Obituary: James 'Cannonball' Butler / Former Steelers running back made lasting impression on punt

May 4, 1943 - Feb. 10, 2014

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Some of the most famous highlights in football history have danced across television screens for years courtesy of those great Steelers Super Bowl teams of the 1970s and beyond.

Nearly as memorable is an old film clip from the 1960s that helped make Jim "Cannonball" Butler infamous.

The Steelers running back was shown moving into punt formation when the center snapped the ball just as Mr. Butler crossed between him and the punter. The football bounced off Mr. Butler's rump, a film clip that was often shown to highlight the woebegone Steelers of the 1960s.

Mr. Butler, who would go on to better days in the NFL after that, died Feb. 10 in Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which said he had dementia. He was 70.

Drafted in the 14th round in 1965 from Jacksonville's Edward Waters College, Mr. Butler played his first three seasons as a backup running back and kick returner for the Steelers. He then played four years for the Atlanta Falcons and his final season, 1972, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

He made one Pro Bowl, in his second season with the Falcons in 1969 when he had a career-high 655 yards rushing and averaged 31.2 yards on kickoff returns. Dick Hoak, a more prominent running back during Mr. Butler's days with the Steelers, chuckled when he recalled his former teammate.

"The biggest thing I remember about Cannonball is when he ran onto the field with the punt team and ran between the center and punter and the center snapped it right into him," he said.

Mr. Hoak said Mr. Butler, a native of Quincy, Fla., came to the Steelers with his nickname already attached, probably because he stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighed 194 pounds.

"Cannonball had a lot of talent, a lot of speed," Mr. Hoak said. "They used him to return kicks because of his speed. He was strong, short and stocky."

Mr. Butler's best season as a runner with the Steelers was his last in 1967, when he rushed for 293 yards on 90 carries.

"Jim was an excellent guy," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. "He really fit in well with our team. He was a good man, and he was a good football player."

Mr. Butler rushed for 2,768 yards in his career, and 515 in his three seasons with the Steelers. He also caught 89 passes for 959 yards and returned 133 kickoffs for 3,131 yards. Mr. Butler is survived by daughter Linda Barney of Jacksonville, Fla., and son Jeffrey Butler of Atlanta, according to the Journal-Constitution.

The paper stated the funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 221 NW 8th Ave., Boynton Beach, Fla., and arrangements are being handled by Johnson's Memorial Chapel, 1105 N. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach, Fla.

Ed Bouchette: or on Twitter @EdBouchette.


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