By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Unbelievable as it may seem, LeRoy Butler, a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and recently nominated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, started out life in a wheelchair.
Butler spoke to elementary, middle school and high school students in the Colfax High School gymnasium September 26.
When Butler entered the gym, he was met by the deafening sound of students shouting, “Go, Pack, go! Go, Pack, go!”
More than likely Butler is greeted this way at most schools in Wisconsin, but he seemed to be especially appreciative of the enthusiasm, nonetheless.
Butler, who is credited with inventing the “Lambeau Leap” and who played for Green Bay for twelve years and was part of the winning Super Bowl XXXI team, was one of five children his mother raised by herself in “the projects” in the inner city in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I used to be in a wheelchair. My feet were extremely pigeon-toed. They put these braces on my legs, sort of like Forrest Gump. I was Forrest Gump before Tom Hanks,” Butler told the rapt audience of students, teachers and other adults.
“I would see kids running and playing and jumping, and I couldn’t do that,” he said.
One day when Butler was still a very little boy, his mother called all her children together and wanted to know what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“I know a lot of kids who get in a lot of trouble, and I don’t want you to do that,” his mother said.
Butler’s three brothers had varying career aspirations, including one who wanted to be Superman.
Then it was his sister’s turn.
“My sister stood up and said, ‘I want to be a nurse and help people.’ My mother gave her a standing ovation, and then it was my turn. I’m sitting in that wheelchair with braces on my legs. I couldn’t bend my legs, and as I was sitting there, I got this big smile on my face. On Sunday after church, and when you grow up down south, you go to church (eight) days a week, and after church I’d watch Tarzan. And then the next thing I’d watch would be the NFL. I said, ‘Mom, I want to play in the NFL and get you out of the projects,’” Butler recalled.
“I didn’t know what she was going to say. As everybody was leaving, she was coming over to me. And she could have said … ‘There’s no way you’re going to play football.’ She could have told me I wouldn’t get into the proper schools to play in the NFL. But she didn’t tell me that. She told me I could do whatever I wanted to do, but I had to be a leader and not a follower,” he said.
Unfortunately, while Butler was at school, he was bullied terribly by other children.
One day, he went to his grandparents’ house.
“I said, ‘Grandmother, why do the kids pick on me? I’m the smallest kid in the school. I’m in the special needs department. I can’t read. I’m not real coordinated. Why is that funny? She told me that God gave everybody this power. And your power is that you have the unique ability to ignore anything negative. Just ignore it. And she was right,” Butler said.
By the time Butler got to high school, “I realized they picked on those who were broke. They’d say, ‘Hey, there’s that guy. He’s wearing hand-me-downs his brother wore two weeks ago.’ I’d say, ‘You’re wrong — it was yesterday.’ I’m not in school for a fashion show. I just want to learn from the smartest people in the world, our teachers. Think about it. Every astronaut. Every doctor, lawyer, brain surgeon, you name it, they all had to have a teacher. So I want to learn everything I can from the smartest people in the world, our teachers,” he said.
And then, of course, there was Algebra class.
“I’m sitting there in Algebra class one day, wondering whoever invented Algebra? How can you add two letters together and get a number? And the loudspeaker comes on, ‘I’d like to make an announcement. The first-ever All American in school history, LeRoy Butler.’ And I said, ‘Did he just say my name?’ … ‘And when you see LeRoy Butler, give him a high five,’ (the voice on the loudspeaker continued). All my classmates got up and gave me a high five. And I thought, ‘this is nice,’” Butler said.
After that, universities began sending letters to Butler.
“I’m getting letters from all these colleges to go to college. It was great. But I had one of the worst days of my life … I got a letter, and that letter said, ‘You cannot go to college because you did not pass the SAT test.’ I said, ‘What is this SAT test? Is that the same guy who invented Algebra?’ My life was over. You can’t go to college unless you take that test. I didn’t take that test. My life was over,” he said.
“A couple days later, my favorite teacher, Miss Gordon, she is running down the hallway in six-inch heels. — That’s real talent, by the way. — She came running up, ‘I found a loophole.’ I said, ‘what is that?” ‘I found a way for you to go to school.’ ‘What do we do?’ ‘You have to fill out this application.’ [Butler indicated the application was very long.] She said, ‘You can get a 700 on the SAT test and a 2.5 GPA and you can go to school,’” Butler said.
“And that’s when it dawned on me. Teachers don’t do this for the money. They do it because they love you. If it wasn’t for my teachers, there is no way I would be here today. My mom was at work, and I had to fill out this application. My teacher took the application down to the office. The dean of boys, the dean of girls, the head administrator. The secretaries. The social workers. The counselors. Everybody was in there filling out papers to make sure I got to college. I want to thank the teachers … It is very emotional for me to know I can drop my kids off at school for eight hours and they can get this free knowledge I got … Can we give our teachers a round of applause?’” he said.
“Now, I get a chance to go to college. My freshman year I didn’t play. My sophomore year I was a pretty decent football player. My junior year, I’m pretty good. My senior year, I’m going to be All American,” Butler said.
Butler was a Florida Seminole and played for Florida State University.
“The little kids won’t know this name. The seniors might know. The teachers will know. I got to meet Bob Hope. You want to know how famous Bob Hope is, he’s as famous as anybody on the Disney Channel times ten. He was a big-time star. And I was going to be on his show. And forty million people are going to see me. Forty million people! I’m on television. Then I’m flying back to Jacksonville and the NFL draft is about to come on, and I’m going to get drafted,” Butler said.
