MUNHALL, Pa. — Every life is the confluence of random circumstances.
Jack Butler, however, has enjoyed more quirks than most.
Just so happened Butler's father had a friend who suggested St. Bonaventure as a college destination in 1947.
Just so happened that friend's brother was St. Bonaventure's athletics director.
Just so happened the AD talked Butler, who never played a down of high school football, into trying out for Bona's team. Butler became a star wide receiver.
Just so happened Butler wasn't among the 361 players selected in the 1951 NFL draft. So he decided to become an electrician and work on his master's degree.
And then this happened: the Bona AD (Fr. Silas, aka Dan Rooney) called his brother (Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney) and suggested they give this Butler kid a look in training camp.
Butler, frustrated because the Steelers' single-wing offense was a mystery to him, asked head coach John Michelosen to end the misery and cut him. Michelosen denied the rookie's request, and Butler made his hometown team as a 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive end. An injury the third game led the Steelers to switch him to defensive back.
With all that, Butler turned out OK. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
Four-time Pro Bowler
"There's nobody in the Hall of Fame who's come further than Jack Butler," his St. Bonaventure and Steelers teammate Ted Marchibroda said. "It really is an unusual story."
Butler, 84, will be the first player from a Western New York college to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He'll get inducted Saturday night with center Dermontti Dawson, defensive end Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, running back Curtis Martin and tackle Willie Roaf.
While the path Butler took to Canton can be viewed as serendipitous happenstance, he certainly deserves the honor. He's lucky to have been exposed to football, but he made his mark as a fierce competitor.
"If Fr. Silas had never called Mr. Rooney and said 'Take a look at this guy,' that would have been the end of it," Butler said Tuesday in the living room of his suburban Pittsburgh home, where he raised eight children and lives with his wife of 57 years, Bernadette.
Butler recorded 52 interceptions, second all-time when a gruesome knee injury ended his career in 1959.
His total still ranks 26th in NFL history despite football's evolution into a passing game. When Butler led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 1957, teams threw an average of 23 times a game. Last year, teams passed an average of 34 times a game. Nobody has had more than 10 interceptions since 1981.
Butler was a four-time Pro Bowler, was voted all-NFL three times and was one of two defensive halfbacks on the NFL's all-decade team for the 1950s.
The respect he earned in Pittsburgh is evident by his placement on the Steelers' 75th anniversary team of 2007. He played on only two winning teams and never appeared in the postseason, but he was one of only 16 defensive players on a commemorative team rife with multiple Super Bowl winners.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney – Art's son, Silas' nephew and a Hall of Famer himself – contended Butler is the one player from before their Super Bowl years who could have starred on those teams.
"Any rookie that comes in, even the drafted kids, they really have to do something. And Jack did that," Dan Rooney said Sunday by phone from Steelers camp in Latrobe, Pa. "Once he got the chance, coming in as a free-agent rookie, you could see he was going to be a great player. It really didn't surprise you after the initial entrance."
Butler will join a select subset of Hall of Famers. Only 14 others weren't drafted. They include two notable contemporaries, legendary defensive backs Dick "Night Train" Lane and Emlen Tunnell.
Few people saw them coming.
"He was a natural-born, great athlete," said Frank Thomas, a three-time All-Star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s.
Thomas also was a Pittsburgh kid who attended Mount Carmel College, a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ont., with Butler. Neither decided to be a priest.
"The good Lord gave him a talent," Thomas said. "He was just a natural and all of that came out whenever he stepped on the field."
Didn't plan to play
Unlike Thomas, Butler had no inclination to play college sports when he left Mount Carmel. A couple months after arriving at St. Bonaventure – a school he said he'd never heard of until Mr. Rooney suggested it to Butler's father – Butler showed up for the first day of spring football practice strictly out of curiosity. Three roommates, GIs on scholarships after World War II, kept talking about the team.
When Butler tried to pick up his equipment, he wasn't on the roster. The manager sent him away.
"So I'm walking down the center path and see Fr. Silas," Butler said. "He asked if I went down to try out for football. I told him the guy wouldn't give me any equipment. He told me to go back the next day, so I did."
