Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Butler dies at 85
While growing up in Oakland near Forbes Field, Jack Butler entertained notions of becoming a priest. Eventually he found another calling — the NFL. He wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Butler died Saturday at UPMC Shadyside after battling a staph infection since November. He was 85.
Butler made his mark on and off the field. Undrafted out of St. Bonaventure, he starred as a hard-hitting, ball-hawking cornerback and safety with the Steelers for nine years before a knee injury ended his career in 1959 at age 31. The injury was so severe that he eventually needed a knee replacement and suffered from repeated staph infections. When he retired, Butler's 52 interceptions ranked second in league history.
Butler tried working as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills of the then-new American Football League, but his knee could not handle the strain. So he became a scout. Butler went to work for a relatively new scouting combine based in Pittsburgh that became known as BLESTO and helped revolutionize how the league evaluated talent. He would spend 44 years as its director, training hundreds of scouts among his many duties.
In 2012, Butler was inducted into the hall of fame in Canton, Ohio. At the end of his enshrinement speech, he said, “I am thankful to God for all that I have been given throughout my life. I am thankful for the support of my family and friends. I am thankful for my brother, my sister who are here to witness this. I am thankful for my wife, my children, my grandchildren that are here to see this also. Heck, I'm thankful I'm here.”
Butler, who lived in Munhall, is survived by his wife, Bernadette, and eight children — sons John, Michael, Kevin and Timothy and daughters Maureen, Bernadette, Kathleen and Marianne — his brother, Tom, and sister, Catherine Mooney, and 15 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney called a Butler a “tremendous player” and “an excellent person on and off the field.”
“Jack Butler was one of the all-time great Steelers,” team president Art Rooney II said. “He devoted his entire life to the NFL and made contributions to many teams and many players through his work with BLESTO and player personnel matters.”
Steve Perry, the Hall of Fame's president/executive director, described Butler as “one of the finest cornerbacks ever to step on an NFL field.”
Former Steelers linebacker Bill Priatko, who played one season, in 1957, said he was fortunate not only to have been Butler's teammate but also to have been present in Canton for his induction.
“He was a wonderful teammate and a wonderful man,” said Priatko, 81, of North Huntington. “Jack was most certainly a great football player and a truly humble man. He would always say that he loved the game of football. He never looked at what he accomplished as being so great.”
Priatko, who played at Pitt, recalled that as a rookie, Butler always was willing to lend a guiding hand.
“He helped me with learning proper techniques and a better understanding of our defenses,” Priatko said. “He had such a presence about him. He was so genuine. I call him a pure definition of a man's man.”
Butler intercepted five passes as a rookie in 1951. Two years later, he intercepted four passes in a game against the Washington Redskins, tying an NFL record. The next year he set a league record by returning two interceptions for touchdowns. He was named to four Pro Bowls, three All-NFL teams and the NFL's all-decade team for the 1950s.
Despite Butler's exploits, the Steelers posted winning seasons only in the final two years of his career.
As a youngster, Butler never planned on such a career. He did not play sports in high school. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Tom, who was a priest, and attended a prep school/seminary in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Art Rooney Sr., a friend of Butler's father, Patrick, recommended that Butler attend college at St. Bonaventure. Butler had no intention of playing football. But he decided to give it a try and ended up as a starting receiver. He signed a free-agent contract with the Steelers as a favor to Dan Rooney, the brother of Art Sr. and the athletic director at St. Bonaventure.
Butler wanted to play receiver but started out at defensive end and then was moved to the secondary, where he excelled. In 1957-58, he had 19 interceptions.
“The first thing I can recall as a young fan of the Steelers in the '50s is that he was such an outstanding player on mediocre and poor teams,” said Joe Gordon, the club's director of communications and marketing from 1968-98. “Probably the things that stood out the most were his toughness and versatility.”
As a scout, Butler was “one of the great talent evaluators in the NFL,” said Gordon, 77, who lives in Mt. Washington. As a man, Gordon said, “He was the personification of class.”