Butler was at home in “the projects” with his family, friends and neighbors.
“The first round started, and I got no call. Wait a minute, I met Bob Hope. I should go in the first round. The second round started. No phone calls. Something told me to go check the phone. Maybe something’s wrong. Maybe it’s off the hook. I better check the phone,” he said.
“My sister is on the phone. I know what you’re thinking. Why didn’t she just click over when someone called. We did not have three-way calling. We had rotary phones. — You can look that up too. — We had these long cords on the phone. [Butler indicated you could stretch the phone cord out practically across the width of the gym.] And if anybody got tangled up in the cord, you’d get a lot of static. ‘Get out of the cord. I’m talking.’ So the phone was busy. I said, ‘You have to hang the phone up,’” he recalled.
“Now, I’m a Christian young man. I won’t repeat what I said. ‘Please hang the phone up.’ She hung the phone up. And guess what? The phone rang, and it’s the Green Bay Packers.”
Butler spoke to the Packers’ coach, Lindy Infante.
“I said, ‘Coach? Where is Green Bay?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I thought you-all played football in Milwaukee.’ He said, ‘We do. We play some games here and some games there.’ I said, ‘okay.’”
Infante told him to watch the television and said Butler would see his name as a draft pick.
“I said, ‘Coach, I can’t do that.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Coach, you’re calling into the projects. We’ve got one television, and it’s so small, we have to watch it one at a time. There’s about fifty people in there. I can’t get over to the TV.’ He said, ‘Well, listen for the roar.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’m listening.’ And all of a sudden, they hear it. ESPN. ‘LeRoy Butler goes to the Green Bay Packers.’ Everybody is jumping up and down. My mom is praying and thanking God. And all of a sudden my dream has come true,” Butler said.
“Now my girlfriend was in the kitchen, eating the last of the food. She knows this draft thing isn’t that big of a deal. She just knows that I’ll be rich in about an hour. She is in the kitchen with her friends. She comes out, ‘Where did you get drafted? Dallas Cowboys? New York Giants? Miami Dolphins?’ My brother goes, ‘No. Where have you been? The Packers drafted him, and he’s in GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN!’” he said.
Butler’s girlfriend paused.
“She said, ‘Green Bay? (It’s below-zero there in the winter.) We gonna die.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t get that cold in Wisconsin.’ I had never been here. In my geography class, I never filled in the northern states. Just the southern states. Mississippi. Alabama. Georgia,” he said.
“When I hung the phone up, then the phone rang again. I said, ‘Hello.’ ‘Son, this is the San Francisco Forty-Niners. We picked you, but the phone was busy. I said, ‘My sister was on the phone. I’m (going with) the Green Bay Packers.’ If it wasn’t for my sister, I’d be doing this speech in San Francisco. So we need to give my sister a round of applause,” Butler said.
“Everything is about to change when I get to God’s country, Wisconsin. I’m on the plane. And when the plane lands, there’s about fifteen hundred people at the airport. I said, ‘Do these people have jobs or what? What’s the big deal?’ I’m walking down, high-fiving everybody,” Butler said.
“And all of a sudden, there’s a ninety-year old lady coming towards me. She has a cane. She said, ‘You must never lose to the Chicago Bears.’ I said, ‘Okay. All right.’ Then she put her cane over my heart. ‘And you must never lose to the Minnesota Vikings.’ Then she left. And I said, ‘Wait a minute. What about Tampa Bay and the Niners?’ She (turned back) and said, ‘Oh, you won’t have no problems with those two teams.’ She thought the best two teams were the Bears and Vikings, and if we could beat those two teams, we’d go to the Super Bowl. And she was right. I got to the locker room and saw Bart Starr’s picture. It was awesome. All that tradition,” he said.
In 1990, the Packers were four and twelve. The next year, they were six and ten. And the next year, there was a new quarterback.
Butler recalled the first time he had seen Brett Favre. He described him as a tall man wearing blue jeans and looking as if he had not shaved in “three or four years.”
“Then the next year, I saw this tall guy. It was like seeing a unicorn. It was Reggie White. Reggie White is in Green Bay? Is he lost? Reggie said, ‘God told me to come to the Packers.’ I said, ‘Thank you, God!’” Butler said.
In 1995, “we got the Cowboys on the ropes.” In 1996, “we went thirteen-three. And we went on to win the Super Bowl,” Butler said.
“We’re going to do a quick recap. An African-American in the projects. Some of the worst bullying you’ve ever seen. I told my mom I was going to play for the NFL. It was not luck. I believe God gave me the ability to ignore anything negative. If you want to talk about your brother shooting a ten-point buck, I’ll listen to that. I don’t want to hear any stories about you picking on other kids … You want to talk about being in your favorite teacher’s class, I’ll listen to that. But I don’t want to hear no negative stuff. This is your school. You have to be here everyday. And you have to make sure nothing negative is going on. You want to pick on other kids? It’s not funny,” he said.
“You network and have fun and make friends. The school day will go a lot faster. I want you to do what I did. Be a leader, not a follower. And always decide what you want to be when you grow up. Don’t think because you’re in high school you’ve got time,” Butler concluded.
After he was finished speaking, Butler posed for pictures with each of the classes in the elementary school, middle school and high school and signed autographs as time allowed.
Following his presentation in Colfax, Butler was scheduled to speak in Elk Mound.