Butler learned how to wear his pads by watching his teammates get dressed in the locker room. When the coach finally asked what position Butler played, "offensive guard" was his only reply because the guy next to him had just said it.
"I stood there for a week or so at practice and nothing happened," Butler said. "A player got hurt and the coach hollered 'I need a defensive back!' Nobody moved. I waited a little bit and went out there. 'I'm a defensive back!' "
Bona head coach Hugh Devore eventually switched Butler to receiver. With Marchibroda at quarterback, Butler set the Eastern College Athletic Conference record for catches. NFL teams, though, weren't interested.
Fearless and confident
Out of the blue, he received a call from Fran Fogarty, the Steelers' treasurer and – since this story is loaded with coincidences, here's one more – the cousin of current St. Bonaventure president Sister Margaret Carney.
Fogarty offered Butler a $4,000 contract to play for the Steelers. Butler thought it was a joke.
"I knew nothing about pro football," Butler said. "Nothing."
The Steelers used an offense without a quarterback, similar to the Wildcat offense that experienced a rebirth a few years ago. Butler was a receiver at Bona. Now he was asked to block exclusively. He got abused and told the coach he wanted to be released. He was switched to defensive end and made the team as a backup to starters Charley Mehelich and Bill McPeak.
The third game was against the San Francisco 49ers at Forbes Field. An injury made Coach Michelosen call out for Butler.
"I went flying into the game and I see Mehelich standing there and McPeak standing there," Butler said. "I look down and it's Howard Hartley on the ground. He's a defensive back.
"I went back to the sideline and said, 'It's Howard Hartley that's hurt.' Michelosen said, 'I know who's hurt. Get in there.' Now I'm a defensive back again."
This time, it stuck. Butler soon became one of the NFL's most dominant cornerbacks. He intercepted 25 passes in his first four seasons and returned four of them for touchdowns.
Butler claimed he was successful because he was fearless and confident.
"When I went out there, nobody was going to beat me," Butler said. "I don't care if it's Harlon Hill, Bob Boyd or if they ran track in the Olympics. No way. I wouldn't permit it."
Marchibroda, an NFL first-round draft pick who coached for nearly 40 years, has seen few competitors like Butler.
"He totally believed in himself," Marchibroda said. "As a player at St. Bonnies, he never concerned himself with who was covering him. And when he was with the Steelers, it didn't make any difference who the receiver was. Whoever it was, he was sure he could cover him."
As much as he loved to play, Butler seemed to look upon football more with amusement than life-or-death importance.
"There was a box filled with footballs in the closet," said John Butler, the son who will be his presenter Saturday night in Canton. "We'd just pull them out and play with them. Some of them had signatures on them. Even trophies, we'd snap the guys off the top of them and play with them like Army men."
Butler, seated in his favorite living-room chair, smiled and shrugged at the idea of ruining mementos that might've been worth almost as much as his entire career earnings: $72,000 – about $583,500 today. Buffalo Bills long-snapper Garrison Sanborn will make an $830,000 base salary this season.
"The way he played is comparable to anybody else going out to their job every day," Sister Margaret said of Butler. "You didn't expect to be on national television or have every move covered by the press or have the celebrity or the perks. I admire him very much for that.
"The way professional sports is monetized now, it's almost impossible for athletes to look at a career and not have stars in their eyes about being incredibly rich. It's good every now and then to step back and look at people who did it for a love of the game."
Sharp scout as well
After a catastrophic knee injury ended Butler's career, the startup Bills hired him to coach their defensive backs in 1960. Butler still was on crutches, and the pain prevented him from doing the job. He left the team and returned to Pittsburgh, turning down owner Ralph Wilson's offer to stick around and collect a salary anyway.
Butler became a scout and eventually took over as executive director of BLESTO, a revolutionary scouting co-op started by the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Steelers. Other teams eventually joined. He held the job for 44 years, retiring when he was almost 80. Many NFL folks believe Butler could go into the Hall of Fame based on his scouting work alone. But that angle's unnecessary. He's worthy as a player.
Somehow, a kid who didn't know the difference between a thigh pad and a tackling dummy found a way for the sport to let him be a hometown star and provide for his family for more than half a century.
"I look back on my life, and I can't believe how fortunate I've been," Butler said. "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."