Butler shudders to think where his life might have gone had Bowdennot brought him to Florida State.
“I was a Prop 48,” Butler said in an interview with The Canton Repository, using an old term for academic risk. “Coach Bowden was allowed to make one home visit to me, and he chose to drive into the projects in Jacksonville and visit me. Him doing that saved my life.”
Bowden is the second-winningest major college football coach, mostly owing to his 1976-2009 run at Florida State. He tends to be “just a name” in Ohio State/Big Ten country, but he was a central figure in a striking story that hit close to home.
On Nov. 14, 1970, a plane full of players, coaches and boosters from Marshall University neared the airport in Huntington, West Virginia, when it crashed into a hill and killed all 75 passengers.
The flight was returning from a game at East Carolina, the same day Bowden’s West Virginia Mountaineers played in Morgantown. Among the dead was Marshall head coach Rick Tolley, who had been hired in 1969, amid rumors the job was going to Bowden.
Instead Bowden stayed on as a West Virginia coordinator in ’69, and then was promoted to head coach in ’70.
In the aftermath of the crash, Bowden proposed a tribute. His West Virginia team would dress in Marshall uniforms and play the season finale against Ohio University. The request was denied, but the gesture was long remembered.
Bowden went on to a long head coaching life that wound to Butler’s doorstep in Jacksonville, Florida.
Bowden recalled the visit during a radio interview on Jan. 5, 2021, joining 1250 AM Milwaukee as a surprise phone guest. Butler was a studio guest.
“The first time I saw LeRoy, he was playing a basketball game,” Bowden said. “An assistant who was following LeRoy wanted me to see what a great athlete he was. And he was.
“I don’t know how many 3-point shots he could make. Defense was his thing. He’d get all over you. You could see the running and cutting that would make a good defensive back.
“The next move was to go to his house and meet his mama and talk to him in his home. LeRoy told me before hand, ‘Coach, when you come to see me, you’ll drive by this 7-11 store. There’ll be a lot of men out front. Don’t stop.”
Bowden, Butler and the radio host laughed, but it was a serious reference to “the projects,” as Butler calls them, and the crime-ridden environment he hoped to escape.
Notre Dame, USC and others backed away after Butler was identified as “a Prop 48.”
He joined Bowden at Florida State, grateful but ineligible to play as a freshman. When the team flew out for road trips, Butler would find his way to the airport with a good-luck wishes. He would drive by himself to the airport to welcome the team home.
Bowden would notice and chuckle. A life-long bond sealed early.
Bowden’s son told the Repository earlier this summer Butler was far more than another former star player to his dad..
“He was one of my dad’s favorite players,,” said Terry Bowden, the former Akron head coach who is now head coach Louisiana Monroe. “I know I heard dad talk to LeRoy like a son, and I’m a son. And I know thousands of players, but LeRoy was the one he would talk about like a son and he was so proud of LeRoy.
“The impact dad had on players’ lives off the field is much much more important than any impact he had on the field, and I think that’s why LeRoy wanted him in his induction. My dad would’ve loved the opportunity to have of done that.”
Butler played the first of his two years as a starter at Florida State, in 1988.
“We opened at No. 1 going into the season with a game at Miami,” Bowden said. “They beat us 31-0. We were overconfident.”
A chance for redemption came in the ACC opener at No. 3 Clemson.
It was 21-21 with a few minutes left, not long after Florida State’s Deion Sanders returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown. Clemson forced a punt with three minutes left. Except, it wasn’t a punt. A quick snap went from a teammate to Butler, who, with the coverage team sprinting to the right as a decoy, took off left and ran 78 yards.
It became known as the Puntrooskie. It ended with Butler needing oxygen, gassed when he got caught at the 1. As a cornerback, he made 14 tackles that day.
Within months after the ’88 Seminoles went 11-1, Sanders went at No. 5 overall overall in the 1989 NFL draft. In his other sport, Sanders was the first batter in the history of Canton’s Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium, playing for a New York Yankees affiliate against the Canton Indians.
The ’89 Florida State football team was 0-2 before winning its last 10 games. Butler made seven interceptions on a team that went 10-2.The Packers took him in the second round of the 1990 draft.
In 1992, Butler asked Green Bay’s personnel department to consider drafting his former high school and college teammate, running back Edgar Bennett. The year they won a Super Bowl together, Bennett said, “He’s like my big brother.”
Bowden stayed in touch. In 2021, when they wound up together on the Milwaukee radio station, Bowden had been ill.
“How is your health?” Butler asked.
“I’m pretty weak,” Bowden said, “but I don’t hurt.”
“That’s good,” Butler said. “How’s your family?”
Bowden used the occasion to share some little-known football history.
“I’m from Alabama,” Bowden said. “I wanted to coach at Alabama. In 1987, I thought they were going to give the job to me … and I was going to go.”
Butler, a Florida State freshman in 1987, is grateful Bowden stayed..
Alabama’s new coach in ’87 was Bill Curry, who lasted three years until the Crimson Tide offered the job to Bowden, who opted to stay at Florida State.
Bowden coached the Seminoles through the 2009 season, when he was 80.
After eight seasons under Jimbo Fisher and two under Willie Taggert, the job was open again in 2020. Before it went to Mike Norvell, Butler campaigned for a former teammate, and an old Bowden player, Deion Sanders.
There’s still a lot of Bobby Bowden and Florida State in LeRoy Butler as he heads into the Hall of Fame.
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This article originally appeared on The Repository: Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler joined Bobby Bowden at Florida State