In his foremost years of existence, the standout 2014 tackle from Joliet (IL) was known as James Robert Butler. Once it became clear that Butler's older sister and younger brother struggled with his full name, James, they resorted to the truncated form, J.B.
The nickname stuck, and Butler recalls the switch as one of the more quaint, enjoyable moments of his childhood.
"It's a pretty pointless story," Butler said. "But I think it's kind of funny, because there's no real good reason for why they stopped calling me James."
That something as trivial as a toddler's mispronunciation—a frequent occurrence in the life of most every child learning to utter his first words—led to a permanent change in Butler's preferred title is not entirely insignificant. In fact, it's not so different from the way Butler was first introduced to Northwestern coaches. Both events, pure happenstance, could in time bear equal significance.
Less than two years ago, coach Fitzgerald stopped by Joliet Catholic high school to seal the commitment of Malin Jones, a heralded running back prospect and the first verbal pledge of NU's 2012 class. Butler, then a freshman, seized the opportunity to make his first legitimate connection with a college coach. Fitzgerald responded to his inquiries with the measured, self-assured verve that's become such a huge draw for the prospects he speaks to these days.
That encounter, which Butler likely would have avoided altogether without Jones' college choice, marked the beginning of his dalliance with NU. Butler, now a rising junior, entering a crucial stage of his recruitment, is quick to point out the first school to express a genuine interest in his services.
"You never forget your first letter," he said, referring to NU, the first program to clearly define its resolute pursuit of Butler's services. "They were the first school to really take interest in me, and that's something special."
NU is no longer alone in its recruitment of Butler, who has drawn interest from Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon, among others. He played a key role in Joliet's Class-5A championship run last season, then accelerated his remarkable rise in recruiting circles with a series of impressive performances at combines and camps this summer, including the Nike Football Training Camp.
While he's enjoying the recruiting process, and the growing list of options being extended his way, NU remains one of his preferred destinations. Butler attended the Wildcats minicamp on June 12, and he enjoyed working out in front of Fitzgerald and offensive line coach Adam Cushing.
"It was a great camp," he said. "I thought it went really well, it was very well set-up. I thought I performed really well and I just enjoyed being there."
Cushing and Butler have kept in close contact since the minicamp, focusing on his strengths and weaknesses in his game, and on the areas in which Butler can improve in the lead-up to his junior season. Butler spoke glowingly of NU's campus, particularly Ryan Field, and its academic stature, which he says trumps that of any other Big Ten school.
"Northwestern stands out academically, there's no doubt about it," he said. "All of the Big Ten schools I've heard from have strong academics, but Northwestern really sticks out, there's no doubt about it."
After his trip to Evanston—a quick car-ride away from his Joliet home, another aspect of NU that Butler favors—Butler camped at Michigan and plans to visit Ohio State on July 27th. He's arranged a return visit to NU in less than a week for a team barbeque, after which he plans to stay on campus overnight, then workout with players and coaches the next morning. When Fitzgerald requested he attend the event, Butler signed up "right away."
"I was real excited when I got the message about that barbeque," he said. "I'm very excited about going back. I really enjoyed it there when I went earlier this summer, so I'm expecting to have a good time."
Unlike many of today's top prospects, Butler doesn't plan to make his decision by a certain date, but would like some clarity before his senior season. As he plays out his junior season, it's only a matter of time before more of the nation's top-tier programs discover Butler's unique talents. His list of schools already includes most of the Big Ten and two Pac-12 heavyweights.
With a collection of decorated programs that most recruits could only dream of calling their own, and a meteoric rise up the rankings of most every scouting service, you'd expect at least some measure of presumption in the way Butler approaches the recruiting process. Judging by the modest appraisal he provides of his ongoing relationship with NU, there's not a trace of arrogance to be found in his current mental makeup.
"I'm just honored to be called one of Northwestern's prospects," he said. "It's an unbelievable school. For them to show interest in me makes me really excited and really happy."
That appreciative tone is neither fabricated nor assumed. Butler doesn't mince words; he's downright thrilled to have NU as a potential landing spot. Whether that sentiment leads to any sort of long-term traction, like his name change, remains to be seen.