Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a book called “The Chief: Art Rooney and His Pittsburgh Steelers,” available at area book stores. His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com. Jim is a friend of SteelerAddicts and graciously allowed us to share this story with everyone. It was originally posted on February 9th in The Valley Mirror.
Jack Butler lives in a big house at the extreme end of town where Munhall says hello to Homestead. He and his wife Bernie have been in that handsome brick mansion for about 50 of his 84 years. It’s on 11th Avenue near the iconic Homestead Library.
Butler is basically a stay-at-home guy but he knows how to get to Main Street in Munhall. He doesn’t know the name of the barber shop where he gets his hair cut in a conservative manner, but he knows the man holding the sharp scissors is named Carmine. He said the barber shop he favors is in a strip of shops, near the post office.
“I don’t loaf there, or hang around bars there,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. “I don’t get out much. I don’t know that many people. Some of the faces are familiar to me, but I can count on a few fingers my real friends.”
He and his wife Bernie attend Mass every Sunday at St. Maximillian Kolbe in Homestead. That used to be St. Anne’s. I wondered whether the priests there might be saying prayers for Butler’s Hall of Fame selection. I spoke to the church secretary, but she wasn’t familiar with Jack Butler, and the pastor was not present when I called. I left a message but the priest never called me to talk about Jack Butler.
Butler obviously likes to keep a low profile.
I asked Butler if anybody was stopping him in the street to wish him well about his Hall of Fame election. “Not really,” he said. “I am getting more attention in the way of phone calls from people in the media wanting to know how I feel about it.”
I spoke to Butler and two of his good buddies in the same two-hour time frame on the telephone that day. They are a lot alike: self-deprecating decent men with a gleam in their eyes, men who like to promote other men. They make you feel better.
We talked about Butler’s chances of being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a voting that would take place last Saturday morning in Indianapolis, at the site of Super Bowl XLVI.
Art Rooney Jr. and Jack McGinley Jr. were both optimistic of their friend’s chances. Art Jr. is the second son of Steelers’ founder Art Rooney Sr., and he spoke to me from his winter home, a condominium apartment in Palm Beach, Florida. Jack McGinley is the oldest son of Jack McGinley, who owned a beer distributing company in Lawrenceville as well as a minority position with the Steelers.
He is a respected Pittsburgh attorney, a senior partner at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot in the U.S. Steel Tower.
Art Jr. and Jack Jr. are both minority owners of the Steelers and big boosters of Jack Butler. They both campaigned for his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have correspondence dating back to 2008 from Jack Jr. in my JACK BUTLER folder in my office files urging me to assist in the campaign.
“I have dinner with Artie about once a month,” said Butler, “and the McGinleys are great people, and have always been kind to me. Their dads were two of the most wonderful men I’ve ever met. Everyone knows what a great guy Art Rooney Sr. was, but Jack McGinley was right up there with him.”
Butler, who starred as a defensive back and occasional receiver for nine seasons (1951-1959), was nominated by a special veterans committee for consideration for the honor.
“I never thought much about it,” Butler said of the Hall of Fame. “It will be nice if I get in, but it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t. I have other things to think about or worry about.”
Jack and his wife Bernie and their daughter Maureen and her husband were in a hotel room in Indianapolis on Saturday, waiting for a phone call to tell Jack if he had been elected or not. This is the first year the NFL brought all the nominees to the site so they could be present for potential interviews.
Maureen said they had already started packing their bags to head home because they hadn’t received a call by 5:45 p.m. They were supposed to make the announcement at 5:30, but it was delayed, which the Butlers didn’t realize. They just assumed Jack didn’t make it.
He was asked at a press conference later that day what it meant to him to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He caught himself saying the word “hell” and he quickly retreated to erase that in favor of “heck.” He said the award would mean more to his family, and then he thought better of that and corrected that thought as well, confessing that it would mean a lot to him, too. I had stressed to him that it was a big deal and that it would sink in once he was selected and inducted.
That induction will come this summer at the sports shrine in Canton, Ohio, which bills itself as “the birthplace of pro football,” even though more recent research shows that Pittsburgh was actually the first place where someone was paid to play the game. I told him they were expanding the Hall of Fame building in Canton so he could fit in.
“There has been a sentiment among the voters,” said Art Rooney Jr., “that there were too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. That hurt Butler and L.C. Greenwood, Donnie Shell and Dermontti Dawson.”
They introduced the new class of 2012 before the coin flip at the Super Bowl, and they lined them up alphabetically, and Butler came first and Willie Roaf, a lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints, stood at the other end.
Pittsburgh was well represented in the Hall of Fame lineup and our city is sure to be well represented with fans in Canton this summer.
Dermontti Dawson, a center for the Steelers, and two former Pitt players, running back Curtis Martin and defensive end Chris Doleman were there, along with Cortez Kennedy, a defensive tackle for the Seattle Seahawks. Martin is from my hometown of Hazelwood and went to Taylor Allderdice High. Doleman was on Foge Fazio’s football team when I was the assistant athletic director for public relations at Pitt in the mid-80s.
Butler was the pale white guy on the left end, the one who looked like a deer caught in headlights. He looked like he had just gotten off the boat from Ireland. He wasn’t sure whether to smile or cry, so he did neither.
“I think he was shell-shocked,” said a friend who saw Butler on TV when the 2012 Hall of Fame class was introduced, “but I know he was happy.”
Besides, his left knee was hurting. He hurt that knee making a tackle of Pete Retzlaff of the Philadelphia Eagles during the 1959 season.
The injury and the follow-up surgery nearly killed him, and it cut short his pro playing career. He’s had a hitch in his walk ever since. He ranked as the NFL’s second-leading interceptor with 52 picks when he retired. He played in four Pro Bowls. He retired a few years ago from overseeing an NFL scouting agency.
