Playing prehistoric football: Jack Butler didn't win fame or fortune, which was fine by him

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Over the 80 years or so since the Pittsburgh Steelers first took the field, fans and historians have come to see the team almost as two separate entities. There are the Steelers of the first 40 years, from their birth in 1932 up through the season before the Immaculate Reception, and the Steelers of the last 40 years.

We all know what's happened since 1972: the incredible draft picks, the six Super Bowl titles, the Hall of Famers and so on. Count me among the spoiled children of the '70s who can name just about any Steelers player from any team after they moved into Three Rivers Stadium.

For a lot of us, however, the days before Chuck Noll and tartan turf, the days when underpaid players toiled in relative obscurity on the blood-stained grass and dirt of Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium, are like some Paleozoic Era of pro football. The ancient Steelers of the '30s, '40s and '50s didn't win much. But they still managed to produce some great players. All-Pro cornerback Jack Butler, who died last Saturday at the age of 85, was one of them. He was also an extraordinary human being.

I am ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about Jack Butler before he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame a little over a year ago. But the more I learned about this Munhall resident's route to Canton, the more I wanted to have him share his improbable story with me on the radio.

After politely but repeatedly turning down several of my interview requests, Butler, with a little coercion from his son John, finally agreed to come into the studio -- no small task for an octogenarian with a bum knee.

If he was bitter that after making four Pro Bowls, three All-Pro teams and the NFL's All-Decade team of the 1950s, it had still taken more than a half-century since his retirement to get the call from Canton, he didn't show it.

"You know, I never thought that way," said Butler. "I was never gung ho about it. I wasn't going to go politic for it. If things happen they happen. And I went about my business and did my own things."

Butler was very much his own man. As a child growing up in Oakland, he watched with fascination as the Cathedral of Learning was being built. He recalled often catching hell when he got home from school after walking through the mud of the construction zone to get a better look.

When he was in high school, he was hired as part of a crew that worked on the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and drew the unenviable task of having to climb to the top and paint the rain gutters.

Despite his natural athletic ability, Butler never played high school football after his father sent him to a prep school/seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario. After deciding the priesthood was not for him, he landed at St. Bonaventure University, where he took up football basically on a lark.

"The only reason I went out for football is that I roomed with three other guys and they were all scholarship football players and that's all they ever talked about," said Butler. "I'm 17 years old and they talked me into going out (for football). I had never played a down of football in my life."

After graduating from college, he went undrafted and figured he would take the coaching job St. Bonaventure had offered. But the Steelers gave Butler a tryout and offered him a roster spot worth an annual salary of $4,000. Since that was $400 more than the coaching job, he decided to take it.

For his entire nine-year Hall of Fame career, Butler made a total of $72,000. I asked him how much he'd be worth in today's NFL. "Probably 75 [thousand]," he said, laughing heartily. "Who knows? It's a different world today."

Indeed, it is a different world today, an ego-driven world where being a star in the NFL means making guaranteed millions and being an A-list celebrity.

Jack Butler never saw anything close to that. But by all accounts he died a happy man, proud of who he was and what he had accomplished.


Paul Guggenheimer hosts "Essential Pittsburgh" on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh's NPR affiliate.


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