Bobby Bowden would have been the host of LeRoy Butler’s Pro Football Hall of Fame had he lived to do the honours.
Butler shudders to think where his life might have gone if Bowdennot had brought him to the state of Florida.
“I was a Prop 48,” Butler said in an interview with The Canton Repository, using an old term for academic risk. “Coach Bowden was allowed to visit me at home, and he chose to go to the Jacksonville projects and visit me. He was the one who saved my life.”
Bowden is the second major college football coach, largely due to his 1976-2009 run at Florida State. He tends to be “just a name” in Ohio State/Big Ten country, but he was a central figure in a gripping story that hit close to home.
On November 14, 1970, a plane full of Marshall University players, coaches and boosters approached the airport in Huntington, West Virginia when it crashed into a hill and killed all 75 passengers.
The flight was returning from a game in East Carolina, the same day that Bowden’s West Virginia Mountaineers played in Morgantown. Among the dead was Marshall head coach Rick Tolley, who was hired in 1969 amid rumors the job went to Bowden.
Instead, Bowden remained as West Virginia’s coordinator in 1969, then was promoted to head coach in 1970.
In the aftermath of the crash, Bowden offered a tribute. His West Virginia team would dress in Marshall uniforms and play the season finale against Ohio University. The request was refused, but the gesture was long remembered.
Bowden continued a long life as a head coach all the way to Butler’s gates in Jacksonville, Florida.
Bowden recalled the visit during a January 5, 2021 radio interview, joining 1250 AM Milwaukee as a surprise guest on the phone. Butler was a studio guest.
“The first time I saw LeRoy he was playing a basketball game,” Bowden said. “An assistant who was following LeRoy wanted me to see what a great athlete he was. And he was.
“I don’t know how many 3-point shots he could make. Defense was his thing. He was invading you. You could see the run and the cut that would make a good defensive back.
“The next step was to go to his house and meet his mom and talk to him at his house. LeRoy said to me before, ‘Coach, when you come to see me, you’ll walk past that 7-11 store. There will be many men ahead. Do not stop.
Bowden, Butler and the radio host laughed, but it was a serious reference to the “projects”, as Butler calls them, and the criminal environment he hoped to escape.
Notre Dame, USC and others backed down after Butler was identified as “a Prop 48.”
He joined Bowden at Florida State, grateful but ineligible to play as a freshman. When the team took off on road trips, Butler would drive to the airport with a wish for good luck. He would drive alone to the airport to greet the team at home.
Bowden noticed it and laughed. A lifetime bond sealed early.
Bowden’s son told the Repository earlier this summer that Butler was more than just another former star player to his father.
“He was one of my dad’s favorite players,” said Terry Bowden, the former Akron head coach who is now head coach Louisiana Monroe. “I know I heard dad talk to LeRoy like a son, and I’m a son. And I know thousands of players, but LeRoy was the one he talked about like a son and he was so proud of LeRoy.
“The impact Dad had on the players’ lives off the court is far greater than any impact he had on the court, and I think that’s why LeRoy wanted him in his induction. My dad would have loved to have the opportunity to do that.
Butler played the first of his two years as a starter at Florida State in 1988.
“We opened first overall at the start of the season with a game in Miami,” Bowden said. “They beat us 31-0. We were overconfident.”
A chance for redemption came in the ACC’s opener at No. 3 Clemson.
It was 21-21 with minutes remaining, shortly after Florida State’s Deion Sanders returned a 76-yard punt for a touchdown. Clemson forced a punt with three minutes left. Except it wasn’t a punt. A quick wink passed from a teammate to Butler, who, with the cover team sprinting to the right as a decoy, took off to the left and ran 78 yards.
He became known as Puntrooskie. It ended with Butler needing oxygen, gassed when he got caught at 1. As a cornerback, he made 14 tackles that day.
A few months after the 1988 Seminoles went 11-1, Sanders ranked No. 5 overall in the 1989 NFL Draft. In his other sport, Sanders was the first hitter in the history of the Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton, playing for an affiliate of the New York Yankees against the Canton Indians.
The 1989 Florida State football team was 0-2 before winning its last 10 games. Butler made seven interceptions on a team that went 10-2. The Packers took him in the second round of the 1990 draft.
In 1992, Butler asked the Green Bay personnel department to consider recruiting his former high school and college teammate, running back Edgar Bennett. The year they won a Super Bowl together, Bennett said, “He’s like my big brother.”
Bowden stayed in touch. In 2021, when they reunited on Milwaukee Radio Station, Bowden was sick.
“How is your health?” asked the butler.
“I’m pretty weak,” Bowden said, “but I don’t hurt.”
“It’s good,” Butler said. “How’s your family?”
Bowden took the opportunity to share a little-known footballing story.
“I’m from Alabama,” Bowden said. “I wanted to coach in Alabama. In 1987, I thought they were going to give me the job…and I was going to go.”
Butler, a freshman at Florida State in 1987, is grateful Bowden stayed.
Alabama’s new coach in ’87 was Bill Curry, who lasted three years until the Crimson Tide offered the job to Bowden, who elected to stay at Florida State.
Bowden coached the Seminoles throughout the 2009 season when he was 80 years old.
After eight seasons under Jimbo Fisher and two under Willie Taggert, the position was opened up again in 2020. Before being handed over to Mike Norvell, Butler campaigned for former Bowden teammate and player Deion Sanders.
There’s still plenty of Bobby Bowden and Florida State in LeRoy Butler as he heads into the Hall of Fame.
Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler has joined Bobby Bowden at Florida State