I came across this link this morning on NFL.com. As it reveals, Washington Huskies linebacker Donald Butler beat all the linebackers — and matched the defensive linemen — at the NFL Combine by doing 35 reps on the bench press.
In an instant, a pang of regret shuddered through my body. I really wished I had gotten to see Butler run out of the tunnel on Senior Day.
Something reporters rarely tell their readers is how sentimental they get over the nice guys the cover. They don’t want to look biased, or weak, I guess. But in all truthfulness, I was pretty sentimental when it came to Butler.
Maybe it is because he surprised me so much the first time I interviewed him. He had just come to Seattle from Sacramento, was much smaller than he is today, and was standing in the lobby of the Conibear Shellhouse, where I talked with him for a Huskies profile, or something simple like that during camp. I must’ve been going through the motions, because I asked him about his summer workouts.
He gave me a giant smile and, what he said, shocked me. Butler told me that, while yes, he did work out during the summer, he probably could have done more because he spent July in Europe. I raised my eyes to him. “Really?”
To the contrary, as we would all learn the next few years.
While the Huskies defense became more and more miserable, Butler answered reporters’ questions with grace, a sense of humor and what had to have been an insufferable about pain he hid from us reporters. His first two years, he struggled in a defense that was just awful. But he was one who — almost always of nowhere — made some nice play, or bone-jarring tackle that was lost on the casual spectator because the defense was just so bad.
Butler blossomed his senior year. While his hits became more punishing and his smarts and instincts developed him into a fine player, his most memorable play was probably more fluke than talent, but it still let him run off with a Nick Foles interception for a game-winning touchdown. I’m so glad he got that moment.
Back to Butler’s uniqueness as a man of intellectual curiosity, I remember how excited he was to talk about his trip to Barack Obama’s inauguration in D.C. He was even quoted by the Associated Press, by a reporter in that crowd on that freezing day who had no idea he was a Pac-10 linebacker.
I know it’s cliche, and I know I’ve written stuff like this before… but every couple years, I was blessed to cover a young man who wasn’t just a good football, or a nice kid, or a fun personality, or a smart guy. Every couple years, I was blessed to cover the total package — a student-athlete who embodied all of the above.
Donald Butler was one of those.
Good luck at the Combine, Mr. Butler, and may that first job of yours include shoulder pads, helmets and very busy Sundays.