Butler, Leroy 1968–
Leroy Butler 1968–
Professional football player
The story of an athlete’s rise to professional stardom and championship heroics is usually interesting enough on its own merits. Throw in childhood poverty in a single-parent household, and it becomes inspirational. For good measure, add to the story congenital foot deformities resulting in an early childhood spent on the sidelines in a wheelchair, and you have the makings of a real-life fairy tale. All-Pro defensive back LeRoy Butler of the Green Bay Packers has led such a fairy tale of a life.
Butler was born July 19, 1968, in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his mother, Eunice, supported Butler and his four siblings by working first as a secretary and later as a nurse. The family lived in a small apartment in the crime-infested Blodgett Homes housing project on Jacksonville’s west side. The street he grew up on “had more chalk lines marking dead bodies than hopscotch lines,” Butler was quoted as saying in a 1997 Sports Illustrated feature.
As a child, Butler’s problems went beyond poverty and crime. He was born so pigeon-toed that doctors had to break bones in both of his feet at the age of eight months to correct the deformity. It was a major struggle just to walk, and Butler spent much of his early youth in a wheelchair. Between the ages of six and eight, he was forced to wear the kind of leg braces later made famous by the title character in the movie Forrest Gump. At the time, doctors figured Butler would be lucky if he ended up walking normally. Becoming a professional athlete was not thought to be one of his possible futures. He spent most of his early childhood sitting at the window watching the other neighborhood kids play kickball.
Butler finally shed his leg braces when he was eight, in a turn of events that sounds more like a movie than real life. As his older sister, Vicki, raced out of the apartment one day, she accidentally knocked Butler out of his wheelchair, sending his leg braces flying as well. Picking himself up, Butler discovered that he could not only walk normally, but he could also run pretty well. He immediately ran outside and joined the kickball game in progress. Still more amazing was the fact that he was not just running reasonably well—he was suddenly the fastest kid around.
Born LeRoy Butler III July 19, 1968, in Jacksonville, FL; son of Eunice Butler (a secretary and nurse); children: Sharon, L’Oreal, and Gabrielle; Education: attended Florida State University.
Career: Starred at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, FL, 1983-85, and at Florida State University, 1987-89; drafted in second round (48th overall) by Green Bay Packers, 1990; became Packers’ starting cornerback, 1991; starting strong safety for Packers, 1992—.
Awards: Prep All-America, 1985; AP and UPI All-America at Florida State University, 1989; first team All-Pro, 1993, 1996, and 1997.
Addresses: Residence— Jacksonville, FL; Agent—Gene Burrough, 7632 Las Palmas Way, Jacksonville, FL 32256.
Having been transformed from wheelchair-bound wallflower to speed demon virtually overnight, Butler was suddenly a star athlete. By age 10, he was starring on the neighborhood football team. After junior high, he was recruited by football powerhouse Robert E. Lee High School on the other side of town. Another player who made the same move was Edgar Bennett, a running back who has been a lifelong friend and teammate of Butler’s, from junior high, through high school and college, into the pros, where the pair continues to excel for the Packers. At Robert E. Lee, Butler earned seven varsity letters in all—three in football and two each in basketball and track.
By his senior year in high school, Butler was a unanimous All-America pick, and he was heavily recruited by colleges all over the country. For their own safety, Butler would meet recruiters at a nearby gas station and escort them into the projects, where he enjoyed hero status. Butler accepted a football scholarship to Florida State University, where he shared the defensive backfield for two years with another future celebrity, two-sport superstar Deion Sanders. As a three-year starter at Florida State, Butler recorded totals of 194 tackles and nine interceptions. Nearly 95 of those tackles and seven of the interceptions came in his senior year alone. For his efforts, Butler was selected first-team All-America by both the Associated Press and the United Press International.
Butler was chosen by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 1990 NFL draft, the 48th player selected overall. He made his presence felt in his rookie year, playing at cornerback in all 16 games and sharing the team lead with three interceptions. Butler earned the starting role in 1991. Starting every game for the Packers that season, he again shared the team lead in interceptions, and recorded 63 total tackles. In spite of his personal success, however, the Packers’ won only ten games and lost 22 during Butler’s first two years in the league. The arrival of a new head coach, Mike Holmgren, in 1992 turned the team around. Holmgren moved Butler from cornerback to strong safety, where he finished fourth on the team with 73 tackles, helping the Packers to their first winning season since Butler’s arrival.
During the 1993 season, Butler emerged as a star in the NFL, and the undisputed leader of the Packers’ defensive secondary. Named the team’s Most Valuable Defensive Player, Butler intercepted six passes and made 111 tackles. For his exploits, Butler received a host of additional honors: he was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press, Pro Football Weekly, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, and Football Digest; he was chosen to All-NFC teams by United Press International and Football News; and he was named to the Pro Bowl roster as an alternate, replacing an injured player. Butler was also responsible for originating the Lambeau Leap, now a Packer tradition, when he jumped into the stands after returning a fumble for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Raiders during a 1993 home game.
Instead of building on the success of 1993, however, Butler spent much of the 1994 season battling back from a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. Although he missed only three games and managed to start the final 11, he never regained his strength and stamina completely, and overall the season was a big disappointment for him. The 1995 season was another story altogether. Fully recovered, Butler not only regained his physical powers, but emerged as a team leader as well. His outspoken, exuberant style both on and off the field made Butler popular among teammates, fans, and reporters. On the field, he managed to lead the Packer defense in both tackles, with 117, and interceptions, with five. With Butler anchoring the defense, the team reached the NFC championship game, in which they fell to the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1996, Butler and the Packers played dominating football for the entire season. With Butler regaining his All-Pro status, the team coasted through the playoffs, and easily defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl to become NFL champions. By this time, Butler was the only Packer still on the team from the pre-Holmgren era. Entering the 1997 season, most football fans expected more of the same from the Packers, and they were not disappointed. Although the season was not quite as easy as the previous year seemed to be, the team finished the regular season with 13 wins and only three losses, the same as 1996. Butler was again named All-Pro.
As a star member of a high-profile team, Butler has become one of the more visible figures in professional football. Always outspoken and opinionated, he appears to relish the role, to the delight of sports journalists nationwide. “I’ll say certain things others wouldn’t dare say,” Butler told Tim Froberg of the Packer Report. “That’s just the way I’ve always been. I expect a lot from my team and a lot from myself.” In spite of his stellar achievements on the field, however, Butler remains keenly aware of what it took to reach those heights. In recent years, he bought himself a lavish house in the nicest part of Jacksonville, and has supported a number of organizations that work with disadvantaged young people. “I’ll never forget where I came from …” Butler told Froberg. “The road I took to get here wasn’t always smooth. It’s been bumpy.” Opposing receivers have found their road over the middle of the Packer secondary equally bumpy, thanks to the efforts of LeRoy Butler.
Packer Report, September 23, 1995.
Sports Illustrated, February 1997 (Special Commemorative Edition); May 22, 1997.
Tampa Tribune, January 4, 1998.
Wisconsin State Journal, October 27, 1997.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from the Green Bay Packers’ site on the World Wide Web, at http://www.packers.com/team/players/butler_leroy/personal.html.
—Robert R. Jacobson