Butler still ranks second in interceptions in the Steelers’ record books to Mel Blount who had 57 interceptions. Butler accomplished his mark in 103 games in nine seasons, while Blount was in 200 games over 14 years.
Butler holds the team record for interceptions in one game with four against the Washington Redskins in 1953. He still holds the team record for return yards with interceptions with 827 yards, 98 more yards than runner-up Rod Woodson.
Butler intercepted ten passes one year, and nine in another year – when there were 12 games in a season -- and returned several of them for touchdowns, including a game-winner against the New York Giants. Maybe that memory came back to him as he witnessed the Giants’ exciting victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday evening.
I mentioned to Butler that Ike Taylor, the cornerback of the Steelers, is regarded as a terrific pass defender these days, but that he can’t intercept passes to save his life, or to turn the tide for the Steelers in close games. “He has wooden hands,” said Butler.
Scouts talk that way, in short staccato sentences.
Butler returned four interceptions for touchdowns, and picked up a fumble and scored six points as well during his stay with the Steelers. Only Woodson, with five interception returns for touchdowns, topped Butler in that team category.
Mel Blount and Rod Woodson both were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, but Butler has had to wait all this time. His situation was similar to that of Dick LeBeau, the Steelers’ defensive coordinator, who got in last summer via a special veterans’ selection committee nomination.
LeBeau was boosting Butler for induction as well.
Butler grew up in Oakland and Whitehall. He and Frank Thomas, one of the Pirates’ most prodigious home run hitters, both came out of Oakland and went to Mount Carmel College, a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It’s where they went to high school and it’s where they both decided they didn’t want to be priests.
Both went on to play pro sports. Both fathered eight children. Jack and Bernie Butler have four boys and four girls and 15 grandchildren. Jack went to St. Bonaventure College where the athletic director was Father Dan Rooney, also known as Father Silas Rooney, who was the brother of Steelers’ owner Art Rooney.
Joe Bach, who would coach the Steelers in two different stints, was the head football coach at St. Bonaventure.
“We honored Jack with an honorary degree at St. Bonaventure’s two years ago,” said Jack McGinley Jr., a proud graduate of the Olean, N.Y., school and also the chairman of the board of trustees at his alma mater.
“So if he gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said McGinley with tongue in cheek, “it will be Jack’s second greatest honor.”
Frank Thomas told me he used to sneak into baseball games at Forbes Field when he was a child. Butler says he remembers going to one Steelers’ game at Forbes Field with his father and his uncle. “I don’t remember much about the game or who they were playing,” said Butler. “I was more interested in getting a hot dog and some soda pop.”
That’s part of the charm of Jack Butler. He’s not the easiest interview. He won’t toot his own horn. I recalled that he spoke several years ago at a testimonial dinner for his old teammate, the late Fran Rogel from North Braddock Scott, California (Pa.) and Penn State.
“I’m not much a speaker,” Butler began his remarks that night at the Churchill Country Club. He went on to offer a brief, but to-the-point and from-the-heart tribute for an old friend. I was the emcee that evening, and I told Butler he was the best of a too long line of long-winded speakers.
“They killed it with too many speeches,” Butler told Art Rooney, Jr., who was among those in attendance that evening. Even so, it was a special evening for admirers and friends of Fran Rogel, who joined the Steelers the year before Butler.
Butler came to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 1951 and was the last player to make the 33-man squad. He started out as a two-way end, but moved to the secondary because of an injury to a starting cornerback.
Jack Butler, Art Rooney Jr. and Jack McGinley Jr. all take pride in their Catholic faith. Art goes to Mass every morning. They are spiritual men and they are throwbacks to another era, a simpler, better era.
They speak humbly and positively and they employ expressions that have gone out of date. “Get a hot meal,” Art Jr. will tell you if you have lunch with him at the St. Clair Country Club. “I owe you a steak dinner. I’m having a poor man’s sandwich.”
They don’t use foul language. With all the heroics in his Steelers’ career, Butler never would have thought of thumping his chest, or doing a specially choreographed dance in the end zone . Butler would never behave the way ballplayers do today when they make a routine tackle, or catch a pass.
Such histrionics, of course, annoy the hell – make that heck – out of people my age who remember when players didn’t taunt or attempt to terrorize their opponents, or get some time on the TV highlights that night.
Butler and Art Rooney Jr. were both football scouts. Butler started out helping with scouting college players for the Steelers, and then became the director of the BLESTO-V scouting organization, which was a combine that represented a half dozen NFL teams. Art Jr. was in charge of the Steelers’ scouting department when they selected all those great players in the 70s when they were named the Team of the Decade, winning four Super Bowls in six seasons under Chuck Noll.
They shared some of the same press boxes, exchanged observations and notes. Butler and I spoke about scouting and he agreed that today’s scouts and personnel people tend to over-analyze prospects.
“They get a big guy who is agile and can run the 40 real fast and jump real high,” said Butler, “and they think he’s a great prospect. But he can’t play football. He doesn’t know how to play the game. I only cared if they could play football. The rest of the stuff wasn’t important to me.
“I wanted to know if they played well consistently. Pro football players come in all shapes and sizes. I wasn’t very big or very fast, but I’m very proud of playing in the league and giving back something of myself as a personnel guy.”
I’ve checked out the home of the Butlers whenever I have visited the Homestead Library, still a must-see landmark above where the U.S. Steel Mill once flourished, long before there was a Waterfront Complex.
The home was familiar to me because my sister-in-law, Diane Churchman, grew up in that same house. Her name was Diane Thomas back then, and her two sisters, Judy and Carole, lived in that stately home. They were Munhall marksmen, members of the championship rifle teams at Munhall High School.
“That was a long time ago,” said Butler, still the good scout.