Nine months ago, Jack Butler giggled at all the fuss.
In his gold Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer, the Pittsburgh Steelers legend stood on a Fawcett Stadium stage and marveled at the throng of fans, screaming and waving their Terrible Towels for him.
With a smile, Butler told the crowd to knock it off and – on a night when maudlin, rambling speeches are the norm – delivered a snappy, four-minute address. He expressed his thanks to those who came.
“Heck,” Butler said at the end of his speech. “I’m thankful I’m here.”
Butler, a St. Bonaventure alum and one of the greatest overachievers in sports history, waited nearly 50 years to get into the Hall of Fame. He was ecstatic to have gotten the chance to experience his big moment with his eight children, 15 grandchildren and scores of friends.
Butler died Saturday morning in Pittsburgh. He was 85. Butler had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure a year ago and spent the past seven months in hospitals and rehab facilities because of a staph infection in his left leg.
“We just thank God that he was able to enjoy that little time in the sun that he had,” John Butler, who introduced his father at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, said Saturday night. “It wasn’t anything that he hoped to achieve, but it’s something that happened. We were so fortunate.”
Jack Butler didn’t play a down of high school football. The Pittsburgh native attended Mount Carmel College, a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ont., and then St. Bonaventure.
He decided to try out for St. Bonaventure’s football team because some roommates kept talking about how excited they were to play.
He turned into a star receiver for the Bonnies, but went undrafted in 1951. St. Bonaventure’s athletics director happened to be Steelers owner Art Rooney’s brother and wheedled a tryout while Butler was getting on with his life as an apprentice electrician.
Butler somehow made the Steelers as a defensive end and eventually was converted to defensive back. Last year, he became only the 15th undrafted Hall of Famer.
“I look back on my life, and I can’t believe how fortunate I’ve been,” Butler told The News last summer at his home in Munhall, Pa. “I don’t care where I was. Everything just seemed to fall into place, no planning, no nothing. Everything worked out. I don’t know how or why, but I’m grateful.”
Butler, a four-time Pro Bowler, was voted all-NFL three times and was one of two defensive halfbacks on the NFL 1950s all-decade team.
“There’s nobody in the Hall of Fame who’s come further than Jack Butler,” his St. Bonaventure and Steelers teammate Ted Marchibroda said last year. “It really is an unusual story.”
Butler had 52 interceptions, second-all time, when a horrific knee injury ended his career in 1959. John Butler said his father started having problems with staph infections because of that knee, which was replaced twice.
The Buffalo Bills hired Butler as a defensive coach in 1960. Butler still was on crutches, and the pain prevented him from doing the job.
He returned to Pittsburgh and became one of the NFL’s most influential scouts. He was executive director of the BLESTO scouting service for 44 years.
“Jack was a great person and great friend who always placed his faith and family first,” Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. “Beyond his great play on the field, he was a legendary personnel man who helped so many of us get established in our scouting careers.
“He will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Among those Butler mentored were Colbert, former Bills president Tom Donahoe, former Bills college scouting chief Tom Modrak, Steelers college scouting director Ron Hughes and former Steelers and Jets personnel director Dick Haley. Just last week, the Steelers hired his son, Mike Butler, as a scout.
Doug Whaley, the Bills’ assistant GM, is a Pittsburgh native and came from the Steelers scouting department. He views Butler as a colossus of the profession.
“If you look at Jack Butler’s tree, it’s still reaching out farther today,” Whaley said. “I could say I’m one of those branches because I started under Tom Donahoe and cut my teeth under Kevin Colbert.
“His impact lives on. He’s one of the forefathers of this business.”