LeRoy Butler’s Hall of Fame wait, a case study in perseverance

LeRoy Butler, credited with originating the Lambeau Leap, is the first to pose with the piece during the unveiling of the Lambeau Leap sculpture on Harlan Plaza at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. After starring for the Seminoles, Butler helped recast the safety position in the NFL and restore Green Bay's glory days during a 12-year career that featured five All-Pro selections and landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2022.  (Jim Matthews/The Green Bay Press-Gazette via AP, File)

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LeRoy Butler, credited with originating the Lambeau Leap, is the first to pose with the piece during the unveiling of the Lambeau Leap sculpture on Harlan Plaza at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. After starring for the Seminoles, Butler helped recast the safety position in the NFL and restore Green Bay's glory days during a 12-year career that featured five All-Pro selections and landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2022. (Jim Matthews/The Green Bay Press-Gazette via AP, File)

CANTON, Ohio – Former Packers safety LeRoy Butler had one of the more improbable journeys to football immortality from the projects of Jacksonville, Florida, to a bronze bust in this football mecca in northeastern Ohio.

Butler overcome a physical disability, poverty and a reading disorder to play at Florida State for the legendary Bobby Bowden. As a pro, he helped to restore some luster the Packers legacy after their moribund post-Vince Lombardi years.

In the NFL, he went through a position switch early in his career, and that move led to a 12-year career which included being named All-Pro four times, a Super Bowl title and spot on the All-decade team of the 1990s.

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Corky Rogers, who played at Georgia Tech, was Butler’s high school coach at Robert E. Lee High (which has been renamed Riverside High).

“Coach Rogers was everything to me,” Butler said. “Coach Rogers was the one who sat me down and told me that you must go to college because where you’re from, in the inner city, those kids are going to look up to you.”

Butler, who grew up wearing braces on his legs, lived in the housing projects with his mother, Eunice O. Butler. Because of structural issues in his feet, eh could only walk short distances and could not run.

Through it all, Butler remained optimistic as his mother preached to him about being patient.

“It was hard in the projects,” Butler said. “Poverty. Single-parent home. Going back and forth to Hope Haven, the children’s hospital, at that time, being extremely pigeon-toed. Here it is, I’m telling my mom that I’m going to play in the NFL.”

How he was going to go from learning how to walk to playing in the NFL?

“She asked me why football?” Butler said. “I said, ‘Mom, the reason why I want to play the NFL is because it’s the ultimate team sport. ... I mean, can you imagine if you’re a special-needs kid, you get to school you get bullied for wearing hand-me-downs.

“Not being able to eat the hot lunches because I had free or reduced lunch. Not being picked at the playground because I had these braces on my legs.”

The Butlers were so poor that he remembers his first new shirt, and it was from the Salvation Army.

“My teachers were amazing because they never made me feel like I was different,” Butler said. “In the special-needs department, the teachers were fantastic. I felt like a normal student.”

By junior high, Butler, has shed his braces and was starting to play well in football and basketball. At Lee High, his path crossed with Rogers, who played quarterback, defensive back and wide receiver at Tech from 1962-65 for the legendary Bobby Dodd.

“I just knew that one day God was going to give me the ability to not only ignore the kids, but just say that I didn’t necessarily have to run a 4.1, 4.2 or 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash) to make it,” Butler said.

Rogers, who died in February 2020, was a legendary coach in Florida, with 10 state championships. He helped Butler land at Florida State.

“Coach Rogers looked me in the eye and said I think you’re going to like coach Bowden,” Butler said. “I said, why is that. Guess what, he only has one visit to a home and he picked yours. I’m a Prop 48 (partial qualifier). I’m not going to play my freshman year.”

Rogers just loved Bowden’s faith, Butler contended.

“I was so lucky,” Butler said. “And it made me say to myself, so why is God choosing you to navigate these rough waters and keep giving you great people? ... That was the reason why I picked coach Bowden. ... If Bobby Bowden was living today, he was the top person who would have presented me into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

Butler was selected in the fourth round (48th overall) by the Green Bay Packers in the 1990 draft. He played cornerback the first two seasons before crossing paths with defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur and defensive back coach Ray Rhodes on coach Mike Holmgren’s 1992 staff.

“Fritz Shurmur, to say he changed my life, is an understatement,” Butler said. “Ray Rhodes called me up and said we’re moving you because we want to draft Terrell Buckley at corner. You’ve got to go to safety.”

The Packers had this plan to use Butler in the slot to cover the third receiver or the tight end, and he could blitz. So, Butler could play either free safety, strong safety or nickel back from the team’s base defense.

Opponents didn’t know where Butler would align and at 6-foot and 197 pounds, he helped to shred offense’s passing plans behind the stout defense front that was anchored by Hall of Famer Reggie White.

Butler went on to be named All-Pro in 1993, ‘96, ‘97 and ‘98. Butler finished with 38 interceptions and 20.5 sacks, nearly becoming the first NFL player to finish with 40 interceptions and 20 sacks.

“When Fritz came in, this is why I love him, he didn’t come in and act like the smartest guy in the room,” Butler said. “He took me to the next level. He was the first coach to ever ask me, what do you think? Loved that. Fritz, rest in peace. I just miss and love him.”

Butler is a beloved figure in Green Bay. He is credited with starting the famed “Lambeau Leap.”

“I remember that day so clearly,” Butler said. “I remember getting to the stadium. I went over to the thermostat, and I saw a minus – I’m from Duval County -- and I saw a minus next to a 16. I thought they forfeit games. I didn’t think they played in games that cold.”

But once the game started, Butler warmed up.

“I just remember causing a fumble and Mike Holmgren always said if you get a fumble, you’re a defensive player, don’t lateral the ball,” Butler said. “Reggie wanted to do it. So, Reggie laterals this ball going down the sideline, and it was all spontaneous. I jumped up there, I started hugging the fans.”

Wide receiver Robert Brooks then made a song about the Lambeau Leap, and the rest is history.

It was a long wait for Butler, who was selected in his 16th year of eligibility and his third time as a finalist.

Butler reflected on his journey up the rough side of life’s mountain.

“Especially out of my environment,” Butler said. “You’ve got all these negatives, you know, single parent, poverty, but to throw in special needs and not being able to read. … That kind of stuff really developed my mindset.

“So, that’s who I represent. I represent the kids that have special needs. My son, Leroy Butler IV, has autism. That’s my guy. So, it means a lot.”

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