Motoring past dilapidated storefronts with barred windows, the
spanking-new green Range Rover is out of place on Eighth Street
on Jacksonville's west side. The driver, LeRoy Butler, peers
through his tinted window and announces, "This street is like
Rodeo Drive." Has Butler, an All-Pro strong safety for the Green
Bay Packers, taken one too many shots to the head? "It's like
the Rodeo Drive of crime," he says, to clarify. "Rape.
Prostitution. Any drug you want. This street's got it all."
Butler drives a few blocks farther, turns left onto Jefferson
Street and points toward the Blodgett Homes project where he
spent most of his childhood. "They've cleaned this place up," he
says, "but when I was a kid, it was like Cabrini-Green in
Chicago. This street had more chalk lines marking dead bodies
than hopscotch lines."
It is a rainy Monday afternoon in late April, and Butler's
memory is abundantly clear. As a kid he encountered financial
and physical hardships and was surrounded by crime. Some
professional athletes block out their troubled pasts, but not
the 28-year-old Butler, who long ago achieved victories more
poignant than the Packers' Super Bowl triumph over the New
England Patriots in January.
Now he owns a luxurious home on the city's south side and
approaches his job with a blend of bulletproof confidence and
raw ebullience. It was Butler who originated the Lambeau Leap by
launching himself into the stands after returning a fumble for a
touchdown during a 1993 game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
May 18, 1997
In fact, during most of his seven-year pro career, Butler has
never lacked for bravado. He was in rare form during Super Bowl
week, when he blasted then Patriots coach Bill Parcells for
sucking up too much media attention, declared he was sick of
hearing that the Packers were trying to win the game for
defensive end Reggie White and announced he was better than any
other defender New England's star tight end, Ben Coates, had
faced all season.
Butler's candor has provoked the ire of Green Bay coach Mike
Holmgren, who tries to muzzle his players as much as any other
coach in the league. On occasion Butler, the only current Packer
who preceded Holmgren's arrival in Green Bay in 1992, has been
at his defensive best in his coach's office. "He's always
telling me not to say things, but I pretty much say them
anyway," Butler says. "I tell him, 'I want the opponent to know
that if they throw across the middle, I'm going to intercept
it.' He says, 'Fine, but why do you have to be the one to say
it?' I say, 'Mike, it's like if you're with a beautiful girl and
nobody sees you. You've got to tell your boys about it.'"
It's an argument Holmgren doesn't buy, yet Butler gets away with
it. "He is a quote a minute, but his heart's in the right
place," Holmgren says. "He's a bright, interesting guy who plays
with emotion." Last season Butler nearly accomplished the rare
double of leading his team in interceptions and sacks. He was
one off the Packer high in interceptions, with five, and he
finished two behind in sacks, with 6 1/2, one-half sack shy of
the NFL record for a defensive back, set by Chicago Bears safety
Dave Duerson in 1986. He had an outstanding postseason, which
included one of the most memorable plays of the Super Bowl: On a
third-down blitz in the second quarter, Butler barreled into
Patriots halfback Dave Meggett and sacked quarterback Drew
Bledsoe with one arm.
Butler's versatility allows Packers defensive coordinator Fritz
Shurmur to deploy him in a dizzying array of alignments. "He's a
huge playmaker," Shurmur says. "A lot of safeties in this league
are never around the ball. You hardly know they exist. The best
description of LeRoy is that if the ball is there, he's near it."
As exciting as Butler is now, the story of how he arrived as an
athlete is far more compelling. Born so pigeon-toed that he had
bones in both feet broken by doctors at the age of eight months,
Butler struggled to walk as a toddler and until the age of eight
spent much of his time in a wheelchair and in leg braces. During
this time his parents separated and eventually divorced. LeRoy
lived with his mother, Eunice, and four siblings in an apartment
across from Jefferson Street Park, and he spent many of his days
staring out the front window. "There'd be 500 or 600 kids
playing, and all he could do was watch," says Charles (Von)
Durham, Butler's uncle and father figure. "He'd go out there
once in a while and try to run and would trip all over himself.
You've got to instill positive thoughts in a child's mind, but
deep inside most of us never believed his legs would heal."
Instead of playing sports, LeRoy spent time with Eunice, who
supported the family by working first as a secretary and later
as a nurse. She taught LeRoy how to cook and laid down several
house rules, ranging from "Respect women" to "You have to eat
your beets before you get any meat" to "Don't drink alcohol," an
edict that, to this day, he says he adheres to.
"Peer pressure was tough," Butler says of resisting the
temptation to join other kids in mischief around the
neighborhood, "but I always used my mom as an excuse. When we
were bad, she never whipped us. Instead she'd make you take a
bath when you got home from school and start your bedtime
routine at 3:30--go upstairs and do your homework and be in bed
by seven. After some of that discipline, peer pressure didn't
bother me anymore."
The discipline also kept LeRoy from straying too far after he
finally was able to run the streets, which happened like a bolt
from the heavens. When LeRoy was eight, his older sister, Vicki,
accidentally knocked him out of his wheelchair after she raced
down the stairs of the family's apartment without looking.
