Most die-hard Steelers fans today have heard John B. “Jack” Butler’s name, but very few of them have actually seen him play. With the announcement that Butler is selected as a senior candidate by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee, it seems appropriate to remember him as a player and a man.
Born November 12, 1927, in Oakland, Butler grew up near Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Butler attended a Carmelite seminary prep school (Mt. Carmel College High School) with friend and neighbor Frank Thomas of baseball fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Both were studying the seminary, and both chose sports over priesthood. Butler had never played a down of organized football until he left Mt. Carmel. After graduating, Butler and Thomas went on to attend college at St. Bonaventure. Thomas chose baseball while Butler chose football. Butler was only one of twelve Bonaventure players to make it into professional football. Those players included: Butler, Mike Gavagan (Rochester Jeffersons), Johnny Gildea, Hank Goodman (Detroit), George Hays (Pittsburgh) Al Koporch (Detroit), George Kenneally (Pottsville Maroons, Boston Bulldogs, Chicago Cardinals, Boston Braves and Philadelphia Eagles), John Ksionzyk (Los Angeles Rams), Frank LoVuolo (New York Giants), Ted Marchibroda, Hugo Marcolini (Brooklyn Dodgers – AAFC) and George Nicksich (Pittsburgh). At St. Bonaventure, Butler played mostly at defensive end. His coach at St. Bonaventure was Joe Bach who also coached for the Steelers (1935 – 1936, 1952 – 1954).
Once the Steelers snagged Butler, they signed him as an offensive end and quickly discovered he made a better defensive back. In the 1952 media guide, they listed Butler at 6’1”, 195 pounds; an end who developed into a top defensive halfback in 1951 and was expected to play some offense that year. The fact that Butler’s father was native to Pittsburgh and personally knew Art Rooney “The Chief” (AJR) and played what Art J. Rooney, Jr. claims in his book Ruanaidh “sandlot” football with the two oldest Rooney brothers probably influenced Butler to consider professional football with the Steelers the most. Father Dan Rooney (aka Father Silas) was the athletic director at St. Bonaventure, but he saw that Butler struggled on the offensive line against larger players. Butler ended up playing end on both the defense and the offense at St. Bonaventure. During the 1951 NFL Draft, Butler went unsigned. It was Father Silas who nudged AJR into giving the young man a tryout. At training camp Bob Davis noticed Butler’s skills, but then Steelers head coach John Michelosen favored a player from Pitt over Butler. Due to a military deferment, Butler was able to remain in Pittsburgh while the Pitt player went to war.
Credit Fran Fogarty for getting Butler to leave college behind and enter professional football. Butler said, “I fully intended to go back to school. Fran Fogarty called from the Steelers and asked me if I wanted to try out for the team. I thought, ‘Hey, this is a terrific way to spend my summer. I won’t make the team, but it will be a great way to pass the time.’ I never went back to school.” Butler ended up making the roster as a defensive back. At times, the Steelers would also line him up at wide receiver due to what coaches called “soft hands”. In nine seasons, Butler caught seven passes; four of which went for touchdowns and two of the four were game-winners. Quarterback Jim Finks (1949-1955) insisted he would have had a better career if Butler had been his receiver more often.
During his career, Butler caught 52 interceptions in a mere 103 games. At that time, only two defensive backs had better numbers; Emlen Tunnel and ‘Night Train’ Lane (both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton). Tunnel called Butler a “defensive genius” as both were named “the two best defensive backs of the 1950s” by the publication The First 50 Years of the NFL. On the NFL’s seventy-fifth anniversary, Butler and Tunnel were named the two best defensive backs of the 1950s. It was no surprise that Butler’s name appeared on the Steelers’ all-time team list during the Steelers’ 50th anniversary. In 1998, Pro Football Weekly called Butler and Mel Blount of the Steelers amongst the “top 100 players in NFL history.” Butler played in four Pro Bowls and was named to his first All Pro team in 1955.
Defensively, his career was highlighted by play against the Washington Redskins on December 13, 1953, when Butler recorded four interceptions. One of the interceptions resulted in a 35-yard return for a touchdown to win the game for the Steelers 14-13. It tied a record. The following year Butler set a record with two interception returns for touchdowns and a career-best 10 interceptions.
