Butler shoulders load for Pack Key matchup pits safety against Sharpe

January 22, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- If Reggie White is the conscience of the Green Bay Packers' defense, then LeRoy Butler represents its fun-loving, devil-may-care alter-ego.

Take this week for instance. Butler, the Packers' All-Pro strong safety, shepherded the team's young players around town to give them a sense of the Super Bowl and to make sure no one stepped out of line.

That, he says, is his role off the field.

"Relating to some of the younger players, go out with them to keep them in line," Butler said yesterday. "Somebody like Reggie can talk to them, but he doesn't do what they do.

"If they go to a strip bar and see a leader, then they'll feel comfortable. But you're not going to see Reggie there.

"I've been there maybe last night.

"That's OK to do as along as you don't do stupid stuff."

It may be questionable leadership taking a group of players to a strip club five days before the Packers meet the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. But no one disputes that Butler, 29, is one of the Packers' most vital leaders.

Not even defensive backs coach Bob Valesente, who probably didn't have the above foray in mind when he originally suggested Butler take those young players under his wing some time ago.

"LeRoy is very outgoing, very energetic and great with the young guys," said Valesente, an assistant coach on Baltimore's last Colts team in 1983.

"He's probably the funniest guy I've known. He's quick-witted and sharp, and that's the way he plays. He's an emotional leader, but more important, he's a physical leader. He competes well as anybody I've been around."

Butler was just another strong safety, albeit a talented one, in 1993 when Ray Rhodes turned him into a new-wave project. Rhodes, then the Packers' defensive coordinator and now head coach of the Eagles, made Butler the centerpiece of a new attack defense.

The Packers would use Butler to blitz the quarterback, cover the tight end, support the run and occasionally line up on a wide receiver.

"Ray said, 'Look, I need more things from you. You can stay small [he's 6-foot, 200 pounds], but you need to do some of the things the big safeties do.' "

Five seasons later, Butler is a three-time Pro Bowl pick and a three-time All-Pro selection. In his eighth NFL season, he is at the top of his big-play game.

"There's no safety in the league who can do all the things he can do," said Fritz Shurmur, who expanded Butler's starring role when he succeeded Rhodes as defensive coordinator in 1994.

Butler will need to summon all of his considerable skills for Sunday's Super Bowl matchup with Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, who was named to the Pro Bowl for the sixth straight season.

Butler against Sharpe is like Magic Johnson against Michael Jordan and very well may decide the game, the safety said. Butler not only doesn't mind shouldering the added pressure of comments like that, but relishes it.

"It takes a lot of pressure off the other guys because they have confidence in what I can do," Butler said. "It loosens them up. I like it when all the limelight is on me to do my job."

In two games against Butler over the last five years, Sharpe averaged 8.1 yards for 11 catches. This season, he averaged 15.4 yards on 72 catches.

Sharpe and Butler know each other well and at one time worked out together in South Carolina. Once when they were lifting weights together, Butler complained that Sharpe had too much weight on the bar.

"He pointed to the other side of the room and said, 'Puny guys over there,' " Butler said, laughing at the story.

"He always says he's a Seven-11 because he's open all the time. I told him I'm going to padlock the Seven-11 and people will have to go to other stores."

In Super Bowl XXXI a year ago, Butler had his hands full against New England tight end Ben Coates (six catches for 67 yards and one touchdown), but delivered a huge sack in the Packers' 35-21 victory.

"Coates was a bigger deal because I didn't like him," Butler said. "Shannon is more [for] bragging rights because I know him."

Back-to-back Super Bowls underscore the improbable journey Butler made from an impoverished childhood in the Blodgett Homes project of Jacksonville, Fla. As a youngster, the bones in his feet were so weak they caused a misalignment that prevented him from running and, at times, confined him to a wheelchair.

Before his teens, though, the bones straightened -- "It was like a miracle," he said -- and Butler embraced his passion for sporting competition.

"When I was able to compete in high school, my mom told me just to keep focused," he said. "I told her when I was smaller that I wanted to play professional football. All the kids kind of laughed at me a little bit, but she kept me focused and I was able to overcome it."

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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