Former Bills WR Jerry Butler visits Van Miller tourney
Determination, fear, and even a dog are the factors that led one Buffalo football hero down the path of stardom.
In this year’s annual Van Miller golf tournament, two students from Dunkirk High School were given $5,000 towards their college education, with the only requirement to write an essay about who their hero is. There is a large round of golf, drinks all around, and a guest speaker. This year, the guest speaker was former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Jerry Butler, who spoke to those in attendance about many things in his life, but most notably, his path to the career that made him famous in Western New York.
Butler was drafted by the Bills in 1979, and spent his entire nine-year career in Buffalo, including making the Pro Bowl in his second season in 1980. Butler grew up in South Carolina, the middle child of five siblings, in a family that had next to nothing. He originally went to Clemson on a track scholarship, but after the University of Georgia tried to steal him away, Clemson added him to their football roster.
A few years later, he was a first round draft pick.
It was Linda Bogdan — Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr.’s daughter, and pro football’s first female scout — who discovered Butler on a scouting trip to Ohio State to check out the first overall pick in the draft Tom Cousineau, also a Bill. With a little convincing, she swayed Bills brass into taking a look at Jerry Butler, who was drafted fifth overall.
As Butler was coming back to his Clemson dorm the night of the draft, he saw all of the TV crews outside. They informed him, much to Butler’s surprise, that was taken by Buffalo in the first round. According to Butler, the first thing that came to his mind was, “Buffalo? I saw O.J. Simpson run the ball in the snow … in October!” Above all though, he was just appreciative to be on that stage at all.
Butler called his mother-in-law after the draft, who he recalls told him, “You don’t know it right now, but you were purposed to be there.” About two weeks into his stay in Buffalo, he met his wife of 33 years.
Early on in his years, the Bills were “talking proud,” says Butler. While acknowledging they weren’t champions, they were just trying to build toward something. It was a good collection of guys who “took ownership, leadership and accountability for what they produced,” he said.
The first thing Butler noticed when he stepped foot in Buffalo was the enthusiasm of the fanbase. Butler was taken by the class and passion that Bills fans treated him with. “They’ll let you know when they love you, and they’ll let you know when they don’t like what you’re doing,” Butler said.
One of Butler’s first initiations into Bills culture was when his team beat the Dolphins in his sophomore season in the NFL. Butler was not quite sure how much beating the Dolphins meant to the city of Buffalo, until that victory on September 7, 1980 snapped a 20-game losing streak to Miami that stretched the entire decade of the 1970s. Following the win, security was trying to escort the players off the field, while Butler and the rest of the Bills wondered what was going on, as “kids were coming from everywhere. They were climbing the walls, climbing on top the goal posts,” according to Butler.
After that, Butler says he “wasn’t sure what we just did, but I knew it was serious.”
Although his time in the NFL was cut short by injury, Butler spent a total of 20 years in the Buffalo area, before bouncing around to Cleveland, Denver, and Chicago in various stints within those organizations. Even after his NFL career ended, Bulter was still tied to the area. In addition to marrying a Buffalo girl, Butler was the partner in a contracting company based out of Springville, as well as the owner of a nightclub right down town. It is an area he’s still very proud to be a part of.
The key takeaway from Butler’s talk at the Van Miller golf tournament was that in life, it is okay to make adjustments. “Think of life like halftime,” Butler says. In that, he means that it is never too late to make a change, and it is never too late to better yourself.
Butler grew up in his early childhood in a place of fear. Fear of not having enough money, fear of his mother being diagnosed with breast cancer, and fear of a dog on the road he grew up on, who he called Jojo. He was scared to walk by the house where this dog lived, and one day one of his brothers helped him out. They decided to fix up the old bike in the garage, so Butler could go past a little quicker. On the first day of attempting this new strategy, the bike chain broke, just as he eclipsed the hill Jojo lived on. Instead of the dog coming to tear him apart, it just walked back home, and Butler continued on his way. But according to Butler, Jojo was a turning point in his life.
“That fear moved me to reality,” Butler said.
That push, that fear, and that dog are what led him to the NFL and everything else he did beyond. That is the message Butler wanted to impart on the attendees and scholarship winners of the Van Miller golf tournament this year.