(Eds: Second in a series of Hall of Fame previews. With AP Photos.)By WILL GRAVESAP Sports Writer
Jack Butler had it all planned out.
Really, what was there to figure out?
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Guys that play football at St. Bonaventure don’t get phone calls from NFL teams, not now and certainly not in 1951, when Butler graduated following a standout career at wide receiver.
So Butler headed home to Pittsburgh for the summer and got a job as an electrician to give him something to do before he returned to upstate New York and started on his master’s degree in the fall.
Then the phone rang. And everything changed.
When Pittsburgh Steelers business manager Fran Fogarty called and asked the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Butler to come to the team’s offices downtown, Butler figured Fogarty had the wrong number.
”I didn’t know who he was,” Butler said. ”I didn’t know anything about professional football.”
Learning was hardly a problem. Fogarty and the Steelers were happy to teach him, signing Butler to a $4,000 contract and converting him to defensive back.
There wasn’t much to it. Butler used his experience as a wide receiver to become one of the best defensive backs of the 1950s in a career cut short by a devastating knee injury that remains painful to this day.
In his own way, Butler served as a precursor to the Steel Curtain that would follow two decades later. Tough. Gritty. Smart.
And now, like so many of the members of perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history, a Hall of Famer.
The 84-year-old Butler will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, next weekend after being selected by the senior committee for an honor he still can’t quite grasp.
”When he found out we were at the Super Bowl,” said John Butler, the oldest of Butler’s four sons. ”He kept saying, `Is this for real? I’m really in? Is there another vote?’ No, that’s it Dad, you’re in.”
Then again, John Butler was hardly surprised by his father’s low-key reaction.
This is the same man who would let his sons play tackle football out back in their dad’s game-worn jersey. Who didn’t bat an eye when the kids would take signed game balls – including the one from Butler’s record-tying four-interception game against the Washington Redskins in 1953 – and have a catch in the street.
”He would never talk about it,” John Butler said. ”We’d be out in our neighborhood and guys would look over and yell `Hey Jack, how you doing?’ And we’d ask him how these people knew him and he’d say `Maybe they thought I was somebody else.’ He never mentioned the Steelers.”
It wasn’t until John Butler grew older that he realized the kind of company his father kept. Butler’s 52 career interceptions are still 26th on the career list and second in Steelers’ history. He was selected to four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro selection three times.
All of this in just nine seasons. Butler’s career ended in 1959 during a collision with Philadelphia Eagles tight end Pete Retzlaff.
The details of the play remain vivid more than 50 years later.
”He caught the ball and I was coming over to hit him, to tackle him and before I got to him, he tripped or caught his foot or something,” Butler said. ”As he was going down, his shoulder hit my (left) knee.”
Butler knew the second he looked down at the smashed joint – which appeared to be at a 90-degree angle with the rest of his leg – he needed to think about what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
”It was just sticking out,” Butler said. ”I knew I was in a lot of trouble.”
There was no such thing as arthroscopic knee surgery back then and given the severity of the injury, Butler’s not sure he could have recovered if the injury happened today.
He’s endured 10 operations over the years to address various issues with the knee and struggles at times to get around, though that didn’t stop him from visiting the Steelers’ facility during minicamp to meet with players who could one day follow him to the Hall, including James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu.
Though the game now is very different than the one Butler played – starting with the money, he never made more than $12,500 in a season and held a part-time job in the offseason to make ends meet – he thinks he could be effective in today’s NFL. Well, he could be effective if the rules let him play the position the way he did 60 years ago.
”You could bump’ em and push’ em and do things,” Butler said. ”You could grab onto his jersey so he doesn’t get far from you. You could hold on a little bit. Now they’re all over you. It’s hard to do anything today.”
There was no specific method to Butler’s success. He was smart, sure. And he could tell by a receiver’s footwork where he was heading. Yet Butler says most of the credit should go to a work ethic and a little bit of naivety.
He didn’t know what he was doing during that first training camp. It let the Steelers mold him without forcing him to drop any bad habits.
”I must’ve been given some talents,” he said. ”I know I worked like hell at it. Whatever talents I had, I worked like hell to improve what I had.”
A little confidence helped. Butler had no problem trading a little trash talk with Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas, though Butler rarely got the upper hand.
”I’d walk up to him and say `Hey John, I’m going to pick three passes today,”’ Butler said with a laugh. ”I think I got one. But it was the only one.”
Consider Unitas lucky. Butler averaged more than five interceptions a season in an era when 15 passes a game, not 50, was the norm.
Butler, however, never considered himself a Hall of Fame candidate. He never spoke about it and it wasn’t until John Butler started doing some research that he realized just where his father stacked up with the game’s greats.
”I showed him his numbers and I said, `Dad, you’re right in the pocket,”’ John Butler said. ”He never even knew.”
Now, the football world will know. Still going strong (knee issues aside) in his mid-80s, the man who went on to have a lengthy post-playing career as a scout will join the game’s greatest with all eight of his children and his wife of 57 years, Bernadette, in tow.
”I don’t think it will really sink in until I get down there and take in the atmosphere,” Butler said. ”Then it will probably hit me. Right now, I don’t know. I just know it sounds pretty good.”