Offensively, Butler’s highlight was when he scored a touchdown and then kicked the point after against the Giants in New York. It was late in the game and Butler had caught the touchdown pass from Finks. The Steelers would use his abilities at receiver when needed and Finks loved to throw him the ball.
In 1958, Butler added nine more interceptions to his growing list. In 1959, after garnering two interceptions, Butler was forced to retire due to a leg injury he received when tight end Pete Retzlaff of the Philadelphia Eagles rolled into Butler’s knee.
Jack Butler never made more than around $12,000, as a player with the Steelers, but Butler himself said, “I thought I made a helluva lot of money.”
It’s almost sad that it has taken this many years for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to recognize the great play of Butler. After talking to Ron Lippock of Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin, it was revealed that Jack Butler is not well, not interested in interviews and declined such invitations through his son.
In a 1992 interview and article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the focus was on BLESTO, Inc. Created in Pittsburgh during the early 1960s, and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, Jack Butler was a 44-year scout/manager. In 1992, Butler was nearing his 80th burthday. Close friends with Art Rooney Jr., who was also a long-time member of BLESTO, Rooney said that during a ceremony orchestrated by himself at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh where three commissioned paintings were revealed of Butler as a player (by artist Danny Karchner), “It’s a tremendous tribute to him.” Rooney Jr. headed the Steelers’ player personnel department for over 20 years. Rob Kisiel was then hired to replace Butler.
Some of the scouts that worked under or were trained by Butler include: Kisiel, Kevin Colbert, Ron Hughes, Tom Donahoe, Tom Modrak, Dick Haley, Chuck Connor, Joe and Jack Bushofsky, his son Mike Butler, the late John Goeller and Rick Reiprish.
BLESTO was the brainchild of Buddy Parker, Russ Thomas (Detroit) and Vince McNally (Philadelphia), although Art Rooney Jr. was often given credit for it’s invention. It began in 1964 as a collaborative way for Pittsburgh, Detroit and Philadelphia to scout new players. In 1965, the Bears joined the group. Later came Minnesota. BLESTO became one of two NFL scouting combines. Originating as LESTO – Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization, it was later changed to BLESTO when the Bears joined. It changed again to BLESTO V when the Vikings came on board. The only other combine in existence with the one Ken Stilley, a former Steelers assistant coach and the first director of BLESTO, is the National. Butler had tried coaching with the Buffalo Bills in 1960, but his traumatic leg injury developed a serious staph infection. In 1961, he was hired by Pittsburgh as a coach/scout before he moved on to Blesto.
“Butler’s strength was his strength of his personality,” Art Rooney Jr. said. “He had all the intangibles and had tremendous respect from all the teams in BLESTO — from coach Halas, Don Shula, the Rooney family. He knew what it took to play the game and he always was fair with the scouts.”
“Jack deserves to be in the Hall of Fame based on what he did as a player — he had all those interceptions,” Colbert said. “And then he started BLESTO, overseeing the evaluation of tons of players since 1963 until now. And he’s enhanced the careers of a lot of personnel people, including myself.”
Jack Butler began his career in the NFL as a player in 1951 and ended the relationship when he retired as Director of BLESTO Scouting in 2007. His remarkable statistics include:
52 Interceptions (#2 on All-Time list at retirement)
60.2% Forced Turnovers /Game – Highest All-Time
4 Times All-Pro / 5 Time Pro-Bowl Selection
Led the NFL in Interceptions (10) in 1957
NFL Team of the Decade – 1950’s
NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team
Pittsburgh Steelers 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams
During his time with BLESTO, his contributions to the NFL included:
Scouting and evaluating over 75,000 college athletes
Starting the Combine scouting process, still in use today
Subscribe to get instant updates on the Pittsburgh Steelers on modenook.com
Are you on Facebook? Friend Pittsburgh Steelers Examiner Christina to talk Steelers.
To email Christina click here.
Twitter and re-Tweet this article by following @3Rivers_Writer
Read other Steelers news from Pittsburgh Sports Examiner, Matt Pawlikowski
NFL EXAMINERS ON FACEBOOK
AFC NORTH EXAMINERS ON FACEBOOK
‘THE BEAM’ in Pittsburgh
Get news on other NFL teams and football on modenook.com