LeRoy Butler, the former Green Bay Packer credited with inventing the “Lambeau Leap” touchdown celebration, told a Madison audience Sunday there were many years as a child when he couldn’t walk, a situation that made him the target of bullying.
He was born so pigeon-toed he wore leg braces and spent much of his childhood in a wheelchair. His mother taught him to stay positive, and he remembers telling one of his tormenters not to count him out.
“I’m going to play professional football,” he told the boy, “and you’re going to want my autograph.”
Butler, 44, delivered his anti-bullying talk to about 175 people Sunday afternoon at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church. The West Side congregation invited him to appear after an unnamed church elsewhere in the state canceled his appearance when he expressed support on Twitter for Jason Collins, the first active NBA player to come out as gay.
The controversy made national news, turning Butler into a hero to some, a disappointment to others. He made no mention of the controversy — or of anyone’s sexual orientation — during his 45-minute autobiographical talk, addressing the topic only when asked during an audience question-and-answer session.
At that point, Butler, the father of five, including a 2-year-old son, discussed at length the anti-bullying documentary he’s filming. He said he sits fifth-graders in front of a camera and lets them tell their stories of being bullied.
“We don’t judge them,” Butler said. “There are some kids who are dealing with a lot of the gay issues. There’s a young man that said, ‘Listen, I would love to go to church, but I was told I couldn’t go.’ Why were you told that? ‘Well, I don’t know, they just said I couldn’t go.’ I said, ‘No, you need God in your life.’”
Butler said he would have looked like “a hypocrite” in the eyes of those young people if he had renounced his support of Collins as the unnamed church asked him to do. (He is not naming the church because he said he doesn’t want to subject it to a backlash.)
During his talk, Butler, who lives in suburban Milwaukee, told of his improbable rise from a child of poverty with a physical disability to an NFL star and a member of the Packers when they won the Super Bowl following the 1996 season. He was raised in a housing project in Jacksonville, Fla., by a single mother whom he calls his role model.
Children made fun of him for being black, poor and unable to walk, he said, but his mom told him he held God’s power in his hands and that “the only way you can give it away is to be scared.”
“She trained me to be a leader, not a follower,” Butler said. “She taught me not to hang with the kids who are flunking out. Those boys are going to be watching TV; I’m going to be in the TV.”
At age 8, he shed the leg braces and began his climb to football glory. He regaled Sunday’s crowd with NFL tales, then concluded with, “The last thing I want to tell you guys is love everybody.”
Butler said later the line has been a standard part of his speech for years, though it has taken on added context since the controversy.
Numerous area churches brought members of their youth groups to the talk, though all ages were represented in the audience. Jeff Bickel, 29, of Madison, a credit analyst, said he attended because he’s a huge Packers fan and he wanted to pick up tips for his girlfriend, a school teacher who must deal with students who bully.
“(Butler) had a lot of examples of how he overcame adversity, and he presented them in a really conversational way,” said Bickel, adding he was impressed with the way Butler conducted himself after being rejected by the unnamed church.
“He got a raw deal, but he handled it with grace,” he said.
Jack Tupta, 11, of Madison, said he wanted to attend the talk because it’s rare to get to hear a professional athlete address a serious topic such as bullying.
“I learned that you have to just forget what other people say about you,” he said. “Think of the future — you’ll be in college, they’ll be in jail.”