ALTOONA — For much of his childhood, the man who created the Lambeau Leap needed help simply walking.
“My feet were extremely pigeon-toed,” said former safety and Packers Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler, who spent his entire 12-year career with Green Bay. “They looked as if they were having a conversation. Most kids when they’re 5 or 6 years old, they’re running and jumping, chasing butterflies. They go to the pool. I didn’t do any of that.”
Butler spent time in a wheelchair and leg braces and faced ridicule in school for his hand-me-down clothes and disability while growing up in Jacksonville, Fla. But he took his mother’s lessons to heart and never let any of it get to him or divert him from his dream. He knew since he was little he wanted to play in the NFL, and when he realized he no longer needed assistance at around 8, he worked hard to make that dream a reality.
It’s a message he feels every kid needs to hear, and one he shared Thursday afternoon with students in the Altoona High School gymnasium as part of his Butler vs. Bullying campaign.
“I was in special education, I was disabled, I couldn’t read, but I knew what I wanted to do,” Butler said after posing for countless autographs and seemingly signing everything the Packers could slap their logo onto. “It’s just important to me to have kids know that just because you see the jersey, it doesn’t mean it’s all been peachy.”
Butler, a Super Bowl XXXI champion, shared anecdotes of his childhood, including the time an oak tree was picked ahead of him in a pickup football game, or when he went out back of the school with the janitor to find cardboard to close up the holes in his shoes. Altoona students from the high school and middle school listened closely as he made the latest stop on a tour that’s included trips to Fall Creek and Cadott.
He harped on the importance of education and the ability to look past insults flung his way from grade school to high school.
“When I’m telling my story, you see them nodding their heads like, ‘I’m going through the same thing,’” Butler said.
At the end of his speech, Butler called the Altoona audience his best yet since there were a pair of No. 36 Butler jerseys in the crowd. He summoned both of the boys down from the bleachers to have him sign their uniforms.
“I got it from my uncle,” Altoona senior Cole Auger, one of the two brought down to the gym floor, said of his jersey. “I just thought I’d dig it out today since he’s coming. … I was a little surprised (he called me down), but it was pretty cool.”
While Butler spends much of his time these days speaking at schools, he’s still plugged in with the Packers and is not afraid to share his opinion. He broadcast his approval of the team’s head coaching hire of Matt LaFleur on Twitter Monday, tweeting, “GREAT HIRE BY THE @packers MATT LaFleur! I’m very excited!!!” On Thursday he said the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator fits the mold he was hoping for.
“I wanted somebody young, innovative,” Butler said. “Give him an opportunity. He’s never been a head coach before. It almost makes me feel like a Mike McCarthy deal in a way. I wasn’t looking for a flashy name. I just wanted somebody that’s close to Aaron (Rodgers) in age where they respect each other and give Aaron, and not only Aaron, everyone a chance to succeed.”
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