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Sometimes he gives the basketball team a pregame speech, which is usually, "I love you guys." He holds the game ball during warmups and at halftime until the refs need it. He is held upright for the national anthem. Once in a while, just before tip-off, they put him in the middle of the players' huddle, where they all touch his head and holler, "One, two, three, together!" When the action gets tense, the freshmen hold his hands to keep them from flailing. After the games some of the players come back to the court and help him shuffle a few steps for exercise, until he collapses back in his chair, exhausted. Then it's home again, Butch chirping all the way.
And it's not just the athletes at Middlebury who attend to him. Students come by the house and help him nearly every day. Over the years they taught him to read, and then last year they helped him get his GED. Somebody got him a graduation cap and gown to wear at the party they threw in his honor. During his thank-you speech, Butch wept.
"These kids care what happens to me," Butch says. "They don't have to, but they do. I don't know where I'd be without them. Probably in an institution."
But that's not the question. The question is, Where would they be without Butch?
"It makes you think," says Armstrong. "We're all young athletes. Going to a game or playing in a game, we take it for granted. But then you go Pick Up Butch, and I don't know, it makes you feel blessed."
The months between the end of the basketball season and the start of football are the worst. "It stinks," Butch says. He sits at home lonely day after day, watching Boston Red Sox games on TV, waiting for the calendar pages to turn to the days when he can be one, two, three, together again with the students he loves.
On that day the door swings open, and standing there, young and strong, are two freshmen. And, really, his just seeing them is what Picking Up Butch is all about.
Rick Reilly is on vacation. This column first appeared in the March 10, 2003, issue. Last week Middlebury launched an initiative to raise money for Butch, now 60, and his mother, who were flooded out of their home in March. For more info, visit gomidd.com.