GREEN BAY — The confidence never leaves his voice. Mention the Pro Football Hall of Fame and LeRoy Butler speaks in whens – not ifs – regarding his candidacy for the NFL’s highest honor.
That glass always has been half full for Butler, one of the most beloved players in Packers’ history and a catalyst to the dominant defenses that powered the team’s rise in the 90s.
It’s been 10 years since the Packers’ legendary safety first became eligible. While it’s been a long and sometimes arduous wait, Butler feels strongly about his chances.
To the four-time All-Pro, there’s a clear path to Canton. It just needs to be illuminated.
“If they go by numbers, then I think it’s a slam-dunk I’ll be in,” said Butler last week. “If they go by the guy who really started this safety blitzing and covering, and stuff like that, I know it will take care of itself and I’ll eventually get in. I just don’t know what they go by.”
Conversations with several Hall of Fame voters provides a consensus – the road to Canton is not an easy one for safeties. Even one as dedicated as Butler, the first defensive back in NFL history to eclipse 20 interceptions and 20 sacks.
Yet, last weekend provided a glimmer of hope for Butler and his contemporaries on the back end when former Seattle Seahawks safety Kenny Easley was voted into the Hall of Fame as a senior committee nominee.
Easley, the fourth overall pick in 1981, had 32 interceptions and eight sacks in seven seasons with Seattle before his career was cut short by injury in 1987.
Despite five All-Pro selections in seven years, Easley never was a finalist in 25 years as a modern-era candidate. Prior to last weekend, he and former Chicago tackle Jimbo Covert were the only offensive and defensive players named to the 1980s All-Decade Team that weren’t already in the Hall of Fame.
“I thought that was big,” said Butler of Easley’s selection. “I was glad to see a safety get in, but I also thought Brian Dawkins would get in and he didn’t and neither did John Lynch.”
Butler can relate to Easley’s wait. The four-time Pro Bowler is the only offensive or defensive player from the 1990s All-Decade Team that has yet to be a finalist for induction.
He has yet to even make the semifinal cut to 25 like former Jacksonville tackle Tony Boselli and three-time All-Pro Steve Atwater, the two other 1990s All-Decade selections who haven’t been enshrined in Canton.
Butler has his theories, beginning with the uphill climb safeties have faced in the voting process. Atwater, Lynch, Dawkins and Cliff Harris can all speak to that.
A few safeties have broken the glass ceiling over the years, but many Hall of Famers such as Rod Woodson, Ronnie Lott and Aeneas Williams had made a mark at cornerback before converting to safety later in their careers.
Many forget the Packers actually drafted Butler as a cornerback in the second round in 1990. He played there his first two seasons before then-Packers defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes moved him to safety in 1992.
A year later, he was named to his first All-Pro team after a six-interception season and Butler’s career continued to flourish when Fritz Shurmur took over for Rhodes in 1994.
Many of the hybrid safety tendencies popular in today’s NFL are things Shurmur and Butler were already doing in the mid-90s. He was more than a safety in the Packers’ defense - he was a weapon.
At 6-0, 205, Butler could hold his own against the run, generate pressure off the blitz, and cover tight ends and slot receivers without issue. As important as Reggie White was in the trenches, Butler wasn’t far behind on the back end.
He and Shumur developed a connection during their five years together unlike anything Butler had ever experienced in football. The coordinator was a constant communicator, who used dialogue to help develop the Packers’ “smoke” defense in 1996, a stacked front with Butler as a blitzing safety.
Butler enjoyed the best year of his career with 6½ sacks and five interceptions that season, while the Packers ended a 29-year championship drought with their Super Bowl XXXI triumph over New England.
“Fritz took the mentality of what Ray wanted to do – and Ray should’ve gotten a Nobel Peace Prize for what he did – and took it to another level,” Butler said. “But the reason I loved Fritz is because in his meetings, he listened. ‘What do you think?’ I’ve never heard that from a coach in my entire career.”
Butler missed only four games in 12 seasons before sustaining a shoulder injury midway through the 2002 campaign. It ultimately ended his career after 181 regular-season games, 38 interceptions and 20½ sacks.
Synonymous with the Lambeau Leap, Butler’s popularity in Green Bay remains unmatched to this day, but he also knows he doesn’t have the transcendent appeal of Brett Favre and White. Playing in the NFL’s smallest market also can make it more difficult to gain traction on a national level.
Former teammate, Edgar Bennett, and Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf have spoken fervently over the years about Butler possessing the necessary credentials. Yet, his phone has been silent every November when the semifinalists are announced.
“I guess I was more frustrated when I was first eligible because I was like they’re not going to put in a safety first ballot so next year should be my year,” said Butler, who retired in 2002. “When it didn’t happen, I said, ‘OK, this is one of those things that are drawn out. It may take some time so I just have to have peace with it.’”
Butler made his first summit to the Hall of Fame last summer when Favre was enshrined. He couldn’t help but visualize what it might be like to stand at that podium one day.
Only 48 years old, the Packers Hall of Famer will be eligible as a modern nominee for the next 10 years. Whether it’s through that selection process or senior committee, Butler is convinced he, Atwater and Boselli will eventually join their fellow players from the 90s All-Decade Team in the hallowed ground of professional football.
Easley’s patience finally paid off this year. Butler hopes his ship may soon be to follow.
“I think I’ll be in before then, but if I have to go through the senior committee – in is in. It doesn’t matter to me,” Butler said. “I’m just hoping and praying sooner or later somebody can speak up for me and know what I brought to the game. That’ll give me a chance to be a semifinalist and eventually be a finalist. I think my argument will be easy to sell to the people.”