One of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history always wanted to be a wide receiver. So every chance he could, in the summer of 1955, Jack Butler ran patterns for a scrub rookie quarterback by the name of John Unitas.
"He was accurate. Man, he really was," said Butler. "But have you ever watched him? He was kind of awkward. There was something about him, kind of a little awkward and stiff, but, aw, man, he could throw the ball. He just never got much of a chance."
Butler was preparing for his fifth pro season with the Steelers at the time, while Unitas was in the midst of a training camp in which -- the Associated Press reported that September -- he threw only 30 passes from scrimmage and connected for three touchdowns.
Unitas wasn't receiving much of a chance from coach Walt Kiesling and complained to Butler about it as the two drove from Pittsburgh to Olean, N.Y., for the resumption of camp at St. Bonaventure.
"So we're driving back," Butler remembered, "and he said, ‘I think they're going to cut me.' I said no, they have to give you a better look. He said, ‘Oh, I don't know.' But we get up there for dinner, and we're walking back over, and Kies calls him over and cut him on the spot. It wasn't handled very well."
Unitas, of course, went on to become perhaps the game's greatest quarterback. Butler might've been so considered had Unitas remained in Pittsburgh to give the Steelers the offensive punch they lacked.
Butler might just be the best player from the 1950s who's not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played cornerback and later safety for the Steelers from 1951 to 1959 and intercepted 52 passes during those 12-game seasons. His total is second in team history to Mel Blount's 57. Butler once intercepted an NFL and team-record four passes in a game against the Washington Redskins in 1953, and in the 1957 season Butler intercepted 10 passes. The Steelers led the NFL in total defense that year, as they did in 1958, but managed only third-place Eastern Conference finishes each season.
"We always had a decent defense," Butler said. "But we never scored too many points." Butler was named to the All-Decade Team by members of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Of the 23 players on that team, 21 are in the Hall of Fame. Butler and guard Dick Stanfel are the only exclusions. Butler, unlike Stanfel, has never even been a finalist.
The slight has perturbed football people in Pittsburgh for a long time.
"They should give us the reason why he's NOT in the Hall of Fame," Art Rooney Jr. once said. Rooney was the personnel man behind the great Steelers teams of the 1970s.
"Jim Finks once told me that Jack Butler was one of the greatest athletes he had ever seen," Rooney said. "As you might know, Jim was a pretty good talent evaluator."
Butler, like Finks, also became known as a talent evaluator. He was installed as the head of LESTO (Lions, Eagles and Steelers Talent Organization) in the mid-1960s. When the Bears joined a few years later, it became known by its current name of BLESTO. Butler has remained the hub of the information co-op ever since. In 2005 it serviced nine teams, down from a high of 14 a few years prior.
In that time, Butler has tutored such personnel notables as Dick Haley, Tom Donahoe, Jack Bushofsky, Tom Modrak, Ron Hughes and Kevin Colbert. In fact, Butler's son Mike helped build the current powerhouse Indianapolis Colts as their Director of College Scouting.
"The original people who really put BLESTO together were Buddy Parker and Art Rooney Jr.," Butler said. "Football was just starting to come alive. TV was becoming involved and it was getting bigger and nobody really had personnel departments. When I was playing in Pittsburgh, the man in charge of personnel was an undertaker on the North Side. He'd come around toward the end of the season and ask each guy if there were any good players at their old schools. He was a funeral director and I don't think he ever went out on the road. I don't think anybody did then except the Los Angeles Rams.
"In the early days we'd meet in say Philadelphia or Detroit or here in Pittsburgh, and the day of the draft those BLESTO teams would come there and draft. It was a great big room, and the scouts from each team would have their own room. People would be in the room and they would actually draft. At one time it was very, very important. Today, BLESTO's more of a starting point."
Butler's office in downtown Pittsburgh is the hub of BLESTO's information exchange. The member scouts send information on diskettes and Butler updates his data base and e-mails teams to keep them up-to-date.
"They'll start in August and they want to know why a kid flunked out or was suspended or was injured, or they'll want to know about a guy up in, say, Montana who's a pretty good prospect with a decent grade but who broke his leg and is not playing," Butler said. "The information is constantly coming in and going out for teams. We send all the information, the upgrades, downgrades. It's a full day."
