Butler has all the bases covered

Third in a series of columns on players who deserve consideration for retired numbers.

If LeRoy Butler's No. 36 is ever retired, I hope it happens when he's still young enough to jump into the south end zone stands. The originator of the Lambeau Leap is my second nominee to be added to the short list of retired Packer numbers.

Until this spring, I thought Butler had a good shot to join the club. His jersey number had not been assigned since Butler's final season of 2001, despite the parade of dbs through town.

Then about two months ago second-round draft pick Nick Collins, a safety/cornerback out of Bethune Cookman, was granted No. 36. If this was an undrafted free agent with absolutely no chance of making the team, it wouldn't count -- that situation would be akin to baseball spring training players wearing numbers like 67 or 94; look for them on a minor league roster come summer. But a valuable second-round pick (51st overall)? That's a position almost identical to Butler's draft spot, which was 48th overall in the second round 15 years earlier. Obviously, the Packers expect Collins to pan out. Maybe the youngster will pull a Majkowski and graciously request an exchange, or maybe Butler will grant his blessings to the small-school hopeful.

Whether or not No. 36 is on the field come fall, Butler's case is strong. The effusive, efficient defender has all the bases covered - stats, longevity and an inspirational story.

A second-round draft choice in 1990 out of Florida State, Butler recorded the first of his career 38 interceptions half-way through his rookie season. By the '91 opener he was the starting free safety. Since then, the numbers seemed to come easily. Butler turned in six double-interception games and finished his career with 20.5 sacks for an impressive 152.5 yards.

Butler's consistent standard of excellence was recognized by the NFL following the 2000 season when he was named a first-team slection to the 1990s NFL All-Decade Team, chosen by the Pro Football Hall of Famer Selection Committee. He also named All-Pro five times, including four consecutive seasons.

The Jacksonville, Fla., native can be found all over the Packer record books. he retired fourth on the team's all-time interception list, one behind Herb Adderly. Two more picks and Butler would have become the first player in NFL history to record 20 interceptions and 40 sacks.

Like Jerry Kramer, Butler came in with a strong draft class on the tail end of an unfortune Packer run. He probably appreciated the team's resurgence that much more because of it. Maybe that's the reason why guys like Butler, Kramer and Starr stick around.

Despite slow recovery from a fractured scapula suffered vs. Atlanta on Nov. 18, 2001, Butler bravely tried to return in 2002. The injury turned out to be career-ending. He retired July 18, 2002, after 12 seasons. Only six players have worn Packer colors longer than Butler: Bart Starr (16 seasons), Ray Nitschke (15), Brett Favre (14 and still counting), Forrest Gregg (14), Buckets Goldberg and Dave Hanner (13).

Butler played 181 games, more than any other DB in Packer history.

Butler stands as the only real luminary to wear it. MacArthur Lane, one of my favorite Packers of the early '70s, hardly poses a threat.

Like Willie Wood and Donald Driver, sentimental favorites bandied about in the previous installment, Butler has a story to tell. He emerged from the Jacksonville housing projects, but that journey wasn't as simple as walking away. Due to a childhood illness, Butler suffered from fragile bones in his feet. He could walk only short distances and could not run at all. At times he was confined to a wheelchair. Braces, casts and perseverance put Butler back on his feet by 7th grade, and by 8th grade he was running down the road to football stardom.

He has another intangible on his side as well. Butler is part of a group not as elite as the retired numbers club, but just as important. Butler "gets it." He knows what it means to be a Packer. He loves the team and the fans and has made it a point to remain a part of it even after injury ended his career.

Butler's comments at his retirement press conference are evidence of the bond between the player and the Packers:

"Just knowing that I can retire today, that all my football cards are in that green and white jersey, I mean, that's priceless. People say, 'How can you give away a million dollars last year?' Easy, easy, because I want to stay here ... I think the priceless thing about it is you get to be with a core group of people in this room that really, honestly care about you. It was never, ever, ever, ever about the money here, ever, because I felt like everyday that I went into the stadium and it was sold out, somebody spent their hard-earned money." "I don't know what I am going to do, but I will stay close to this team. This team has been everything to me."

It would be nice to acknowledge that sentiment and the career it represents by someday adding No. 36 to the Lambeau Field wall.

Next installment: The case for William Henderson.

Editor's note: Laura Veras Marran grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and is a longtime sportswriter. Her column will appear regularly on PackerReport.com.

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