The long wait
by Pete Fierle
Waiting for recognition for what he accomplished on the football field seems to be a common theme in the life of . Despite playing at a consistently high level throughout his nine-year NFL career with the , Butler had to wait many seasons before national accolades were thrown his way.
His first Pro Bowl nod didn’t come until after his fifth season. And, he didn’t earn All-NFL acclaim until later in his career when he was selected first-team All-Pro in each of his final three pro seasons.
Butler left the game after the 1959 season as the game’s second all-time leading interceptor and one of the most dominant cornerbacks in league history. Yet, he had to wait a half century to earn election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. No individual has waited longer to get a bronze bust in Canton than him.
The start to his NFL career also included a waiting period. Each of the 14 NFL clubs had 30 picks in the 1951 NFL Draft held over two days in mid-January that year. A total of 362 college players were chosen yet, none of those names were .
He never played the game in high school. The native Pittsburgher had visions of becoming a Catholic priest and followed his brother to a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada. After changing his mind on his desired career path, he enrolled at tiny St. Bonaventure in Olean, N.Y. It was there that the school’s athletic director recalled Butler from sandlot days back in Pittsburgh and convinced him to join the university’s football team.
That connection for Butler may have proved far greater than him being drafted. That’s because St. Bonaventure’s AD was Father Silas (Dan) Rooney, the brother of Steelers founder and owner Art Rooney. It also helped that Butler’s college coach was Joe Bach who coached the Steelers in the mid-1930s.
Pittsburgh wisely signed Butler to a contract. The young “sleeper” had some difficulty showcasing his talents. That’s because he was utilized as a two-way performer in college and was quite effective at catching the football. Unfortunately, the Steelers were run-oriented at the time and seldom used Butler as a receiving threat. On defense he was placed on the front line despite his relative lack of size.
The Steelers were on the verge of cutting ties with Butler at the end of camp before they heeded the advice of Bach.
“Just give him a chance to find his way around,” shared the coach.
Shortly thereafter, injuries forced a shuffling of the Steelers secondary as Jim Finks was moved from cornerback to safety and Butler was inserted at right cornerback. It was at that position that he illustrated his unique knack as a ball hawk to go with this tenacious tackling ability. He found a home and as they say, the “rest is history.”
Butler was reunited with Bach a year later. The Steelers hired Bach for a second stint as the team’s head coach after he lost his job when St. Bonaventure dropped their football program. As for Butler, he had intended on only playing a few years of pro football. But, his career spanned the decade before a horrible injury ended his playing days.
He is just the 15th Hall of Fame player to enter the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Ironically, he spent his post-playing career as a long-time, respected scout and the Director of the BLESTO scouting combine whereby his analysis allowed thousands of players to get their start through the NFL’s draft.
It mattered little then that Butler did not have his name called on draft day. Fortunately, his connections led him back to his hometown and earned him the opportunity to the play in the league.
Fierle is the Manager-Digital Media/Communications at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 1988.
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