Butler Ends Historic Career


LeRoy Butler

Eight months to the day after he left the Packers' home game against the Atlanta Falcons with a fractured left scapula, LeRoy Butler officially announced his retirement from the NFL after 12 seasons in the league, all of them with the Green and Gold.

He made the announcement with the same charisma and class with which he played the game, constantly flashing his trademark smile. While his wife Rhodesia stood to his left, Butler thanked virtually every coach he'd ever played for, from high school through the pros.

He expressed his gratitude to everyone in the Packers organization, from secretaries to security guards. In the end, he said he'd even miss the media.

Butler did everything but look back in regret over a career that was complete, but over too soon.

"I wanted to make sure this wasn't very emotional, because this is a celebration for me," he said. "In the real world I'm a young man, 33, 34 tomorrow. But in dog years and football, you're old, so I just think it's a celebration for me. I don't want anybody to be sad, I want people to be happy."

For Packers fans, it won't be so easy to say goodbye, because Butler has been a mainstay over one of the most magical periods in team history.

In 1990, when he was drafted out of Florida State in the second round, he joined an organization that had celebrated but one winning season in the past 11 years, two in the last 17. But after a pair of losing seasons to start his pro career, Butler and the Packers would go a remarkable 104-56 over his last decade in the league, reaching two Super Bowls and winning one.

Although he missed the last seven games of the regular season last year, plus the playoffs, one wouldn't dare say that Butler hadn't played a major role in the turnaround. He leaves the sport having suited up in 181 games, 116 of them consecutively, to pull down 38 interceptions and amass 20.5 sacks.

And yet none of those figures encapsulate what Butler meant to the team off the field, as a leader in the locker room, as a team statesman, in the way he made those around him better players.

"He will be missed by all of us as a football player -- he leaves this game as an elite player at his position," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "There is nobody that I can think of however, that I would put in his class as far as love of the game, love of his teammates, love of the Packers and love of the fans. He's in a class all by himself in that area."

Butler said that he wanted to leave the game with a legacy. Certainly, he has done that. In fact, were it not for a certain three-time MVP, the last decade could have forever gone down as the 'Butler Era.'

But not even Brett Favre can claim to have launched the beloved Lambeau Leap, which in all honestly is a tradition that seems destined to live on even further than the memories of Butler or Favre themselves, a pair of players to be forever linked by the passion with which they played the game.

It was a gesture spontaneously created by Butler in 1993, when he took a Raiders fumble into the end zone and then took himself to the crowd. It spoke then to his love of the fans, just as he did Friday.

"Coming out at Lambeau Field, shaking hands with the people in the end zone, that was awesome to me," Butler said. "That meant more to me than anything, that people were actually waiting for me to come out of that tunnel and shake their hand before (a game). . .

"That's what it's all about because we're the only, rare team where the people own us, so it's my duty to do whatever I can. That's the one thing I'll really miss is the fans."

Butler said he will be planning public engagements in the near future so that Packers fans can meet one of their heroes and so he can meet them, the people for whom he played the game.

"I don't really know what I'm going to do, but I will stay close to this team," Butler said. "This team's been everything to me, and it was never, ever, ever, ever, about the money here, ever.

"Because I felt like every day that I went into that stadium and it was sold out, somebody spent their hard-earned money, and to ask for a dollar more, or a million dollars more, that would be a slap in the face to the people who can't come to the game but who still pay our salaries."

That Butler won't continue to play in the NFL isn't simply by choice. As team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie explained, Butler's shoulder has healed well enough to enjoy an average life, but not to sustain another NFL hit.

So when Butler was asked if he had ruled out a comeback following the 2002 season should his remaining fractures properly heal, he generally denounced the idea, but seemed unable to discard it completely.

And for that, no one could blame him. After all, this is the guy who wore leg braces as a child and thought he might never run again, who was recruited out of the projects to Florida State, who joined a Packers football team that had seen two winning seasons in 17 and left one that had played in two of the last six Super Bowls.

"Never say, never," he said.

Still, those possibilities seem slim and Butler is well aware that the team can continue without him.

"I know for a fact that we'll be (in a Super Bowl) again soon, because we have that kind of team," he said. "I don't want to put any pressure on the guys, I'm the idiot that said we could go 19-0 (before the 1996 season)."

To the Packers and their fans, he is much more than that. To them, he is an icon, someone who dared to believe and built a career that was nothing short of brilliant.

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