John Heller, Post-Gazette
Jack Butler, former Pittsburgh Steeler, retired as an NFL scout at the age of 80, sits in a room where he has what memorabilia he has kept in his home in Munhall.
Downtown Pittsburgh just lost another venerable, longtime corporate headquarters, not to mention the retirement of its popular CEO of more than four decades.
BLESTO, Inc., born in Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, closed its doors for good on Forbes Avenue Monday and has relocated near Jacksonville, Fla.
The only good thing about the move is it won't cost Pittsburgh many jobs. BLESTO employed only two people here -- director Jack Butler for the past 44 years and his secretary of 32 years, Josephine Harding.
"The thing that saddens me most is to see the whole thing disappear from Pittsburgh," said Jack Bushofsky, one of the many high school football coaches in Western Pennsylvania hired by Butler to work for BLESTO who later became NFL personnel directors.
Butler, a former seminary student who became one of the Steelers' greatest defensive backs, finally called it quits as head of the NFL scouting combine as he neared his 80th birthday Nov. 12. This time, it was voluntary and not the kind of forced retirement from pro football he experienced when his knee was so badly damaged in a 1959 game at Forbes Field some wondered if he would live through it.
"I was sitting on the ground and my leg was going the other way," Butler said, "and I said that wasn't right. Some days are better than others. That was a bad day."
The Steelers' player his close friend Art Rooney Jr. calls the toughest he has seen -- yes, including Jack Lambert -- did not cry that day. He saved some tears for a ceremony Rooney orchestrated last month at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh when he unveiled three commissioned paintings of Butler as a player by artist Denny Karchner. His scouts also feted him at a party two weeks ago at his last BLESTO meeting on Marco Island, Fla.
"It's a tremendous tribute to him," said Rooney Jr., who headed the Steelers' player personnel department for more than 20 years and oversaw some of the greatest drafts in NFL history in the 1970s. "Any business that can stay in business 40 years is unbelievable. He's leaving it, and it's still going on."
Rob Kisiel, a former BLESTO scout and a scout the past seven years with the Houston Texans, was hired to replace Butler.
Kisiel is one of what seems like half the scouts in the NFL who worked for Butler and was trained by him. The list is a who's who among NFL personnel directors that included Kevin Colbert and Ron Hughes of the Steelers, Tom Donahoe, Tom Modrak, Dick Haley, Chuck Connor, brothers Joe and Jack Bushofsky, son Mike Butler, the late John Goeller, and Rick Reiprish -- just a portion of Pennsylvania natives who worked for Butler.
"Probably everybody in the league is connected one way or the other," said Modrak, assistant general manager of the Bills and formerly with the Steelers and Eagles. "So many people have gone through that BLESTO system and then moved on and hired other people. It's either a straight line or a dotted line."
Pittsburgh natives flourish throughout the football scouting profession today because of Butler and Art Rooney Jr. Rooney hired area high school coaches in the summer to analyze pro game film. Whenever Butler needed a scout, he asked Rooney for a recommendation on one of his high school coaches.
"One of my favorite all-time people I've met in football is Jack Butler," said Donahoe, a high school coach and English teacher who worked those summer jobs for Rooney when Butler hired him in the early 1980s. "He broke me in; he probably broke half the league in scouting through BLESTO."
One thing is for certain -- Butler was responsible for every player in the league -- for the past 44 years. BLESTO, one of two NFL scouting combines, scouts every possible college prospect. Butler estimated the number to be 8,000 college seniors last year. That amount varies from year to year, but it's easily reached into the hundreds of thousands of college prospects that Butler has categorized and/or scouted during his long tenure.
That wasn't the plan. Butler, a Pittsburgh native, followed a brother into a seminary in Canada to become a Catholic priest. He changed his mind about his calling and went to St. Bonaventure University. He did not play football in high school, but St. Bonaventure athletic director Father Silas -- Dan Rooney, the brother of Steelers owner Art Rooney -- remembered him from Pittsburgh sandlot games and convinced him to play college football.
Undrafted, Butler made the Steelers as a free agent and became one of the hardest-hitting cornerbacks in the league and one adept at finding the ball as well. His 52 interceptions in nine seasons were second most in NFL history when his career abruptly ended in 1959 and still rank second on the Steelers behind Mel Blount's 57 in 14 seasons. Butler was named to the NFL's Team of the Decade for the 1950s, selected as one of the top 300 players to play in the NFL and made the Steelers All-Time team of the franchise's first 50 seasons.
