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FOOTBALL

A heavenly day

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On the way to Super Bowl XXXII

Green Bay Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler tries to shake off a blocker against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the NFC Divisional playoffs in Green Bay on Jan. 4, 1998.

GREEN BAY — A wide, Pro Football Hall of Fame smile — even bigger than the one depicted on the bronze bust that had just been unveiled alongside him — creased LeRoy Butler’s face as the Green Bay Packers legendary safety looked skyward.

“When you play for the Green Bay Packers, a lot of doors open up. When you win a Super Bowl, all doors open up,” Butler said to begin his induction speech in Canton, Ohio.

“But when you make the Hall of Fame, football heaven opens up.”

Butler, at long last, went through those pearly football gates Saturday afternoon, and he did it with a speech that matched his personality during his 12-year career in Titletown: Emotional, heartfelt, funny.

And, just like he’d be on his way to the quarterback on a blitz or on his way to the end zone with a pick-six interception, quick: He spoke for just a shade over five minutes, having promised his late mother, Eunice, that he’d be concise. The two of them began working on the speech while Butler was still playing, long before she passed away in 2016.

The now 54-year-old Butler finished his career with 38 interceptions, 20.5 sacks, a Super Bowl XXXI title with the 1996 team and a Super Bowl XXXII appearance with the 1997 team, and he was named first-team All-Pro four times and selected to the Pro Bowl four times. He was also a member of the NFL’s 1990s all-decade team.

A second-round pick from Florida State in 1990, Butler played his first two seasons at cornerback before Wolf hired head coach Mike Holmgren in 1992. Holmgren’s defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes, decided to move Butler to safety, where he’d spend the next 10 years. While Butler moved in part to make room for rookie cornerback Terrell Buckley, Rhodes also liked the idea of using Butler’s diverse skill set at safety.

“Mike Holmgren, who I hope one day will be up here, I really do,” Butler said of the former Packers and Seattle Seahawks head coach, who is up for consideration for next year’s Hall class in the contributor/coach category, “he changed my life.”

Butler’s case would have been strengthened had his career not been cut short by the fractured left shoulder blade he suffered late in the 2001 season, leading to his retirement in July 2002 — one day shy of his 34th birthday. Butler, who had started 116 straight games before the injury, wound up two interceptions shy of becoming the first player in NFL history to record 40 or more interceptions and 20 or more sacks in his career.

Butler’s selection gives the Packers 28 Pro Football Hall of Famers, and he also becomes the sixth enshrinee with a significant Packers connection to be chosen in the last 10 years, joining defensive end Dave Robinson (2013), general manager Ron Wolf (2015), quarterback Brett Favre (2016), guard Jerry Kramer (2018) and cornerback/safety Charles Woodson (2021).

Butler also became the latest piece of that 1996 Super Bowl XXXI-winning team to reach the Hall, joining Wolf, Favre and defensive end Reggie White (posthumously inducted in 2006) in Canton.

Joining Butler in the 2022 class were defensive lineman Bryant Young, linebacker Sam Mills, wide receiver Cliff Branch, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, referee Art McNally, offensive tackle Tony Boselli and coach Dick Vermeil. Mills, who died in 2005, and Branch, who passed away in 2019, were inducted posthumously.

Beyond all he accomplished on the field, Butler also created the Packers’ signature touchdown celebration when he jumped off of the frozen tundra and into the stands on a bitterly cold late-season game in 1993: The “Lambeau Leap.”

He created it early in the fourth quarter of a 28-0 victory over the then-Los Angeles Raiders on Dec. 26, 1993. After Raiders quarterback Vince Evans threw a screen pass near the Raiders’ 40-yard line to fullback Randy Jordan, Butler walloped Jordan immediately, jarring the ball loose.

The ball ricocheted to White, who began running up the left sideline. Just before being tackled — and with his right foot out of bounds, which would have negated the historic play had instant replay been employed at the time — White lateraled to Butler, who ran the remaining 25 yards to Lambeau Field’s the south end zone. After crossing the goal line, Butler pointed to fans in the stands behind the pylon and jumped into their arms to celebrate.

“I will never forget that game as long as I live,” said retired Packers nose tackle Gilbert Brown, who presented Butler for enshrinement along with Butler’s wife, Genesis. “I saw LeRoy running toward the end zone, I thought ‘OK, he’s going to score.’ And he kept running past that white line, I was like, ‘What’s he about to do?’ And he jumped in the stands.

“So I started to run over to help pull him off. But then I saw the fans. They got to see and touch something they’d never experienced in their life. And every time somebody jumps in the stands, my homeboy started it.”

After thanking family, coaches, teammates and even the Hall of Fame volunteers, Butler saved a final thank-you for Packers fans, saying, “I want to thank the fans. Without you, there is no LeRoy Butler.”

And now, that LeRoy Butler is a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

“It’s rare company. There’s only 362 guys in the Hall of Fame,” Butler said, opening his jacket to show the embroidered patch inside. “And I’m number 3-5-7.”

Then, to close his speech, Butler smiled again.

“Sixteen years is a long time,” he said. “But it’s worth the wait.”

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