a few NFL players are pegged from a very young age.
Oh and top of that, Butler also grew up in poverty. To achieve his dreams, he would have to overcome limitations, both physical and financial.
Now, almost 50 years later, no one will forget Butler as he formally embraced his football immortality as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, officially number 257 overall. It marks the end of a 16-year wait for the Green Bay Packers legend and the culmination of a career that took him from Florida to Wisconsin and finally to Canton.
For his part, Butler wouldn’t have traveled his journey any other way and he credited his mother for keeping his head full of motivation when their wallets were anything but.
“My mom, growing up in poverty, made us think rich every day,” Butler said during his induction speech. “It’s not about what you have on or what you have. It’s how you act.”
Butler’s dogged determination and perseverance was fueled by his teachers growing up who Butler said told him “don’t worry about it,” in terms of his limitations. “Just play.” He soon found himself under the tutelage of legendary Florida high school football coach Corky Rogers at what was then Robert E. Lee High School. Under Rogers’ tutelage, Butler honed his game and caught the attention of another legendary football coach: Bobby Bowden of Florida State.
Butler will never forget the day Bowden drove into the projects in Jacksonville to inform him he was coming to FSU. “Miss Butler, I’m giving your baby a scholarship,” Butler remembers Bowden telling his mother.
Overcoming physical disabilities and growing up in poverty to make it to an elite college football program is remarkable in itself, but Butler wasn’t finished. He was a standout for the Seminoles, racking up 194 tackles and 9 interceptions as a three-year starter. His performance landed him on the radar of NFL scouts and he was drafted by the Packers in the second round (48th overall) of the 1990 draft, the third safety taken that draft after Mark Carrier of the Chicago Bears and Robert Blackmon of the Seattle Seahawks.
The pairing of the Packers and Butler would go down into history. “The Green Bay Packers changed my life,” Butler said. It didn’t start off looking that way. He had six interceptions in his first two seasons, which saw him playing cornerback, but it wasn’t until a move to safety under defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes that things began to take off. In 1993, Butler earned his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods by tallying 89 combined tackles and a career-high six interceptions. It was a different moment, however, that would become the highlight of Butler’s season and perhaps even his career.
It was Week 17 and the Packers needed a win to clinch the team’s first playoff appearance in a non-strike season in 21 years. Green Bay was hosting the Los Angeles Raiders on a frigid December day. In a game he knew the Packers needed to win, Butler delivered history in a way no one could have imagined. After he forced a fumble off of Raiders quarterback Vince Evans, Reggie White recovered the ball and started sprinting towards the end zone before he lateraled the ball to Butler, who finished the sprint to the end zone and straight into the stands.
The Lambeau Leap was born that day, but so too was a connection between Butler and Packers fans. Oh, wait a second, not Packers fans. Packers OWNERS.
“I am one of the few guys up here, maybe the only guy, to say I don’t go to say hello to fans. I say hello to owners,” Butler said during his speech, paying tribute to Green Bay’s unique management structure. “So when [former Packers president] Bob Harlan called me and said ‘we are going to select you in the second round,’ it meant the world to me.”
That first connection between Butler and the fans was the springboard for many things. It was of course the first celebration that the Packers still use today and it was the start of Green Bay’s dominant run of the 1990s. Yet when Butler leaped into those stands, he made his jump into superstardom that would eventually lead to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He would follow that 1993 campaign with All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections each season from 1996 through 1998 and he was later named a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1990s. Butler also became a Super Bowl champion in style, making a critical sack of New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe to help stymie any hopes of a Patriots comeback in Super Bowl XXXI. That play summed up who Butler was as a safety: He was a playmaker.
A revolutionary safety who could blitz as well as he could cover, Butler was the first safety to finish his career with 20 sacks and over 30 interceptions, helping pave the way for players like Rodney Harrison, Ronde Barber, and Jamal Adams. Safeties were used mainly as coverage men and in run support for the longest time until Butler, under Rhodes and later Fritz Shurmur, was also called upon to rush the passer. It forced opponents to take Butler into account at multiple spots and made him, in the words of former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver and fellow Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, “a thorn in [our] sides.”
Being a revolutionary in any field can inflate some egos, but, in Butler’s eyes, it was all about the other men he shared a locker room with.
“My teammates, I love y’all,” Butler said with Gilbert Brown beside him as one of his presenters. “Where else can you go — the ultimate team sport — that I can have a bad game every now and then….and my other 10 teammates carried me?” Butler knew, as most of the greats do, that it takes 11 hearts beating as one to reach the peak of professional football.
Butler would retire after the 2001 season following a shoulder injury, but he has remained close to the Packers and their fans to this day. When he’s not active on Twitter, doing radio spots, or selling his popular vodka in local grocery stores, Butler is giving speeches to various community groups about ending bullying while speaking from his own experiences. His dedication to service has made him a Hall of Famer in person and not just in football performance.
When he hung up the cleats, many assumed Canton would come calling for Butler. But like many parts of his life, more adversity awaited. He would wait 16 years from the opening of his eligibility window, watching other safeties of his era go in ahead of him like Steve Atwater and John Lynch. Was another lengthy wait like the one Jerry Kramer endured in the wings for yet another Packer?
It was not to be and Butler has now officially become immortalized in pro football heaven. It was the culmination of a career and a life that would not accept any obstacle while excelling at everything despite what some say the odds are. It was a wait that might have seemed long, but, like anything in life, the journey was truly the reward for Butler.
“Sixteen years is a long time, but it’s worth the wait,” Butler said in concluding his enshrinement speech.
Indeed it was, and for Butler, his final leap into history was the biggest one of all: one into football immortality.