Steelers great Butler has yet to enter Hall of Fame

| Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010

With Pittsburgh Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Jack Butler's supporters are redoubling efforts to get the cornerback into Canton.

Long considered one of the National Football League's greatest defensive backs, Butler, 82, also helmed the groundbreaking BLESTO scouting service. But sportswriters and the Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee continue to punt his selection.

"When he was a player, Jack played for a very bad team. Had he played for the Lions or the Browns, he would've already been in the Hall of Fame, no questions asked," said Steelers vice president and minority owner Art Rooney Jr.

"We had all the greats from later teams get in, so people said there were too many Steelers. But this has penalized L.C. Greenwood, Andy Russell and Jack Butler. They should be in the Hall of Fame, too, but Jack was one of the greatest players to ever play the game and that means something special."

A native of Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, Butler was raised in Whitehall. Attending seminary prep school in Canada, he never played high school football. When he gave up on becoming a priest, he made the roster at New York's St. Bonaventure University.

He joined the Steelers' camp as an undrafted free agent in 1951, a scrawny kid on the single wing. The last guy to make the team, Butler became an undersized third-string defensive end. Early in his rookie season, however, injuries in the secondary made him a cornerback.

"I'd never really played defensive back before," Butler said. "But I gave it my all."

At the end of a stellar season, franchise founder Art Rooney Sr. paid him a $500 bonus. For the following eight years, Butler starred for a team that produced only two winning campaigns. And he toiled offseasons as an electrician's handyman, a Vandergrift mill worker and a ranchhand on The Chief's horse farm.

"I sure didn't get rich playing football," Butler said.

For the past two years, Greensburg's Jeffrey W. Weber, an MSA Sports Network executive, has forwarded a breakdown of Butler's career statistics to Hall voters: 52 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. According to Weber's analysis, Butler did it by averaging a pick every eight passes attempted against him.

Butler's 827 return yards off interceptions tops all other Steelers, including Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. He's the only defensive back of the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team not in Canton.

"Teams didn't throw as often back then, but when they did, they faced no tougher challenge than Jack Butler," Weber said. "He was a clean player. He hit hard, but he was fair. He was the best player on what charitably might be called a 'mediocre' team. Had he not been injured in 1959, he would've set records that would've taken years to break."

Butler's career stats mirror Detroit's Jack Christiansen, who was inducted into the Hall in 1970. Drafted a year after Christiansen retired, LeBeau in 1959 took up his mantle as a lockdown Lion. He's a fan of Butler, too.

"He's one of the best in the Steelers franchise, and you're talking about some pretty great players there," said LeBeau.

When he rolls up his trousers, Butler's knee looks like a drumstick twisted into a white knot, the aftermath of a 1959 injury that ended his career. The following season found him hobbling on crutches — hired by the Buffalo Bills as a coach, but unable to withstand the pain of working out with players.

Needing to support wife Bernadette and a Munhall family that grew to eight children, Butler scouted Steelers competitors. In 1963, he caught on at LESTO — short for the Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization — a pooled scouting service that rated pro prospects nationwide. It later became BLESTO when the Chicago Bears joined, then BLESTO-V with the Minnesota Vikings.

Today, it's just BLESTO, and it represents the Steelers, Bills, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Lions, Vikings and New York Giants. It competes with The National, serving 18 franchises, and all the teams that do their own scouting.

Butler ran BLESTO for 44 years, retiring in 2007. Art Rooney Jr., former Steelers coach Chuck Noll and Butler's BLESTO sculpted the dominant gridiron dynasty of the 1970s, and it became a breeding ground for top NFL scouts, many of whom later rose to become personnel directors, such as the Steelers' Kevin Colbert.

Butler already has shipped scouting appraisals of tens of thousands of college prospects to Canton. They're just waiting for the man who signed off on them, often using increasingly sophisticated stats, software programs, stopwatches and strength tests to rate potential. BLESTO and other services also founded the Indianapolis pre-draft combine that has become a collegiate rite of passage.

"We were looking at the archetypal player," Butler said. "If you were looking at the best possible combination of speed, power, intelligence and other qualities at each position, what would it all look like• So we set it up like that, ranking prospects from the 'ideal' to less impressive. We wanted teams to see what the standards should be for a player to be successful in the NFL.

"But we also knew that you can't always judge a book by the cover. Sometimes, we would find a player who didn't look on paper like he would be a great player, but there was just something about him that came out when he played in a game. Then I would simply say, 'This guy can play football.' "

In BLESTO's early years, scouts confronted an NFL desegregating in fits and starts. Butler refused to consider race in player evaluations. Instead, he divided the nation geographically and demanded scouts rate a prospect solely by ability.

"I only cared if they could play," said Butler. "The rest of the stuff wasn't important to me."

Including getting into Canton.

"I don't like to talk about myself like that," he said. "I don't care if I get in or not. I'm just glad that I contributed. I'm very proud of playing in the league and giving back afterward, but I don't dwell on the other stuff."

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