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Gallagher column: Butler beats the odds – again

In my 11 years as sports editor of this newspaper, I consider Matt Butler to be our greatest story of success.
The Scooter Sherrills and Nick Maddoxes of the world were supposed to taste success after high school.
Matt Butler was expected to just go get a job.
Colleges thought the Salisbury offensive lineman was too slow. And too small. Just wasn’t impressive enough.
Well, Matt Butler showed ’em. Boy, did he show them.
Let’s put it this way: The Detroit Lions think he’s big enough. And fast enough. And impressive enough. They have signed him to a contract, making the kid from Robin Road in Salisbury a professional football player.
Butler finished up the work on that contract Wednesday. In two weeks, he’ll be back in Detroit for another camp.
Butler is now repeating the same words he used after high school.
“All I ever wanted was a shot.”

When no worthwhile college offers came in after high school, Butler took matters into his own hands. He walked on at East Carolina.
Some four years later, he had started on the Pirate offensive line 37 straight games, a program high.
When his senior season ended, Butler felt sure he’d get a shot at the next level. ECU had beaten North Carolina and won the Hawaii Bowl against Boise State. Certainly, pro teams had noticed his play. It helped that ECU coach Skip Holtz thought he could take another step.
“Coach Holtz told me he was pretty sure I’d get a shot,” Butler said.
Pro Day soon came, and Butler was one of 15 prospects on the ECU campus scrutinized by several NFL teams.
At 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds, Butler ran the 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times.
Most of the attention went to Butler’s teammate, Chris Johnson, the speediest running back in the combine. But the big lineman turned some heads, too.
Kansas City and Washington were among those interested.
“I didn’t know Detroit even liked me,” Butler said.
So he anxiously waited to hear his name in the two-day, NFL Draft.
It was never called.

Butler watched the draft from sister Amber’s home.
“The second day, during the last rounds, I saw guys drafted that I had never heard of,” he said. “Some guy from Bentley got drafted. I’d never heard of Bentley.”
Butler expected some team to give him a call on that Sunday for a tryout. He didn’t get that either.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night,” he said.
Butler was working at a furniture story, lifting other kinds of weights ó couches, refrigerators, you name it ó and was ready to accept the fact his playing days might be over.
“It was kinda getting frustrating,” said Butler, echoing the same words he used after his prep career had ended.
The day after the draft, the Lions called.

Butler quickly found out what the life of a professional athlete is all about.
Detroit flew him up to its indoor facility for a tryout. The team delivered him, as well as six other hopefuls, in a limo.
“It was quiet,” Butler said of the ride. “Nobody knew what was going to happen.”
The NFL is not just about playing. It’s about paperwork ó “a bunch of paperwork,” Butler said ó and the most intense physical you can imagine.
“They checked your teeth, did a chest x-ray … everything,” he said.
Butler admits he was a bit in awe upon entering Allen Park. The locker room was spacious with televisions mounted. Photos of Lion greats like Barry Sanders were hung for all to see.
Wake-up call for the three-day minicamp was 4 a.m.
“We’d have meetings in the morning and then practice,” Butler said. “We’d have meetings again and then practice. We had more meetings than practices.”

Butler was one of 40 players participating. Twenty-five were like him. They were there for an unpaid tryout.
“I knew I had to make an impression,” he said. “I had to do something different.”
Butler did. He sheepishly admitted he got in a fight.
Going up against the Lions’ third-round pick from Purdue, Cliff Avril, an outside linebacker, things got a bit heated.
“I was kicking his butt pretty good,” Butler said. “We got into it. Players had to break us up.”
Being someone without a contract, Butler was a little worried.
“I thought I’d get in trouble,” he said, “but nobody said anything.”

That is, until after the final practice Sunday. Lions head coach Rod Marinelli told the group, “We’ll be in touch.”
One of the offensive line coaches, Mike Barry, pulled Butler over to the side. Not to talk about his fight.
Rather, to talk about his future.
“Coach Barry told me he really, really liked me,” Butler said. “I can play all three positions on the line ó center, guard and tackle. He said he liked my footwork. He liked my tenacity. He said he wanted to open some room for me to come back.”

When Butler returns for the next camp in two weeks, he’ll be more confident ó and a little richer.
“I’ll be getting paid for that,” he chuckled. “That will be nice.”
Butler’s is back in Greenville, sky-high on his future while reflecting back on his high school days when he felt unappreciated and betrayed.
“I always go back to that,” Butler said. “I’m a little bitter because people doubted me. But if all that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here. It motivated me.”
Yep, Matt Butler showed ’em. As of today, he is a full-fledged professional football player.
And that’s a pretty good story of success, don’t you think?

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 794-797-4287 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com.

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