2007 ACC Football Legend: Florida State's LeRoy Butler
Nov. 8, 2007
By Wilt Browning
LeRoy Butler has spent most of his life smiling.
But not all of it.
There were times when life was anything but one puntrooskie after another. "There were times when I was very small that I felt sorry for myself," he said in a recent phone conversation. "But if my mother ever saw a tear in my eye, she'd tell me to wipe that tear away `because God put you here and God has a plan for you,' she'd say."
Based upon LeRoy Butler's life, one thus must consider the possibility that God is a football fan.
Born into the tough Blodgett Homes projects in Jacksonville, Fla., on July 19, 1968, LeRoy seemed not to be the perfect man-child. As soon as he began to take steps, it was clear that something was dreadfully wrong with his wiry legs. His toes turned in, almost grotesquely. "I was so pigeon-toed, I could hardly walk," he still remembers.
Running was out of the question. Running was something other children did. Not little LeRoy. He watched more `perfect' children playing and in his dreams would think of some day merely walking without "wobbling from side to side like a penguin."
In time, not only did LeRoy walk, he ran so beautifully that he became a football All-American at Florida State. Then he ran his way through a 12-year career (five of them as an All-Pro) with the Green Bay Packers where, now most of a decade beyond retirement, he remains one of the all-time favorites ever to wear the colors of Bart Starr, Max McGee, Paul Hornung and all the rest.
In a few weeks his walk will be as one of the celebrated heroes as the Atlantic Coast Conference honors 12 football Legends at its Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game in Butler's hometown.
The Legends designation is but the latest accolade to come Butler's way. Indeed, his is a story so inspirational that his new book, The LeRoy Butler Story, may soon be coming to a theater near you in movie form.
So, had there been no therapy, no years of dealing with braces on his growing, forming legs, no months in wheelchairs, what would have become of LeRoy Butler?
"Oh, my God," he said without ecumenical disrespect. "I've thought about that a million times. Not only did I have the problem with my legs when I was a child, I came from the projects and I was a Prop 48 (named for the NCAA's Proposition 48 governing academic non-qualifiers). No way was I supposed to be in school. They didn't have to take me.
"But Coach (Bobby) Bowden gave me the opportunity. It's the only way this could have happened. The Lord blessed him and he blessed me. And I gave Coach Bowden a promise. I told him that if he'd give me the opportunity to play football at Florida State, I wouldn't let him down."
The rest is, of course, a matter of history and a matter or record.
A three-year starter at Florida State, he amassed a total of 194 tackles and nine interceptions as a cornerback/strong safety who demurred not at all when he became the replacement for another departed Seminole legend, Deion Sanders.
If ever there were questions that he could transfer his considerable talents to the NFL, they were totally dispelled in his 12-year career at Green Bay when he is remembered for many things, among them four Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl championship and the creator of the Lambeau Leap which still is being practiced by Packers who leap into the end zone seats at particularly emotional points in NFL games.
If all of Butler's college football experiences - the joy of the man, the talent, his inclination for drama - were distilled to just one play, it perhaps would have to have happened in the final two minutes of a game at Clemson on Sept. 17, 1988. It was a play that had its genesis much earlier.
"I remember how it started," Butler said. "This (NCAA) Division III coach - I can't remember his name - came to Coach Bowden one day and he drew up this play. He promised Coach Bowden that in the right circumstance it would work. It was a fake punt, a different kind of fake punt."
That Bowden would consider such a thing came as no surprise to Butler. "Coach loved things like that and he loved having fun," Butler said. "And this was fun."
It came to be a play that featured Butler and it was given a name that is now almost as well-known in Seminole Nation as that of Butler himself - the puntrooskie.
"The trouble was, every time we ran it in practice, nothing happened," Butler said. "It didn't go anywhere."
Then came Clemson's Death Valley where two of college football's powerhouses of the season were locked in dramatic conflict. With Florida State down to one final fourth-and-too far at its own 21-yard line, the call from Bowden went out.
"Run the puntrooskie," he ordered from the sidelines.
Butler smiled when the play was called in the huddle. He knew that with the score tied at 24, this play perhaps would define a season. He did not know, of course, that in a sense it also would define a lifetime.
"I did know that Coach Bowden was the only coach in the world who would have called that play in that situation," Butler said.
So, the puntrooskie it was. It was a play that depended upon an Academy Award-winning performance by the punter, hoping the sell the Clemson defenders beyond the line of scrimmage on the standard fare in such situations. Instead, the ball would be snapped softly to up-back Dayne Williams who would without so much as a sudden movement hand it surreptitiously to Butler. With the ball safely tucked into his midsection and still acting the part of a would-be blocker, Butler was supposed to delay momentarily.
Surprisingly, though, the hole ahead of him in the line opened more quickly than expected and Butler stepped through. The puntrooskie was underway.
"We were just hoping to get a first down" on a play that never worked in practice, Butler said.
But the man who once had hoped perhaps only to walk, to live a life without wheelchairs, braces and crutches, had started running... and running... and running.
"I thought I'd have a problem with the man who was supposed to field the punt, the deep man," Butler said. "But for some reason, he wasn't there."
Butler kept running... and running... and running.
When he was finally pushed out of bounds, he not only had picked up a first down but had covered 78 of the required 79 yards for a touchdown. History will show that FSU kicked a field goal to win the game, perhaps the most important victory in an 11-1 season that ended with a Sugar Bowl victory over Auburn.
And, after all these years, LeRoy Butler still smiles at the memory.
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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