Aug. 31, 1999
by Tim Bourret
CLEMSON, S.C. – Coaches from all over the ACC area gathered for the North-South All-Star game in Columbia in late July of 1975. The game, which is now played at Myrtle Beach in December, was the final high school event of the year and a final showcase for soon-to-be first-year freshmen.
Ninety percent of the participants were highly recruited signees from the previous February who were ready to join Division I schools from all over the Southeast. But, at one juncture of the game a wide receiver who had not signed a football scholarship with any school took over the game.
Jimmy Kiser, now the quarterbacks coach at NC State, threw a pass over the middle to a wide receiver named Jerry Butler of Ware Shoals High School. Butler turned on the speed and raced untouched 70 yards for a score. The college coaches, who were not familiar with the track star, took notice and collectively asked, “Who is that guy?”
That included the Clemson coaches. Much to their glee, they discovered by the end of the evening, that Jerry Odel Butler was in fact coming to Clemson….on a track scholarship.
Chalk up another odd recruiting story for the Clemson program. Butler went on to star at Clemson, earning first-team AP All-America honors, and leading Clemson to uncharted team accomplishments. Today, Butler will become the sixth member of the Clemson Football Ring of Honor, the highest honor accorded a Tiger gridder. He is the fifth player to be inducted, joining Banks McFadden, Steve Fuller, Jeff Davis and Fred Cone. Frank Howard, Clemson Head Coach for 30 years, is also enshrined.
Now, two of the five players in the ring came to Clemson without any fanfare at all. While Butler came to Clemson on a track scholarship, Fred Cone came to Clemson without having played any high school football. He was recommended by Frank Howard’s sister, who was impressed by the way he could dive into the next door neighbor’s pool.
Butler’s recruitment is even more bizzare when you take into account that he was actually signed by Dr. I.M. Ibrahim, who doubled as Clemson’s track and soccer coach in the mid-seventies. Ibrahim is known for coaching Clemson to two NCAA Championships in soccer, the other “football team” at Clemson.
Whatever the means of his sojourn to Clemson, the school has certainly been a better place because of Butler’s attendance. A diligent student who earned his degree in 1980, Butler still is a standard for wide receivers and Clemson players regardless of position.
Statistically, Butler’s accomplishments are countless. He was a model of consistency, as shown by his 35-game streak of making at least one reception, a streak he set between 1976-78, a record that is still in tact today. He concluded his career with 139 receptions for 2223 yards and 11 touchdowns, a 16-yards per catch rate. All those figures are still in the top five in Clemson history. Butler still holds the Clemson single game reception yardage record with 163 against Georgia Tech in 1977. His 58 catches in 1978 stood as a record until Tony Horne’s 70-reception season of 1997.
The honors certainly followed, especially after his senior year. Butler appeared on the Bob Hope Christmas Special in 1978 due to his selection to the Associated Press All-America team, the only first-team AP All-America receiver in Clemson history.
While Clemson fans will always remember his considerable statistics and honors, one play stands out. At South Carolina in 1977, Clemson trailed the Gamecocks 27-24 in the final minutes. The Tigers needed a victory to clinch a Gator Bowl berth, a selection that would be Clemson’s first bowl invitation since 1959.
Steve Fuller, also a member of Clemson’s Football Ring of Honor, quarterbacked Clemson to the South Carolina 20. With just 49 seconds left, Fuller lofted a ball to the right corner of the endzone toward Butler. Using every ounce of his exceptional athletic ability, Butler made a leaping backwards diving reception, giving Clemson a 31-27 victory.
“We see him make plays like that all the time in practice,” said Steve Fuller after the game. “I guess we just take it for granted. When I saw the defensive back line up on Jerry at the line of scrimmage I knew the play would work. We had done it in practice and we knew what to do. I knew if I could just get him the ball it would be a touchdown. You came to expect that from Jerry.”
That season, that game, that catch, launched the Clemson program on a 20-year run that saw Clemson return to the national rankings, bowl selections, ACC Championships and a National Championship. Many Tiger supporters wonder how fate would have dealt the Clemson program had Butler not made that catch.
Given these heroics at Clemson, Butler was taken as the number-five selection of the entire 1979 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. That is still the second highest draft choice by a Clemson player in history, only a number-three selection of Banks McFadden in 1939 is higher.
Unlike his first season at Clemson, Butler did not sneak up on anyone. He had dreamed of playing in the NFL and wasted little time, signing a contract just six days after the draft, the first first-round draft pick to sign that year.
Butler made Buffalo’s front office look smart, as he set NFL rookie records for touchdown receptions (4) and reception yardage (255) in a 1979 contest against the New York Jets. “That was the best single game performance I’ve ever seen from a wide receiver,” said NBC broadcaster and former NFL quarterback John Brodie. “I played the game for 16 years, but I’ve never seen anything like that.” Those single game numbers are still records for the Buffalo franchise.
