Something rare happened when former Packers safety LeRoy Butler was told he was part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2022: Butler was at a loss for words. “I feel like I stepped outside my body and watched myself,” Butler said.
It was a long road to the Hall of Fame for the former Florida State star. He was inducted in his 16th year of eligibility and is the final member of the NFL’s All Decade Team of the 1990s to earn Hall of Fame honors.
But even before his football career began, Butler overcame long odds to even reach the NFL. He grew up as a special needs child and couldn’t walk until he was five. He had difficulty learning to read.
Butler praised his mother when asked about how he overcame his difficult start. “Leadership is my mom raising five kids and one of them needs a little help. I say football [was] the best for me because I need 10 other guys to help me reach my goal. She taught me the next level.”
The Packers drafted Butler in the second round of the 1990 NFL Draft. He was starting at cornerback in his second season but was moved to strong safety in 1992 when the Packers spent their first round pick on cornerback Terrell Buckley. By 1993, he earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time and was also named All Pro, the first of four times he earned that honor.
Butler played 12 seasons in the NFL, all of them with the Packers. He had 38 career regular-season interceptions and 20.5 sacks. He forced 13 fumbles and recovered 10.
But Butler’s performance was so much more than numbers. He changed the nature of his position and became the first player in NFL history to intercept 35 passes in his career and record more than 20 sacks. He could cover like a cornerback, rush the quarterback and move into the box to stop the run like a linebacker.
In the 1998 Packers Yearbook, secondary coach Bob Valesente had this to say about Butler’s varied skill set and leadership. “He has a tremendous concept of what we’re doing, and it makes it easier for us to use him in certain ways. He’s a great talent, but he studies hard. We do a lot of teaching in the classroom and on the field and he’s not only picked up on it, but he’s become a teacher himself with the younger guys.”
His teammates appreciated him as well. “We don’t win nearly as many football games as we did or have the kind of success we did without LeRoy Butler,” former teammate and Hall of Famer Brett Favre said of Butler back in 2015.
After learning of Butler’s upcoming induction to the Hall of Fame, Favre said, “He was the first to leap in Lambeau and one of the fiercest to defend it. An all-decade safety and an All-Pro competitor, an all-time teammate, LeRoy Butler.”
Butler is now the fourth member of the 1996 Packers Super Bowl-winning team to earn induction into Canton, joining Favre, Reggie White and general manager Ron Wolf.
Wolf was pleased to see Butler finally get the call to the Hall. “[Butler] is the prototypical strong safety,” Wolf said. “He’s what everybody looks for at that position. He can cover, he can tackle, he can [blitz)], he can run. Didn’t miss games. Big-time football player. When I think of Hall of Famers, I think of guys who were dominant players in their era and at their positions. That’s LeRoy Butler.”
Like many great players, Butler came up big in the playoffs. During the Packers championship season in 1996, he recovered a fumble in the NFC Championship Game against the Panthers and sacked New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI.
In addition to his dominance on the field, the leadership he provided and his inspiring story about overcoming long odds to play football, Butler created one of the greatest traditions in Packers history and in all of sports: the Lambeau Leap.
On December 26, 1993, the Packers clinched a playoff berth in a 28-0 win over the Los Angeles Raiders at Lambeau Field. In the fourth quarter with the Packers leading 14-0 on a blustery and cold day, Butler hit the Raiders receiver and forced a fumble which was recovered by White. When the big defensive lineman was slowed, he lateraled the ball back to Butler who ran it back 25 yards for a touchdown. Butler kept running and jumped into the stands to do the first Lambeau Leap. It’s been a tradition for Packers players at Lambeau Field ever since.
Now that he has earned the highest individual honor the NFL can offer, he reflected on what football has meant to his life.
“The best gift the NFL has ever given me is making friends, family, fans and being able to connect, especially in our communities,” Butler said after his selection was announced. “Having that shield makes a big difference when you go in the communities to do camps and things of that nature. It gives us a platform to do what we want to do off the field and as well on the field. That’s a huge benefit. Now being in the Hall of Fame, you can just expand that tent a little bit more.”
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