Motoring past dilapidated storefronts with barred windows, the spanking-new green Range Rover is out of place on Eighth Street on Jacksonville's west side. The driver, LeRoy Butler, peers through his tinted window and announces. "This street is like Rodeo Drive." Has Butler, an All-Pro strong safety for the Green Bay Packers, taken one too many shots to the head? "It's like the Rodeo Drive of crime," he says, to clarify. "Rape. Prostitution. Any drug you want. This street's got it all."
Butler drives a few blocks farther, turns left onto Jefferson Street and points toward the Blodgett Homes project where he spent most of his childhood. "They've cleaned this place up," he says, "but when I was a kid, it was like Cabrini-Green in Chicago. This street had more chalk lines marking dead bodies than hopscotch lines."
It is a rainy Monday afternoon in late April, and Butler's memory is abundantly clear. As a kid he encountered financial and physical hardships and was surrounded by crime. Some professional athletes block out their troubled pasts, but not the 28-year-old Butler, who long ago achieved victories more poignant than the Packers' Super Bowl triumph over the New England Patriots in January.
Now he owns a luxurious home on the city's south side and approaches his job with a blend of bulletproof confidence and raw ebullience. It was Butler who originated the Lambeau Leap by launching himself into the stands after returning a fumble for a touchdown during a 1993 game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
In fact, during most of his seven-year pro career, Butler has never lacked for bravado. He was in rare form during Super Bowl week, when he blasted then Patriots coach Bill Parcells for sucking up too much media attention, declared he was sick of hearing that the Packers were trying to win the game for defensive end Reggie White and announced he was better than any other defender New England's star tight end. Ben Coates, had faced all season.
Butler's candor has provoked the ire of Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, who tries to muzzle his players as much as any other coach in the league. On occasion Butler, the only current Packer who preceded Holmgren's arrival in Green Bay in 1992, has been at his defensive best in his coach's office. "He's always telling me not to say things, but I pretty much say them anyway," Butler says. "I tell him, 'I want the opponent to know that if they throw across the middle. I'm going to intercept it.' He says, 'Fine, but why do you have to be the one to say it?' I say, 'Mike, it's like if you're with a beautiful girl and nobody sees you. You've got to tell your boys about it.' "
It's an argument Holmgren doesn't buy, yet Butler gets away with it. "He is a quote a minute, but his heart's in the right place," Holmgren says. "He's a bright, interesting guy who plays with emotion." Last season Butler nearly accomplished the rare double of leading his team in interceptions and sacks. He was one off the Packer high in interceptions, with five, and he finished two behind in sacks, with 6½, one-half sack shy of the NFL record for a defensive back, set by Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson in 1986. He had an outstanding postseason, which included one of the most memorable plays of the Super Bowl: On a third-down blitz in the second quarter. Butler barreled into Patriots halfback Dave Meggett and sacked quarterback Drew Bledsoe with one arm.
Butler's versatility allows Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur to deploy him in a dizzying array of alignments. "He's a huge playmaker," Shurmur says. "A lot of safeties in this league are never around the ball. You hardly know they exist. The best description of LeRoy is that if the ball is there, he's near it."
As exciting as Butler is now, the story of how he arrived as an athlete is far more compelling. Born so pigeon-toed that he had bones in both feet broken by doctors at the age of eight months, Butler struggled to walk as a toddler and until the age of eight spent much of his time in a wheelchair and in leg braces. During this time his parents separated and eventually divorced. LeRoy lived with his mother, Eunice, and four siblings in an apartment across from Jefferson Street Park, and he spent many of his days staring out the front window. "There'd be 500 or 600 kids playing, and all he could do was watch," says Charles (Von) Durham, Butler's uncle and father figure. "He'd go out there once in a while and try to run and would trip all over himself. You've got to instill positive thoughts in a child's mind, but deep inside most of us never believed his legs would heal."
Instead of playing sports, LeRoy spent time with Eunice, who supported the family by working first as a secretary and later as a nurse. She taught LeRoy how to cook and laid down several house rules, ranging from "Respect women" to "You have to eat your beets before you get any meat" to "Don't drink alcohol," an edict that, to this day, he says he adheres to.