LeRoy's leg braces flew off, and then he got up and walked
without struggling. "It was just like Forrest Gump," Eunice
says. "All of a sudden, he could run like the wind." Within
minutes, LeRoy ran outside and joined a kickball game.
"Once I hit the ground, I was gone," he says. "I kicked the
first inside-the-park home run in the history of the projects,
and people were saying, 'I can't believe this.' They thought
maybe I was faking it all those years. The doctors told me that
my recovery might be temporary and not to worry if there was a
setback. There never was."
Butler remains slightly pigeon-toed. As a result, he quickly
wears away the arches of his shoes and acquires more pairs than
Imelda Marcos. "I played in 24 games last year [including
preseason and postseason] and used 54 pairs," he says. "I wear a
new pair for every practice, and when it's over, they're
destroyed." Butler regularly ices his feet to alleviate the
pain, and he loathes artificial turf because his feet take a
pounding on the hard surface.
LeRoy's sudden speed was a mixed blessing. By the time he was
10, he was the star player on a neighborhood football team and
began attracting the interest of Pop Warner teams from wealthier
parts of town. "My uncle asked for a little money on the side,
but no one ever paid," says Butler, who stayed with his
neighborhood team. After excelling in eighth-grade football,
LeRoy was recruited by coach Corky Rogers to play at Robert E.
Lee High, an athletic power across town, where he starred as a
safety and running back.
LeRoy's newfound gift also brought him closer to the perils of
street life. When he was 13, he says he was asked by a couple of
older friends to assist them in a robbery. "They wanted me
because I could run the fastest of anyone they knew," he says.
"They didn't have a getaway car. They wanted me to be their
getaway legs. They threatened to tell my mom it was my idea if I
wouldn't go along with the plan. I decided there was no way I
wanted to go to jail, and they never went through with it."
Until his senior year in high school, Butler says, the only
white man he ever saw venture into Blodgett had been paid by his
mother to dress as Santa Claus and deliver presents to her
children. The next white visitor was Florida State coach Bobby
Bowden, who, says Butler, "was treated as a national hero" by
the project's residents.
On one recruiting visit Bowden asked LeRoy to meet him and
Seminoles recruiting coordinator Brad Scott (now South
Carolina's coach) at a gas station near Blodgett and escort them
to the Butlers' apartment. As they reached the entrance to the
project, Butler recalls, "a bunch of dudes who had been drinking
surrounded Coach's car and banged on it with a lead pipe. They
said, 'What are y'all white people doing here?' Brad nearly peed
in his pants. He pointed to the Florida State logo on his shirt
and said, 'We're here to recruit LeRoy.' The dudes started
smiling and said, 'Oh, follow us, we'll take you in.'"
While a junior at Florida State, Butler brought home Seminoles
star Deion Sanders. Shortly after his arrival, Sanders saw a man
chasing another man through the park and whacking him with a
two-by-four in broad daylight. Says Durham, "Deion was so scared
he told me, 'I'll sleep with one eye open.'"
Having survived such mean streets differentiates Butler from two
of the people closest to him--his longtime girlfriend, Rhodesia
(pronounced ro-DEESH-uh) Lee, and Edgar Bennett, a Packers
halfback who was also Butler's teammate in high school and
college. Lee and Bennett came from two-parent, middle-class
households in Jacksonville.
That's a point that Butler is quick to drive home upon meeting
up with Bennett. When Bennett insists that he grew up in a
neighborhood almost as rough as Blodgett, Butler is incredulous.
"I know you weren't poor," he tells Bennett, "because you bought
your food fresh, not when the sell-by date was about to expire."
Bennett's comeback: "All through high school and college your
name was LEE-roy. Then you made All-Pro in '93 and got the big
money, and suddenly it was le-ROY."
Butler laughs, says goodbye to Bennett and heads for the gated
country club community where he makes his home. The next day he
will fly to Green Bay for a minicamp, and the prospect of
returning to Titletown excites him. Butler is one of the most
popular Packers, largely because of his tell-it-like-it-is
personality. This season he will cohost a weekly television show
with two-time league MVP Brett Favre, and with Butler eligible
to become a free agent after this season, the Packers are
already talking about a lucrative contract extension.
A deer runs by Butler's property as he parks the Range Rover
outside his four-car garage. He has bought Eunice and each of
his siblings a house, and he spared no expense in building his
own home. The 14,000-square-foot house includes six bedrooms, 7
1/2 baths, a gymnasium, a home theater and a screened-in
swimming pool surrounded by towering oaks and pines. "I worked
with an architect to design this house exactly the way I wanted
it," he says, as Lee and their daughters, LoReal, 3, and
Gabrielle, 2, greet him at the front door. (Butler also has
another daughter, 11-year-old Sharon Goldson, who lives with him
and Lee.) Next spring he plans to marry Lee, a former Florida
State majorette whom he met during his senior year.
"This is a beautiful house," Lee says, "but we argued about it
before it was built. I thought it was too much. I'd say, 'You
don't need all this to be happy.' He'd say, 'You don't know what
it's like to go to school with torn-up shoes and have everyone
laugh at you. I always said that when I made it big, I was going
to build my dream house.'"
"That's right," Butler says later. "I'm trying to make up for
all those years."