Steelers great Jack Butler dies at 85


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Jack Butler, driven from the NFL in his ninth season by a devastating knee injury while playing for the Steelers at Forbes Field, wanted to make one thing unabashedly clear.

"I loved the game," he said last summer before his August induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I loved playing the game, I liked everything that went with it, the friends, everything, all the action. I liked the [fame], I liked it all. I enjoyed it. I would have done it forever if I could have."

Instead, his career was cut short by a 1959 knee injury so severe it nearly killed him when a staph infection set in. On Saturday, John Bradshaw Butler, one of the Steelers' all-time greats and one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, died at UPMC Shadyside after battling the same staph infection that ended his days on the field.

Mr. Butler, 85, entered the hospital in November when the lingering staph infection attacked an artificial knee replacement, his son Mike Butler said. The infection persisted and Mr. Butler died at about 7:45 a.m., his son said.

"His heart just stopped," said Mr. Butler's son, who was hired by the Steelers as a scout on Thursday. "He was completely lucid last night, my sister and brother made him a root beer float and he went to sleep. He never complained, never said anything hurt."

Mr. Butler, who lived most of his life in Munhall, retired after nine seasons with 52 career interceptions, second-most in the NFL at the time. He made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams and the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1950s

The staph infection would flare up every five to seven years, Mike Butler said, and did so in November, attacking the artificial left knee he had implanted in 1995 to replace the damaged one. He made it home only a few times since then for a day or two.

"He fought the good fight, always," said Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' former head of player personnel and a close friend of Mr. Butler.

Mr. Butler, born in Pittsburgh, did not play football in high school, a prep/seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Art Rooney Sr., a friend of Mr. Butler's father, recommended St. Bonaventure University to him. There, he wandered onto the football team mainly out of curiosity, worked his way into a starting wide receiver as a senior and went undrafted by the NFL.

It was some inauspicious start to a Hall of Fame career.

The Steelers signed him, probably as a favor to Father Silas, the St. Bonaventure athletic director and Art Rooney's brother. They tried him at wide receiver in the single wing, then defensive end, where he somehow made the team as a rookie in 1951 at 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds. In the third game of his rookie season, a defensive back was hurt and Mr. Butler was told to replace him.

"That's how I became a defensive back," he said last year.

Mr. Butler played there the rest of the decade, not missing a game for eight straight years until his final season in 1959. In his second game, the first time he touched a ball he returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown. He intercepted fellow Hall of Famers Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle and Norm Van Brocklin.

He made a lasting impression on those who saw him play, which weren't many back in the Same Old Steelers days of the 1950s.

"He was the perfect guy for a defensive back in those days," former teammate and NFL coach Ted Marchibroda said. "He did not have the greatest speed, but he had good speed, good, good size, good hands and his instincts were tremendous. Jack worked at his profession in those days; most guys didn't work as hard as he did."

Mr. Butler paid the price. He was in pain every day of his life since that gruesome knee injury on Nov. 29, 1959, against the Philadelphia Eagles at Forbes Field. He had many surgeries, both knees replaced, and walked with a limp for more than half a century.

Art Rooney Jr. said last year that "we were having dinner and I said 'Jack, if you had to do it again, with the pain you're in, the things you missed, would you?' "

"He said, 'Playing football was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. If I could go out today and suit up, I would do it.' "

After his 1959 injury, the Buffalo Bills of the newly formed American Football League hired Mr. Butler as an assistant coach, but he had to quit soon thereafter because of his knee.

Around then, a new scouting combine formed and Jack Butler would become the executive director of BLESTO for the next 45 years. The combine offices were in Pittsburgh so he never had to move out of his Munhall home, where he and his wife, Bernadette, raised eight children. Appropriately, son Mike Butler's new job with the Steelers is as their scout for BLESTO (the name derived from Bears, Lions, Eagles and Steelers Talent Organization).

"He was a versatile player who was also used as a wide receiver, but his career ended unfortunately too soon with a bad knee injury,'' said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. "He was an excellent person both on and off the field, and he played an integral role in the BLESTO scouting program and our entire draft process before his retirement. His family was very close to the entire Rooney family, and he will be missed."

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert broke into the business as a scout for BLESTO under Mr. Butler in 1984.

"Jack was a great person and great friend who always placed his faith and family first," he said. "Beyond his great play on the field, he was a legendary personnel man who helped so many of us get established in our scouting careers. He will be missed, but never forgotten."

Besides his wife and his son Mike, Mr. Butler is survived by his other children: Maureen Maier, John, Bernadette Hobart, Kathy Butler Ruffalo, Kevin, Tim and Mariann Butler; a brother, Tom, a priest in Tucson, Ariz.; a sister, Catherine Mooney of West Mifflin; and 15 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

Steelers - mobilehome - homepage - breaking

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published May 11, 2013 5:30 PM


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