GREEN BAY, Wis. — Eunice Butler didn’t know for sure it would happen, but if and when it did, she wanted her son to be prepared.
So LeRoy Butler, the legendary Green Bay Packers safety, and his mom sat down a decade ago and wrote a speech. She won’t get to hear it when he’s inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio — she died in 2016. But she had heard most of it already.
“Me and my mom, we prepared for this, and we talked about this,” Butler told ESPN this summer. “I’ve already got my speech done, because we worked on it like 10 years ago. She said, ‘This may happen someday. You may be a little older, but it will happen.’ That’s why I was always very patient.”
Butler starred for the Packers from 1990 to 2001, and he’s best known as the inventor of the Lambeau Leap. He first jumped into the south end zone stands on Dec. 26, 1993, after he scored on a fumble return, and a statue of the celebration was built in front of Lambeau Field in 2014.
His Hall of Fame resume stood on its own without any post-touchdown celebrations. Still, it took him 16 years after becoming eligible, and 21 years after his career ended, to get elected in February.
“When I was a semifinalist, my mom said, ‘OK, this is great,’ but she always taught me to be a patient person,” Butler said. “I couldn’t walk until I was like 5 or 6, and then I had these braces on my legs like Forrest Gump. So, I was Forrest Gump before Tom Hanks. … I’ve been a patient person my whole life.”
Butler, 53, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, with Eunice and four siblings. Not only did he struggle to walk as a child, but he said he couldn’t read until well after other students in his classes. He said he was the kid who was bullied, the one who never got invited to sleepovers or asked to go swimming. He credits his mom and his teachers for keeping him going. Without their help early in life, he doesn’t think he would ever have made it to Florida State, let alone the NFL.
Perhaps that’s where his generosity comes from. When Butler sat on the dais at the NFL Honors in February, along with the other Hall of Fame selections, he was asked what the playing in the league did for him.
“It’s gotta be the money, right?” Butler quipped. “Being a millionaire, I mean, who could not answer like that. I’m broke now, but it was fun when I played. Maybe if I write ‘HOF’ [after his autograph] we can make some more money.”
Fellow inductee Tony Boselli, the former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman, sat next to Butler on stage and chuckled.
“Tony probably thought I was kidding,” Butler said months later.
“My biggest problem was — and I still have it to this day, and not just with money but my time — I have a problem saying no,” Butler said. “That’s all people who have what we call a hero syndrome. You always want to help people, and sometimes that gets you in trouble. Most people who say no are rich people, and they’re probably terrible people. I have just enough for me to survive, the rest I want to help people.”
Butler said it never got to the point of bankruptcy, but a divorce and years of offering financial help to those around him took its toll. Butler lives in a modest house in Milwaukee and still works. He co-hosts a radio show in Milwaukee on 1250AM The Fan and has launched several products, including Leap Vodka. He has six adult daughters and an 11-year-old son, LeRoy Jr. He got remarried in 2019 to Genesis, who along with former teammate Gilbert Brown will introduce Butler at the induction ceremony.
“He’s always said, ‘If I make money, you’re gonna make money,’” said former Packers running back Gary Ellerson, who co-hosts a radio show with Butler. “Meaning that he’s taking guys with him along for the ride. He’s making sure that everybody gets fed that’s close to him and his teammates, but sometimes he forgot about himself.”
Being a Hall of Famer, Butler said, will create more opportunities. One project on his to-do list is to form a company that helps former players with financial problems restore their credit, something that plagued him after his career. He has also wanted to do his own documentary on his life, and he thinks getting into the Hall of Fame will allow it to happen.
“The opportunities, I always tell people when you’re a Packer a lot of doors open up for you, but when you’re a Hall of Famer every door opens up for you,” Butler said.
“My whole life was a struggle. I think people are scared to even talk about it, because they think every player is rich. When you’re a Hall of Famer, you get opportunities for maybe six figures on one appearance. As a player who’s been retired since ’02, just to know that may be an opportunity is exciting.”
Butler had been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 14 years before he first became a finalist in 2020. That year, safety Steve Atwater got in. The next year, when Butler was again a finalist, safety John Lynch got in. Butler’s résumé was as good as or better than those of Atwater and Lynch. Neither Atwater nor Lynch was in the 35-interception, 20-sack club. Butler is one of only four who are; the others are Charles Woodson, Brian Dawkins and Ronde Barber.
“Once Steve Atwater and John Lynch got in, it seemed like a given LeRoy would get in, too,” said Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist Pete Dougherty, who as a member of the selection committee presented Butler’s case.
“It was just a matter of when. His case stacked up really well with theirs, and it was hard to see how they’d be in and he wouldn’t. He was the only first-team all-decade player from the ’50s through the ’90s not in. Just a rare all-around safety. His case just stacked up really well with the safeties who preceded him.”
Twice before his election he was a finalist only to get a phone call informing him that he didn’t make it — not the famous knock on his door to tell him he did.
“I watched him go through it in Miami [in 2020], waiting with him in his hotel room and he took the phone call and really let [then-Hall of Fame president] David Baker off the hook,” Ellerson said. “LeRoy goes, ‘I understand, I get it, thanks for calling. I waited this long, I can wait again.’ Just typical LeRoy.”
Ellerson said the topic of Butler’s Hall of Fame candidacy was off-limits on their radio show.
“Maybe that’s why it took so long for him to get in, because he’s so unassuming and was not a self-promoter,” Ellerson said. “He doesn’t have that big ego like most of these guys do. The only way we could talk about the Hall of Fame and LeRoy on our radio show is if he wasn’t in the studio, because he nixed it. Every time we brought people on the show who had a vote, we had to do it when he wasn’t there.
“I’m sure his mom had a lot to do with him being as patient as he has been throughout all this, and him just going at it with a smile on his face knowing one day he’d get in there.”