View Full Version : POLLOCK: Butler Bona’s gift to Steelers

05-18-2009, 09:32 PM
(Well Butler is before my time but maybe one of you folks will remember him. - mesa)

POLLOCK: Butler Bona’s gift to Steelers
ST. BONAVENTURE - If there’s a question about Jack Butler’s credentials as a professional football player, you need know only this. He was voted to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 33-player 75th anniversary team.

That’s an exclusive club.

Take away the punter and place-kicker and of the 31 remaining Steelers, 11 are in the Hall of Fame, 10 of them - Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson - contributing to Pittsburgh’s six Super Bowl wins in 35 seasons.

Four other members of that team - Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu - are still active.

And only three of those honored Steelers played in the 1950s, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Ernie Stautner, tight end Elbie Nickel and Butler.

WHAT PUT the latter in such exclusive company?

The Pittsburgh native and St. Bonaventure graduate, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater at this afternoon’s graduation ceremonies, had a short but extraordinary playing career and a long, precedent-setting one in scouting and talent assessment.

Butler was signed by the Steelers as an offensive end and was switched to defensive end before finding a home as a cornerback/safety.

He played for Pittsburgh from 1951-59 in the era of 12-game seasons.

It took four games before he was moved to defensive back permanently and Butler missed the last half of his final season with a career-ending knee injury.

And though the Steelers struggled over that span - 48-57-3, two winning seasons, no playoff appearances - he put up some incredible numbers.

Playing 96 games in the Pittsburgh secondary, Butler intercepted 52 passes, better than one every other game.

No Hall of Fame defensive back, including all-time leaders Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell and Woodson, came anywhere close to picking off balls at Butler’s frequency.

No Hall of Fame defensive back, including all-time leaders Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell and Woodson, came anywhere close to picking off balls at Butler’s frequency.

“I CAN’T explain it,” he admitted. “It was almost instinct. I had the ability to judge how to beat the ball to the receiver.

“I often played off a guy - I wasn’t going to let anybody get deep on me - hoping to bait the quarterback into throwing my way. I don’t know where that came from, it was just something I was able to do.”

In one memorable game at Washington in 1953, Butler picked off Redskins’ quarterback Eddie LeBaron four times, returning the last one for a touchdown in a 14-13 Steelers’ victory.

Only 18 players in NFL history have intercepted four passes in a game ... Butler is one of them.

SHORTLY after his playing career ended, Butler found a new way to be involved in pro football.

He joined a former Pittsburgh assistant coach in a scouting combine called BLESTO (Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization) and in 1963 took it over and ran it until his retirement in 2007.

In an interview with Behind the Steel Curtain, a Steelers’ fan web site, Butler noted, with more than a little pride, “We actually started the first combine in the NFL in the early 60s. It wasn’t known to the public, but it was a huge development in the league. At first we brought in college seniors for physicals, because the rules wouldn’t allow us to test them.

“(Then) the NFL realized how ridiculous it was to arrange all these kids coming together and not taking advantage of the opportunity. So they took away the rule and allowed all the teams to partake in testing and review. That was the creation of the first combine.”

SO WHAT brought a Pittsburgh kid who hadn’t played football in high school to St. Bonaventure in the fall of 1947?

“My parents decided I was going to school,” Butler recalled. “My father was a friend of (Steelers’ owner and Hall of Famer) Art Rooney (Sr.), ‘The Chief.’ So Dad sent me down to their offices and Mr. Rooney was there along with coach Jock Sutherland.

“Coach Sutherland told me I should go to VMI, so I went home and told my dad, who said, ‘That’s a military school.’ Well, I didn’t want to be a soldier. So I went back and just Mr. Rooney was there. He told me about St. Bonaventure and how his brother, Fr. Silas Rooney, was athletic director there. That was good enough for me.”

Butler showed up on campus with not the slightest inclination to play football.

“But I had three roommates who all played - Walter Wojciechowski, Al Lesko and Art Slowey - and they encouraged me to go out for the team,” he recalled.

So Butler showed up, but wasn’t exactly embraced.

“I went to the gym where they were giving out the equipment,” he remembered with a laugh, “but the guy who asked my name said I wasn’t on the list and told me to, ‘Get out,’ so I did.”

“The next day I ran into Fr. Silas walking across campus and he asked about football. I told him I went to get equipment but the guy told me to ‘Get out.’ He told me to go back the next day ... so I did, though the guy wasn’t happy to see me.”

Of course, never having played football, the equipment was problematic for Butler.

“I watched the guy next to me and did what he did,” the first-year player recalled. “But I ended up putting the thigh pads in the wrong slots of the pants and he looked at me and said, ‘That’s not going to work.’”

That was merely Butler’s first embarrassment.

“I was in this long line at the first practice and I had no knowledge of what the positions were,” he admitted. “I was about 5-10, 170 pounds and when they asked the guy next to me, who was pretty big, what position he played, he said, ‘Offensive guard.’ So when they asked me, I said, ‘Offensive guard.’ The guy looked at me and said, ‘You’ll never make it.’”

Butler spent two overmatched weeks on the offensive line until there was an injury.

“All we ever did was scrimmage,” he said. “One day this guy gets hurt and coach says, ‘I need a defensive back.’ Nobody raised their hand, so I ran out there. The coach says, ‘I thought you were an offensive guard.’ And I said, ‘Naw, I’m a defensive back.’”

OF COURSE, Butler never played a down at that position for St. Bonaventure, whose program was disbanded after the 1951 season, the year after he graduated.

But “after two years of standing around and getting pounded on,” Butler unexpectedly got the start at offensive end and maintained that position his last two seasons.

He had hoped to have one more season of eligibility with a chance to go to grad school.

But that wasn’t an option.

Instead, Fr. Silas suggested Butler take a shot at his brother’s football team.

“I had a degree in English and what was I going to do, teach?” Butler wondered. “English teachers were getting $3,200 a year and the Steelers were paying me $4,000 if I made the team.”

But Pittsburgh was a single-wing offense and a small end like Butler had no chance to survive in a format where the Steelers rarely threw and merely needed ends to block.

“I ran into a former St. Bonaventure assistant who was scouting for the Lions,” he remembered. “I told him things were going badly and he said, ‘When they cut you, let me know, I think you can make the team in Detroit.’

“I had no idea how things worked so I went to (Steelers’ coach) John Michelosen and told him I was going to Detroit because I thought I could make their team.

“He looked at me,” Butler recalled with a chuckle, “and said, ‘You can’t do that until I cut you.’ So I said, ‘When are you going to cut me?’ And he said, ‘I’ll let you know.’”

But it never happened.

A few days later Butler was switched to defensive end, where he made the team.

Early in the season, there was an injury on defense, and Michelosen sent him into the game.

“I went in, and both of the starting defensive ends were still there,” said an incredulous Butler. “I went back and said, ‘Coach, the defensive ends aren’t hurt.’ He said, ‘I know, get in there at defensive back.’”

Butler never left that spot for over eight years.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

IN THE minds of many, Butler has been unfairly excluded from the Hall of Fame because of uncertainty where he belongs.

Though his numbers as a player are compelling, his career was comparatively short. And how do you quantify an innovator in NFL talent assessment?

“To be honest,” admitted the 81-year-old, “that has never concerned me.

“It’s always flattering when somebody calls and asks me about the Hall of Fame. But there’s so much more which fills my life ... my children, my grandchildren. I’ve had a wonderful and privileged life and am very aware that a lot of people would gladly trade places with me. That’s more than enough satisfaction.”

(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)