The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Pro

May 11, 2013

Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Butler dies at 85

PITTSBURGH — Jack Butler, who helped revolutionize the way cornerbacks played in the NFL during his Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, died Saturday after a lengthy battle with a staph infection. He was 85.

Butler’s son, John, said his father’s heart stopped suddenly Saturday morning. The elder Butler had spent the last several months in the hospital dealing with a staph infection that had plagued him since his career ended in 1959.

“It had been a long road,” John Butler said. “It wasn’t completely out of the blue.”

Unlike Butler’s professional career.

The Pittsburgh native played wide receiver at St. Bonaventure and was planning on returning to school to get his master’s degree when he received a phone call from Steelers business manager Fran Fogarty in the summer of 1951.

Butler assumed Fogarty had the wrong number.

“I didn’t know anything about professional football,” Butler said.

It didn’t matter. Over the next nine years, Butler became one of the NFL’s top defensive backs, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound wrecking ball known for his physical play and uncanny knack for getting to the ball. Butler intercepted 52 passes during his career, including a league-high 10 in 1957. He made the Pro Bowl four times and was chosen first-team All-NFL three times before a knee injury in 1959 ended his career.

Butler remained close to the game after his retirement, becoming a prominent scout who worked closely with the Steelers for more than 40 years.

During one stretch from 1969-74, Butler’s insight helped Pittsburgh draft nine players who would all precede him in the Hall of Fame, including Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene. The group became the core of a franchise for the better part of a decade, helping Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls in the span of six years.

“He was an excellent person both on and off the field, and he played an integral role in the BLESTO scouting program and our entire draft process before his retirement,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. “His family was very close to the entire Rooney family, and he will be missed.”

Butler served as the backbone of a string of mediocre to middling teams in the 1950s and his bruising style became a precursor to the “Steel Curtain” defense that has been the team’s hallmark for most of the past 40 years.

He was in his prime in 1959 when a collision with Philadelphia Eagles tight end Pete Retzlaff put an end to his playing days. The details of the play remained vivid more than 50 years later.

“He caught the ball and I was coming over to hit him, to tackle him and before I got to him, he tripped or caught his foot or something,” Butler said in July 2012. “As he was going down, his shoulder hit my (left) knee.”

Butler knew the second he looked down at the smashed joint – which appeared to be at a 90-degree angle with the rest of his leg – he needed to think about what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

“It was just sticking out,” Butler said. “I knew I was in a lot of trouble.”

There was no such thing as arthroscopic knee surgery back then and given the severity of the injury, Butler’s not sure he could have recovered if the injury happened today. He endured 10 surgeries and eventually had both of his knees replaced, procedures that limited his mobility later in life.

Still, he managed to make it to Canton, Ohio, last summer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame after being elected by the senior committee.

It was an honor Butler had given up on long ago even as a campaign to get him into the Hall built steam. He was second in NFL history in career interceptions when he retired and still ranks 26th all-time, tied with Champ Bailey among others.

More than a dozen members of his family made the two-hour trip to Canton for the ceremony when the weight of Butler’s accomplishments finally seemed to set in.

“If you’d asked him five years, 10 years ago, he’d have said it was no big deal,” John Butler said Saturday. “But then when it happened, he was like, ‘this is a big deal.’  When they told him 25,000 players or so had been in the league and you’re No. 268, he was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ He kind of really figured it out.”

Butler didn’t have a secret for his transformation from unknown to Hall of Famer. He knew he loved football. And he knew he could get away with the kind of contact today’s defensive backs only dream about.

“You could bump’em and push’em and do things,” Butler said. “You could grab onto his jersey so he doesn’t get far from you. You could hold on a little bit. Now they’re all over you. It’s hard to do anything today.”

There was no method exactly to Butler’s success. He was smart, sure. And he could tell by a receiver’s footwork where he was heading. Yet Butler says most of the credit should go to a work ethic and a little bit of naivety. He didn’t know what he was doing when the Steelers signed him to a $4,000 contract in 1951.

“I must’ve been given some talents,” he said. “Whatever talents I had, I worked like hell to improve what I had.”

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Pro
  • Penguins 0423 Blue Jackets rally from 3-0 deficit to take down Penguins

    April 23, 2014 2 Photos

  • Pirates 0423 Reds continue to dominate slumping Bucs

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates cut down by Reds’ Cueto

    April 23, 2014

  • Penguins 0422 Blown leads are troubling trend in series

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0421 Penguins finish hot to grab 2-1 series lead

    Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen scored in a span of 2:13 of the third period to revive the Penguins from yet another two-goal deficit in a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0421 Pirates walk off against Reds to halt home skid

    Ike Davis became the first player to hit grand slams for different teams in the same April, and Neil Walker had a winning run single with two outs in the ninth inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates twice overcame deficits to beat the Reds 6-5 Monday night.
    Pittsburgh trailed 2-0 before Davis’ fourth-inning homer off Mike Leake.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates Brawl 0420 Brewers top Pirates in game highlighted by dustup

    Ryan Braun homered in the ninth inning to tie it, then Khris Davis hit a home run in the 14th that put Milwaukee ahead for good.
    Yet those were hardly the big blows that attracted all the attention Sunday in the Brewers’ 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0420a Game 3 pivotal for both teams

    Not so long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL.
    Now they’re heading home for tonight’s Game 3 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins, hoping to make even more history.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0419 Blue Jackets outlast Pens in double-OT

    Matt Calvert banged home a rebound 1:10 into the second overtime and the Columbus Blue Jackets earned the first playoff victory in franchise history with a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
    Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury stuffed the initial shot by Cam Atkinson but Calvert stood all alone at the left post and wristed a shot into the open net to even the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at one game each.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0419 Brewers rally to clip Pirates

    Ryan Braun hit two homers, including a two-run shot with two outs in the ninth inning that sent the Milwaukee Brewers over the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-7 Saturday night.
    Braun has five home runs this season after being suspended for the last 65 games of 2013 following Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Biogenesis drug scandal.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

Would you like to see the Johnstown Community Corrections Center remain open after its lease runs out on Oct. 11, 2015?

Yes
No
I'm not sure
     View Results
Order Photos


Photo Slideshow

House Ads