Butler ended his rookie year with 48 receptions for 834 yardsand four scores and was named the AFC Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News. The following year he increased his reception total to 57 for 832 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl. By the end of his nine-year career with Buffalo, Butler had 278 catches for 4301 yards and 29 touchdowns. He missed two seasons due to knee injuries, 32 games that certainly could have enhanced his career numbers. Still, he ranks fourth in Bills history in career touchdown catches and yardage and is sixth in total catches.
While the records and game-breaking plays are certainly part of the Jerry Butler legacy, so are his off field contributions to Clemson and his NFL team. There are considerable testimonials to his greatness as a man.
You could see leadership qualities from Butler before he reached the NFL. Perry Tuttle, a freshman when Butler was a senior in 1978 gives us the proper perspective. “Jerry Butler recruited me to Clemson,” recalls Tuttle, himself a first-team All-American on Clemson’s National Championship team.
“I visited for the 1977 Notre Dame game and he was my host. He sold me on Clemson. By the end of the day, even though Clemson had lost the game, I told Coach (Charlie) Pell I was coming to Clemson.”
Butler took Tuttle under his wing and helped him for many years after he left Clemson. “In 1984 I was having a difficult time. I had been traded twice. He called the front office of the Falcons and found the team chaplain and told him to look after me. I really appreciated that. Then, he brought me to a conference in Houston with a lot of other NFL veterans. It was a conference on how to deal with life.
“He was engaged to Paula, now his wife, who was living in Houston at the time. He didn’t have to bring me along on that trip, but he did.
“My friendship with Jerry Butler made me a better person, a better husband, a better father.”
The story does not end there. After his years at Clemson, Butler took community service to another level at the professional level. In 1981 and 1982 he was named the Bills NFL Man of the Year. He was one of five finalists for the award nationally in 1981. In 1983 he was honored with the “Jackie Robinson Award” for community service by the YMCA of Greater Buffalo. In 1986 he was a finalist for the Byron “Whizzer” White Award for outstanding community service from the NFL Players Association.
In 1987 he received the “Salute to Young Leaders Award from the YMCA of Greater Buffalo Area. Two years after he retired he was honored with the Ralph C. Wilson Distinguished Service Award.
Upon completion of his career in 1987, Butler became Director of Player/Alumni Relations for the Bills, a position he held until this year.
He became a fixture in Buffalo, where he is also president of his own Construction Company. “It was a privilege to be Jerry Butler’s coach, even though it was during only a small portion of his career,” said former Bills Coach Marv Levy. “I was blessed to be his colleague when we both worked for the Bills.
“I came to know and admire his integrity and all the admireable qualities he represents. What a positive force Jerry Butler has been for the game and a great credit to the city of Buffalo and Western New York.” Levy made these remarks in connection with a Tribute to Jerry Butler, given by the Bills organization last summer. Ten years after he finished catching passes, he was still held in high esteem by the organization.
This is a big year for Jerry Butler. In addition to his enshrinement in the Clemson Ring of Honor, he has made a career change. Butler has joined his former Clemson wide receiver buddy Dwight Clark with the Cleveland Browns. Clark is the general manager and hired Butler as his wide receivers coach.
That career move prohibits him from joining us today for the ceremony as the Browns prepare for their first game. However, 10 members of his family, including his brother Richard, a member of Clemson’s National Championship team, will be present to accept the award.
Richard might summarize his brother’s journey through life the best. “Jerry has been a role model for me and everyone in our family. We are all very proud.”
So is everyone in the Clemson community as we salute one of the school’s most significant graduates, Jerry Butler.
at Clemson *First-team All-ACC, 1977 and 1978 *Set Clemson record for consecutive games catch a pass (35) *First-team AP All-American, 1978 *Ranked 10th in the nation in receptions in 1978 *Co-recipient of 1979 Frank Howard Award *Drafted #5 in 1979 NFL draft, highest selection by a Tiger since 1939. *Still Holds Clemson record for reception yardage in a game (163) *Still ranks third in Clemson history in career receptions and reception yardage
at Buffalo Bills *Set NFL Rookie Receiving Records for touchdowns and receiving yardage vs. New York Jets in 1979. *Named to AFC Pro Bowl Team in 1980 *One of five finalists for NFL Man of the Year in 1981 *Named Buffalo Bills Man of the Year in 1982 *Won Jackie Robinson Award for Community Service in 1983 *Ranks fourth in Bills history in career touchdown receptions and career yardage
at Clemson Year GP-GS No. Yds. Avg. TD 1975 1-0 1 7 7.0 0 1976 11-9 33 484 14.6 4 1977 12-12 47 824 17.5 4 1978 12-12 58 908 15.7 3 Totals 36-33 139 2223 16.0 11
Buffalo Bills Year GP-GS No. Yds. Avg. TD 1979 13-13 48 834 17.4 4 1980 16-16 57 832 14.6 6 1981 16-16 55 842 15.3 8 1982 7-7 26 336 12.9 4 1983 9-9 36 385 10.7 3 1984 DNP–Injured reserve 1985 16-15 41 770 18.8 2 1986 11-6 15 302 20.1 2 1987 DNP–Injured reserve Totals 88-82 278 4301 15.5 29 Note: Had 7 receptions for 123 yards and one touchdown in three playoff games not included in above totals.
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