Technology hasn't changed that. Butler used to spend full days writing up individual reports on NCR paper.
"Way back when, you'd write these things up and you'd have to guess on the speed, or just say he's fast. Well, how the hell fast is he? Or I think he's 6 foot 2. But now it's so much more sophisticated."
Butler has moved a short distance but has come a long way since his upbringing in nearby Whitehall. He didn't play high school football and went off to St. Bonaventure, with Pirates slugger Frank Thomas, to join the priesthood. There, Butler roomed with three football players who "jagged me into coming out" for the team. But Butler was turned away by the equipment manager until The Chief's brother, Father Silas (Dan Rooney), intervened. He had played with Butler's dad and figured the toughness genes had been passed along. He was right.
Butler came back, got his equipment and told the coach he played guard. "I lined up with the guy next to me," he said. "He was a transfer from Notre Dame, Frankie Ferris. He was the same height. I was only about 170 pounds and he was about 210. I asked him what he played and he said he played guard, so when the coach came down the big long line he asked me what I played and I said guard. He said, ‘You'll never make it,' and kept going down the line. So I didn't even know what position to play.
"Practice started and they said I could practice for a month, but I never went in, just stood on the sideline. So I was still standing there when they had two scrimmages going on at one time. It was after the war and there were all these kids running in and out, like a pro camp. After standing there at least a week, a guy got hurt during one of the scrimmages. So the coach goes over and said he needed a defensive back. Nobody moved. Nothing. So I went out and he said, ‘Aren't you the guy who said he's a guard?' I said no, I'm a defensive back. I started there in the first scrimmage and didn't last there. I got changed over to end. The last two years at St. Bonnie I was a wide receiver."
He set a conference record for receptions as a senior in 1950, but wasn't drafted by the NFL. He tried out for the Steelers the following summer at St. Bonaventure and found himself in a battle for the last roster spot with a former Pitt player. Coach John Michelosen, formerly the coach at Pitt, favored the ex-Panther, but that player was drafted into the service and Butler, who had supported his mother and had received a deferment, made the 1951 team as a 170-pound defensive end.
"I didn't play defensive back until someone got hurt in about the third game or so. Michelosen said ‘Butler get in there,' so I ran in there. Then either Finks or (Howard) Hartley, the defensive backs, got hurt. I came back out and said coach that's so and so he's a defensive back. He said, ‘I know who's hurt; get in there.' So I went in there and I was a defensive back. I'll tell you one thing: No one got behind me that game. I was so far back no one could. That was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Butler became a starting cornerback and didn't miss a snap throughout the next eight years. An injured ankle in 1959 ended the iron-man streak. He came back for a game and blew out his knee, which ended a career that included four Pro Bowls, one of which he'd decided with a blocked extra point.
His greatest game was the four-interception game on Dec. 13, 1953 in Washington. Eddie LeBaron was the opposing quarterback.
"Bill Dudley was with the 'Skins then and he ran a down and out," Butler said. "He was at the end of his career; I was on the right corner. But it was a down and out and LeBaron threw it to him and I came up and it was an easy pick and I went straight down the field. I just don't remember much more about it. I remember that play, but I just never thought it was that great of a thing."
He returned the interception for the deciding touchdown in the Steelers' 14-13 win. A month earlier, Butler, playing wide receiver, had beaten Frank Gifford for the winning touchdown against the New York Giants. In his career, Butler scored four offensive touchdowns and five defensive touchdowns. Finks once complained that his passing statistics suffered because Butler was used on defense.
As well as Butler could catch, he was better known for his hitting. He could not only strike the blow, Butler wrapped up. But what does John Bradshaw Butler remember most about playing defense in the 1950s?
"Jim Brown was hard to bring down," he said. "If you hit him hard, you took as much punishment. Ollie Matson had lot of speed. (Hugh) McElhenny was a great back; so were (Marion) Motley, Eddie Price. I remember it was a great life, really great. The 50s were good years. I just loved the game and loved to play. Everything was a challenge. I mean I loved it. Playing the Browns, it was great --Mac Speedie or Dante Lavelli, playing whomever, covering so and so. He wasn't going to beat me; I was going to beat him. I thought that way anyway. Those were just great years."