Jack Butler, an Undrafted Football Hall of Famer, Dies at 85
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Published: May 12, 2013
Jack Butler, who was ignored in the National Football League draft but became a Hall of Fame defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was chosen for the league’s all-decade team of the 1950s, died on Saturday in Pittsburgh. He was 85.
The cause was complications of a staph infection that had lingered from the knee injury that ended his career in 1959, his son Mike said.
In his nine seasons with the Steelers, Butler intercepted 52 passes in 103 games, running four of them back for touchdowns. He retired as No. 2 on the league’s career list, behind Emlen Tunnell, who had 79 interceptions for the Giants and Green Bay Packers. Butler shares the league’s single-game interception record with many players, having picked off four passes against the Washington Redskins in 1953.
At 6 feet 1 inch and 200 pounds, Butler was an outstanding end at St. Bonaventure University near Olean, N.Y., then was given a tryout with the Steelers in 1951. He made the team as an end but was switched to defensive halfback, the forerunner of the cornerback position, to replace an injured player. He was a first-team all-N.F.L. player three times, made the Pro Bowl four times and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
“He was the perfect guy for a defensive back in those days,” Ted Marchibroda, the quarterback who teamed with Butler at St. Bonaventure and with the Steelers before becoming an N.F.L. head coach, told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He did not have the greatest speed, but he had good speed, good size, good hands, and his instincts were tremendous.”
John Bradshaw Butler was born on Nov. 12, 1927, in Pittsburgh. He played sandlot football there, and then studied for the priesthood at a seminary. After deciding against becoming a priest, he attended St. Bonaventure and went out for the football team with encouragement from the athletic director, Dan Rooney, the brother of the Steelers’ owner, Art Rooney, who had been ordained as a Franciscan priest and was known as Father Silas.
Butler did not miss a professional game until he sustained a career-ending knee injury in a collision with Philadelphia Eagles end Pete Retzlaff in 1959. Butler later became the longtime director of the N.F.L. scouting combine known as Blesto. (The name stands for Bears, Lions, Eagles and Steelers Talent Organization, those being the early teams in the cooperative, which began in the 1960s.)
In addition to his son Mike, Butler, who lived in Munhall, Pa., is survived by his wife, Bernadette; his other sons, John, Kevin and Tim; his daughters, Maureen Maier, Bernadette Hobart, Kathy Butler Ruffalo and Mariann Butler; a brother, the Rev. Thomas Butler; a sister, Catherine Mooney; and 15 grandchildren.
Butler was renowned for his toughness at a time when defensive backs had fewer restrictions in their tussles with receivers.
“You could bump ’em and push ’em and do things,” he was quoted by The Associated Press saying. “You could grab onto his jersey so he doesn’t get far from you.”
Don Joyce, a longtime Baltimore Colts defensive lineman from Butler’s era, wrote in recommending Butler for the Hall of Fame: “There were almost no rules in the 1950s and not many officials. These guys were tough. Jack Butler personified the era.”