Former Packer LeRoy Butler "over the universe" as first-time Hall finalist
When former Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler was named as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020, he was more than surprised.
“I was too shocked to know what do to,” he said.
Because until this year LeRoy Butler had never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist. And while that’s not unusual, this is: It’s his 14th year of eligibility, yet he was a first-team all-decade choice for a Super Bowl champion.
Moreover, until 2018 LeRoy Butler had never been a semifinalist for the Hall. That means that voters didn’t view him as a serious candidate for election until two years ago. But those voters comprise the same group that made him a starter on the 1990s’ all-decade team.
“When I was a semifinalist,” he told me this week, “I was over the moon. Now, I’m over the universe.”
So what happened? Good question.
For some reason, voters finally woke up to LeRoy Butler – just as they woke up to Joe Jacoby in 2016. The former Washington offensive tackle hadn’t been a finalist until his 18th year of eligibility. Then he was one the next three years, failing to reach Canton in his 20th … and last … year as a modern-era candidate.
“I’m surprised it took 14 years,” Butler said, “because I thought people would recognize that I was one of the best safeties of the '90s, especially when I made the all-decade team. I thought when you made the all-decade team you at least should be in the finals.
“So to finally make it is just amazing in itself because I thought this would happen maybe 10 years ago. At the same time, I’m a patient person. And knowing that it will happen one day gives me a lot of calm.”
But we don’t know that one day it will happen. We know that one day it COULD happen, and until LeRoy Butler was named as one of 15 finalists earlier this month that wasn’t possible.
Well, now it is.
In fact, there’s not a more perfect fit for the Class of 2020, and let me explain. LeRoy Butler was a safety who rushed the passer and defended the pass … and he did both so well that he was the first defensive back in league history to produce 20 or more sacks and 20 or more interceptions.
In effect, he was the first member of the 20/20 club, and I don’t think I need to draw you a picture how that dovetails with the next Canton class.
But he’s also the guy who invented the Lambeau Leap. That happened in 1993 vs. the then-L.A. Raiders when he forced a fumble, took a Reggie White lateral and ran for a touchdown -- not stopping until he ran through the end zone and leaped into the stands to celebrate with Packers’ fans.
Hundreds have done it since. But no one had done it until LeRoy Butler.
“After I was named (as a Hall finalist),” Butler said, “my daughter came over to me and said, ‘It’s a leap year.’ And that’s what I thought was so amazing. “
LeRoy Butler has plenty of company in this year’s class at his position, with former safeties Troy Polamalu, John Lynch and Steve Atwater among this year’s Hall-of-Fame finalists. Once upon a time, safety was barely recognized by the Hall’s board of selectors. Not anymore. Four have been inducted the past three years, with another three included in the Centennial Class of 2020.
That’s seven pure safeties in four years – or the same number that voters inducted the previous 47. And with Polamalu considered a favorite this year that number is likely to increase.
“That makes me feel so good,” said Butler. “A couple of years ago I thought, they forgot about safeties. We’re very important people … and I know one day, if they ever get into a discussion of being one of the best – especially in the 1990s to the 2000s – my name will be called soon.”
No argument there. LeRoy Butler has the credentials to reach Canton. He was named to four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams. He was a Super Bowl champion. He’s an all-decade choice. He’s in the Packers’ Hall of Fame. Basically, he checked all the boxes.
Now here’s the problem. There are only two first-team members of the 1990s’ all-decade team not in Canton. One is Butler. The other is Atwater. He’s a finalist for the third time and was a Top-10 finisher a year ago, giving him a substantial advantage over Butler and making him a legit contender for the Class of 2020.
“So what does Steve Atwater have that you don’t?” I asked Butler.
“I think a lot of it,” Butler said, “is that the highlights of one or two plays make a big hit. Remember: Back in the 1990s that was a big marketing tool for the NFL – showing these big hits and things of that nature. And that resonates with people.
“I don’t know if they will go by stats, but I think my stats are better than anyone – other than Pro Bowls and things of that nature. But when you make All-Pro when you’re the best at your position for four years like I was … that’s amazing. And people will have a chance to hear that now. Reading something is different than hearing it when someone presents your case.”
He’s right about that. Which is why I asked him to make his case so I could hear it.
“LeRoy Butler was a complete player,” he said. “He covered the best tight end. He covered the third-down receiver. He blitzed the quarterback. He intercepted passes. A fan favorite. He did everything.
“As a matter of fact the most iconic celebration in NFL history, in my opinion, is the Lambeau Leap . No other other guy who went into the stands after me can say that they went their entire career for the fan base. And I represent the fan base.
"I think it would be a fantastic choice to select me to the 2020 class of the Hall of Fame. As I said, it is a leap year. So let’s make it a great one.”
And if it doesn’t happen?
“I’m just going to enjoy the process,” Butler said. “If it happens, that’s great. If it doesn’t, God is good. And I just have a chance to do it again next year.”
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