CANTON, Ohio — This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union.
LeRoy Butler, a Jacksonville kid who grew up in the Blodgett Homes housing projects and spent most of his early childhood in a wheelchair or leg braces after surgeries to correct a severe pigeon-toed condition, never stood taller than Saturday as the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed him into its exclusive club.
Butler’s relentlessly positive attitude, a mindset instilled in him for decades by his late mother, Eunice Butler, came through loud and clear Saturday when delivering his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in a surprisingly short time of under five minutes.
The Lee High (Riverside) graduate made sure to thank teachers from his elementary school days when he was a special-needs student.
That time period remained so vivid a memory in his mind that Butler often referred to himself as “Forrest Gump,” the fictional movie character after the flick came out in 1994, during his fifth season as a Green Bay Packer.
Butler expressed gratitude to his immediate family, saying brothers Michael, Darion, Doug and sister Vicki “were great siblings to a special-needs kid.”
He acknowledged his love for his seven children — daughters Sharon, Gabrielle, Danielle, Lo’Real, Maria and Ceira, along with son LeRoy IV — and wife Genesis, who was one of his presenters.
He acknowledged coaches from high school (Corky Rogers, Gary Warner, Wayne Belger and Leon Barrett), Florida State (Bobby Bowden, Mickey Andrews) and former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren.
But the highest level of heartfelt emotion was for his single mother, Eunice, who made certain that the family’s financially-challenged upbringing in the Blodgett Homes would not be an impediment to her son’s physical and emotional development.
“Growing up in Jacksonville, humble beginnings, but my mom grew up in poverty,” Butler told the crowd at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. “She made us think rich every day, because it’s not about what you have on or what you had. It’s how you act.”
When asked what his mother’s reaction would have been to his HOF speech, he replied via text: “She would have been so happy that it was short and sweet.”
During his 12-year Packers’ career, which included four first-team, All-Pro selections, it was more than Butler’s numbers — one of four players to have at least 35 interceptions and 20 sacks — that resonated with fans.
It was how the 54-year-old Butler went out of his way to make a special connection in the community, a fierce loyalty that remains two decades after his playing career ended.
When he scored a touchdown against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1993, returning a fumble that he initially forced and ran 25 yards to the end zone after a lateral from Reggie White, it started one of the most famous Packers’ tradition.
Butler hurled his body into the fans to celebrate with fans, which became known as the Lambeau Leap.
Long before he made the Hall of Fame in his 16th year of eligibility, that gesture forever cemented Butler’s place in Packers’ lore.
“That first Lambeau Leap was iconic,” said Packers fan Cindy Keitel, who attended the HOF ceremony after recently moving to Canton from Sheboygan, Wis. “The new players get so excited for their first Lambeau Leap. The Packers are owned by the community and that Lambeau Leap by LeRoy just extends the emotional connection.”
For Packers’ fans Marvin Vissers and brother-in-law Carl Jensen, Butler’s enshrinement was one of the most emotional days of their lives.
That’s because Butler, whose favorite hobby is cooking, did more than just reach out to Vissers’ late wife, Margaret, before her passing from breast cancer on July 15, 2018. He cooked up one of his favorite meals, macaroni and cheese, and brought it to the house to feed 20 people.
Butler later tweeted a picture of him and Margaret in a parking lot, posting: “I’ll never forget her warm smile. Go Pack Go.”
So when Visser and Jensen, Margaret’s brother, learned in February that Butler made the Hall of Fame, there was no question they were going to make the 470-mile drive for his induction.
“LeRoy didn’t have to go to all that trouble to make dinner and bring it to the house,” Jensen said. “He’s amazing. So, yeah, we wouldn’t miss this [HOF induction] for the world.”
Butler’s warm personality came out in his speech, as well as his sense of humor. He said he hoped daughter Gabrielle would get a modeling contract to “help me out.” He also pointed out daughter Ciera was his only child that is “taller than me, so I don’t stand by her.”
Butler couldn’t have possibly stood taller than being on the Hall of Fame stage. In a football career so amazing that it could be its own movie, Butler reached a pinnacle nobody would have thought possible when he was confined to a wheelchair.
This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union.