2007 ACC Football Legend: Clemson's Jerry Butler
Oct. 30, 2007
By Wilt Browning
Had Jerry Butler not reached into the night sky and grabbed a piece of history that Saturday in November 1977, he still could have been a happy man.
At the moment history came knocking, Butler in mere months would become a consensus All-American football player. A split end for the Clemson Tigers, he already had become a big-league headache for opposing Atlantic Coast Conference defenses, and he was only getting better at what he did. In a bit more than a year, he would become the fifth player chosen in the National Football League draft, selected by the Buffalo Bills. Within two years the American Football Conference of the NFL would name him its Rookie of the Year.
In years then unseen, Butler would some day be summoned back to Clemson and to Death Valley. There, his No. 15 and his name would be placed in the school's hallowed Ring of Honor to be memorialized along the façade of Memorial Stadium, there with the likes of Banks McFadden, Frank Howard and Butler's old quarterback, Steve Fuller.
And he could not have dreamed that the ACC itself would deem him a Legend and invite him to the league championship game to be honored with 11 other legendary football stars in the Class of 2007 in Jacksonville, Fla. Nov. 30-Dec. 1.
It is not as though Butler set out to do wonderful things on the football field nor did he ever dream of such immortality. Truth is, he was more interested for a time in perhaps doing wonderful things in Olympic venues such as Moscow, Los Angeles and Seoul where the Games would be convened when the sprinter from Ware Shoals, S.C., would perhaps be in his prime.
Indeed, he had made a name for himself as a high school track star, a lean, strong athlete built for speed, the possessor of so much physical ability that football coaching staffs at the University of Georgia, which tried mightily to recruit him, and Clemson, which won the talent tug-of-war, had taken notice.
All of that would have been just about enough.
But along came November 19, 1977.
"It had to be done," Butler said with a laugh in the phone call from his Cleveland, Ohio, office where he works in the field of player development for the NFL's Browns.
The "it" to which Butler referred was a sliver of time still known in South Carolina as "The Catch."
Lest "The Catch" be compared to other catches, it should be noted that nationally known sports writer Ivan Maisel, in searching through 138 years of college football history for ESPN.com, deemed Butler's masterpiece one the 100 "defining" plays ever.
What it was was a busted play, but it came with just 49 seconds left in a game played in the most hostile venue any Clemson player has ever known, South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium. More importantly, it gave Clemson a 31-27 victory over the Gamecocks and in the process rescued the Tigers who had blown a 24-0 lead.
"It is the most memorable play in a most memorable rivalry," Maisel wrote.
If "The Catch" marked a rivalry for the ages, it also left Butler a special identity. It is not unlike the typecasting sometimes attended upon a movie star who wins an Oscar. Now close to 20 years removed for the "defining" moment, Butler now knows that he always will be remembered principally for one single play as though all the others, collegiate and professional, were merely background fodder.
For example, Butler said, "I don't remember the name of the play Steve called in the huddle. I just remember that my responsibility was a `seven-cut', which was a corner route."
His heart racing more rapidly than his feet, Butler broke on the snap from the line of scrimmage at the 20-yard line. He faked a break to the post and turned left, heading to his assigned area in the corner of the end zone. By the time he looked first for the ball, and then into the backfield, he found Fuller in trouble. All bets were off, and Butler turned once more toward the goal line which he already had crossed in running his pattern.
What happened then is the stuff of - pardon the pun - legend.
"I knew Steve had been taught not to take a sack in that situation, and I knew he'd try to throw the ball out of the end zone," Butler said. "I knew also that if I could make a quick adjustment, he might find me."
As Butler hooked back toward the goal, South Carolina defenders went with him. "So, I knew I had all of the end zone behind me if I needed it," he said over the long distance line.
But now Fuller's world is falling apart and, true to his training, he has launched the ball into uncertain flight.
"I can still see that ball," Butler said. "It looked kind of white against the black sky. He's throwing it toward the back of the end zone. He's throwing it away!"
In the slow-motion of memory, Butler knows now that his quick thought was "What the heck! I might as well see what I can do. So I just reacted.
"I didn't think I had a chance." But in mid-doubt, a funny thing seemed to happen. "That ball seemed to come down a little bit. Steve had thrown it like it was supposed to go out of the back of the end zone. But I went up and ..."
And Williams-Brice fell silent except for the end of the stadium where the people in orange sat collectively holding their breath. Leaping as high as he had ever leaped and reaching higher into the sky than he had ever reached, Butler somehow had clutched that spinning football out of the air high over the goal line, and now he was falling backwards into the end zone.
"But this is a part of the story I have never told anybody until now," Butler was saying softly. "When I caught that ball, I had two jammed fingers.
"I had created my own homemade wrap that would let me spread my fingers apart, kind of like a web. I never liked to have my fingers taped together. I wore my own kind of wrap not only then, but through my years in the NFL.
"That wrap had made the difference with my two jammed fingers that night. When I caught that ball, I was clutching it in both hands, but one of my fingers was sticking straight out.
"Didn't matter. (There was) no way I was going to drop that ball. But nobody knows that. Well, I guess they do now."
"I think it was important," Butler said in something of an understatement. "That win got us into our first bowl game in six years. And we went again my senior year (both times to the Gator Bowl). All that set the stage, in my opinion, for the 1981 national championship."
All in all, it is the stuff of legend.
Wilt Browning is a special contributor to theACC.com. He spent more than 40 years as a sports editor and columnist in the Southeast. He worked for the Greenville News, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Asheville Citizen-Times. His numerous awards include five North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year honors. He is also the author of five books, including Come Quittin' Time which was released this summer.
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