Butler set to take place among football greats
As the Steelers were building toward an era of dominance in the 1970s, their talent evaluators were far and away the best in the NFL. Sometimes, though, the six-time Super Bowl champions struck gold while silver mining.
In 1951, the Steelers extended a free-agent contract to a thin, undersized end from St. Bonaventure. In a draft that netted 30 rookies, head coach John Michelosen was searching for the right player to plug into the single-wing offense.
John Bradshaw Butler wasn't the right man for the job.
“They never threw the ball, so I wanted to go to another team that did,” said “Jack” Butler, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. “Coach said, ‘No, you can't go.' So, I asked him when they were going to cut me.”
Michelosen stared down the bewildered rookie, and suggested he hang in there. Butler didn't secure a roster spot until his closest roster rival was drafted into the Army.
Butler's future was uncertain, especially when he switched to defensive end. He was pushed by two local favorites — Bill McPeak (Pitt) and Chuck Mehelich (Duquesne). Surprisingly, he survived the last cut.
“We were rooting for Jack,” Steelers vice president Art Rooney Jr. said. “It was like a miracle.”
Butler's career took a seismic shift when he replaced injured defensive back Howard Hartley early in the third game against San Francisco at Forbes Field. Butler figured Michelosen had mistakenly sent him into the game. He was a defensive end who hadn't manned the corner at all during the preseason.
“(Michelosen) said, ‘I know who is hurt, you just get in there,' ” Butler recalled. “It was the best thing to ever happen to me, because I could have never continued to be a defensive end.”
Butler, who also played sparingly at wide receiver, held down a starting job in the Steelers' secondary for nine seasons. He became a fixture on the team along with Hall of Fame defensive tackle Ernie Stautner and quarterback Bobby Layne.
By the time a knee injury forced him into retirement after the 1959 season, Butler had become the NFL's second all-time leader with 52 interceptions. He is second on the Steelers only to Hall of Famer Mel Blount's team-best 57.
Michelosen's eye for talent had unearthed an improbable star.
As the 84-year-old Butler prepares to take his place among the greats in the hallowed halls in Canton, Ohio, he credits the Steelers' coaches and the Rooney family for having the vision to foresee a future he never imagined while attending a Canadian seminary school and shunning football in high school.
Butler spent four decades as one of the most respected talent evaluators in the NFL before retiring as director of BLESTO, Inc., a scouting combine service for several teams, including the Steelers, Lions, Jaguars, Dolphins, Vikings, Bills and Giants.
Butler and his combine team have been credited with scouting thousands of college seniors. Many of Butler's assistants and interns moved into management, including Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert.
“Kevin Colbert was Butler's intern at BLESTO, so a lot of the attitude that Kevin has was instilled by Jack's teachings,” said Rooney, who for years lobbied for Butler's induction into the Hall of Fame.
Rooney was quick to refute any notion that Butler's ticket to the Hall was punched by his work as the scouting combine director.
“He's not getting in for running BLESTO,” Rooney said. “It's all about how he played the game. He matches up with any cornerback in the Hall of Fame. It was obvious he belonged. He should have been in there long ago.
“For years, I wrote letters along with my dad (Art Rooney Sr.) and George Halas (Chicago Bears).”
Still, Butler's work with BLESTO remains a shining achievement for a player who was overlooked by every team, except the Steelers.
“We were sure he would go in after his retirement (from BLESTO) in 2008,” said John Butler Jr. “My dad was always in the business, and it seems the Hall of Fame was all that was left.”
Butler, to be joined in Canton on Saturday by former Steelers offensive lineman Dermontti Dawson and former Pitt defensive end Chris Doleman and Panthers running back Curtis Martin, insists he never thought he would make it.
“I always figured if I got there, I got there,” Butler said. “If I didn't get there, it's not the end of the world. I never spent any time thinking about it. Now that I have, I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.”
Butler earned his way into the Hall of Fame by possessing a hard-nosed style that characterized the Steelers' defensive persona. He set the tone for a defense that carried the Steelers to back-to-back winning seasons to close out his career.
“He was like Jack Lambert in that he was the culture of the team,” Rooney said. “He played with reckless abandon on offense, defense and special teams. He didn't mind getting dirty or getting hurt.”
“The guy was productive and productive for a long time,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee. “Then, he was a factor in the league after he quit playing. He had done it all in this league.
“He compares with everybody in the Hall of Fame, especially the interceptions. I remember seeing him play. I'm telling you, he was tough. He was a hard hitter who could have played in any era.”
Butler spent a few minutes with the Steelers during OTAs this summer. He was thrilled to be greeted by safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, who seemingly were in awe of the numbers Butler compiled in nine seasons — including three All-NFL honors and four Pro Bowl selections.
While he admits today's NFL players are stronger, bigger and faster, Butler agrees with LeBeau that he would have excelled in the NFL yesterday and today.
“I believe I could play today,” said Butler, still nursing two surgically implanted knees. “I could have played yesterday. I could probably play tomorrow, if I was healthy enough and young enough.
“I was just a believer. There was never a doubt in my mind about getting the job done.”
Never a doubt that he was the right man for the Steelers.
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.