None was tougher.
"They wore those old leather shoulder pads that had cotton padding stuffed into it," recalls Mike Butler, 48, who would watch old films of his dad from the Steelers' collection when he worked for them as a scout. "He'd cut it all apart and insert cardboard instead of the padding. He said you could hit better that way."
Son Mike recalls the problems his dad had with his ruined knee and the replacement he finally had in the 1980s.
"Us kids," he said of Jack's four sons and four daughters with his wife of more than 50 years, Bernadette, "all we knew was him walking with a straight leg. All of a sudden, he could bend it. But all his muscles had atrophied. and they had to transplant a muscle in his back to his knee so he could walk. His knee was the grossest thing you've ever seen, disgusting, but he can walk."
More recently, Butler had back surgery
"His fingers were getting numb, and he had pain down his arm and neck," Mike Butler said. "He had some crushed vertebrae, like seven of them. They just kept finding them and fixing them. It's probably from the way he played."
Butler's supporters feel it a disgrace he has not yet been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Jack deserves to be in the Hall of Fame based on what he did as a player -- he had all those interceptions," Colbert said. "And then he started BLESTO, overseeing the evaluation of tons of players since 1963 until now. And he's enhanced the careers of a lot of personnel people, including myself."
Butler really did not start BLESTO, even if he became the face of the combine (he hired all his scouts, paid them and set up their health insurance.) Three NFL teams decided in the early 1960s to form a scouting combine to pool scouting reports. They called it LESTO -- Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization. The Chicago Bears joined and it became BLESTO and then BLESTO V with the Vikings. Through the years, member teams reached more than a dozen; today there are seven -- Steelers, Lions, Jaguars, Vikings, Giants, Dolphins and Bills. Other combines formed in the NFL, but only one other remains, National.
Ken Stilley, a former Steelers assistant coach and mayor of Clairton, was BLESTO's first director, but Butler replaced him early and has been there ever since. Butler tried to go into coaching with the Buffalo Bills in 1960 after his traumatic knee injury, but he quit before the season because his leg was too damaged and he developed a staph infection. The Steelers hired him in 1961 as a coach/scout, and he worked for them until he moved to BLESTO.
Among the toughest players in football, Butler was an easy-going boss. Before the days of laptop computers and cell phones, the only contact he had with his scouts came during their two annual meetings and when they called him on a pay phone once a week from the road.
"They had to call in every week and tell me where they've been, where they're going, who'd they be with -- in case you had to get them,'' Butler said. "You couldn't reach them because they were on the road all the time.''
Each scout would write reports into a book he carried with him and also on old copy paper. They sent their reports to Butler, he made copies and sent them to the member teams. During their fall meeting, Butler would listen to his scouts, and then put a grade on each player. Now the scouts e-mail Butler, and he e-mails teams.
"I never worked for a guy like that in my life," said Jack Bushofsky, 70, and a former personnel man in Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Carolina.
"He was so nonchalant and so easy going for a guy in that position, who was in charge of that many players drafted in the whole United States."
Butler had a simple philosophy -- hire a scout, show him how to fill out reports and tell him which schools were his to cover.
"He'd give you a map, a stopwatch and your schools, show you how to fill out a report form and say go to it,'' Colbert said. "He didn't have a manual on scouting. He always felt everybody's going to be themselves, they're going to develop their own style. As long as he gets the information the way he wanted, he didn't care. He wasn't going to make you a robot."
Butler has a plaque, probably 15 years old, given to him at one of the Combine workouts when all those team scouts and personnel directors who broke in with him and BLESTO were together. They took a photo; there were 60 people in it.
"Butler's strength was his strength of his personality," Art Rooney Jr. said. "He had all the intangibles and had tremendous respect from all the teams in BLESTO -- from coach Halas, Don Shula, the Rooney family. He knew what it took to play the game and he always was fair with the scouts.
"All the teams got the right information. He was a Pittsburgh kid and a former Steeler, but everyone got a fair shot. There were no hidden agendas, and he was not ambitious for himself to use this job as a springboard to become a GM in the league."
With that bum leg, Butler learned to avoid springboards.
Jack Butler's 52 interceptions still rank second in the Steelers' record book.
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Butler in the hospital in 1959 after the knee injury that derailed his career.
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Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com .