Getting to know Jack Butler


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One of the great parts of working at the Hall of Fame is that we get to know our enshrinees, not only as football players, but as people. There’s one player in the Class of 2012 that we're still learning more about as a football player. That’s because Jack Butler last stepped onto a football field in 1959 in a game in which he suffered a horrible leg injury that ended his career.

Even though I, like many, never saw Butler play in person I have seen film and read quite a bit about his career. So, as familiar as I’ve become of his playing career, we keep digging deeper to present stories about his nine-year career as we countdown to the Aug. 4 enshrinement in Canton.

This week, I discovered a new fact about Butler’s career and thought it would be perfect for my blog. Jack retired as the NFL’s second all-time leading interceptor. There’s no doubt he had a unique talent in getting the football in his hands on defense.

His NFL career began in a storybook fashion with a bit of foreshadowing. Butler signed as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers in 1951 out of St. Bonaventure. He is the first alum of that university and just the 15th undrafted free agent to earn a bronze bust in Canton.

Butler wasted no time in proving that he could play at the pro level. He played some at end (aka wide receiver) on offense but was being groomed at cornerback. The Steelers won just four games during Butler’s rookie year but something happened in each of those contests … Jack Butler intercepted a pass. In all, he recorded five picks that year but none was more spectacular than his first career interception. That came in a game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park as the Steelers faced the Cardinals. Trailing 14-7 entering the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh rallied to tie the game and then scored two touchdowns in the final one minute, 23 seconds. It started when the Steelers connected on a 33-yard pass play to take the late lead.

The Cardinals’ veteran quarterback Jim Hardy was playing in his first game since being lured out of retirement. He must surely have doubted his decision after trying to engineer a game-tying drive. Butler made his first career snag when he picked off Hardy near midfield and then astutely followed his blockers and made his way 52 yards for a touchdown!

Not only was this a spectacular way to record his first interception, the yardage of the return eventually had some symbolic importance. That’s because Butler’s interception that day was the first of 52 he would record in his career. Only fellow Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell had more steals than Butler at the time. And it took another Hall of Famer, Mel Blount, to surpass Butler in the Steelers’ record book.

While we don’t have a film collection like our friends at NFL Films, we were able to find this footage (click on image below) which we believe is of Butler’s fifth and final pick of his rookie season. He intercepted a Sammy Baugh pass intended for Bill Dudley. The play came in the Steelers’ 20-10 win on the road over the Washington Redskins in the season finale on Dec. 16, 1951.

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