Butler was a key cog in the Packers' rise from laughing stock to Super Bowl champs in 1996, and was the best at his position in the 1990s, getting named to the NFL's All-Decade team. I could go on about his on-field accomplishments, but others on packerreport.com have already done that. Where I'm headed is behind the scenes with Butler.
Prior to the start of a season one year, I had a lengthy question-and- answer conversation with Butler. The conversation covered football and off-field items. It lasted about one hour and off the conversation I not only wrote a Q&A story, I wrote a column about how Butler is much more than a playmaking safety. His work off the field with charities and his friendly demeanor opened my eyes to somebody who was more than just No. 36 on the field.
So many times, when covering a pro team, you don't get the chance to really get to know somebody. Sometimes because they're not around long enough, they aren't media friendly or there are too many players to get to know so you have to pick your players. Ironically, Butler picked me. After my Q&A and column ran in the Green Bay News-Chronicle (which is no longer in operation), Butler called me over to his locker and told me anytime I need to talk about football he was available, whether it be in the locker room or on the phone. He opened up his world to me, when he didn't have to do a thing. We would talk every week about everything from the NFL to college to teammates to coaches, even in the off-season. The times I talked with him I looked forward to the most, because even though I had questions I wanted to ask, other conversations took place.
I wasn't the only one who had this privilege with Butler, as a few other reporters had the same access. A few conversations I can share in short were:
-- Butler had conversations with Bill Schroeder, who never had a good relationship with the media. Butler asked Schroeder to be more like him, reasoning he'd be well-liked by everyone and being from Wisconsin, he'd be a fan favorite for years. It never happened.
-- Butler rated Chad Clifton a possible first-round pick when the Packers drafted him in the second round. Butler always paid close attention to the draft, wondering if some day he'd be able to pick players for a team.
-- During his career, Butler renegotiated his contract to help the Packers out with the salary cap. He would tell me the contract numbers, but instead of putting his name on the story, he'd tell me to call him a Packers source. That source was used a lot.
So for about the final few years of his career, LeRoy was there for me. Truthfully, I looked at him differently. I was less likely to criticize him when something went bad. I heard about how he lost a few steps, but reasoned he was smart enough to make up for it.
Then during the 2001 season, Butler attacked the line of scrimmage on a run (something no safety has done since in Green Bay) and he leveled Atlanta running back Maurice Smith. I can still see the hit to this day. While Smith bounced up off the ground, Butler didn't. He injured his shoulder and as we all found out the next summer, it was his last tackle.
I remember when I first learned of Butler's retirement, there was disappointment because I learned so much from our talks. He made me better in covering the Packers.
Since Butler's exit off the playing field, the safety position in Green Bay has not been the same. Nobody hits, there are no true leaders and no big playmakers.
Although he was slowing down in 2001, his presence gave the defense something it hasn't had since. His loss has been felt ever since, which is why he's headed to the Packers Hall of Fame.
Butler was a true pro on the field and one of the best in Packers history. For me, he remains my favorite of all time. The access he gave me was something I'll never forget. He' makes my hall of fame, too.
Doug Ritchay is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.