Oct. 11, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
James Butler is going back in time this weekend to where he worked so hard and learned so much on the way to an NFL career that fetched a Super Bowl ring and a business career that is off and running. Actually, he was already here.
After his induction into the Georgia Tech Athletic Hall of Fame, the former Yellow Jacket safety will stay put. He’s now taking two classes at Tech with plans to finish work next spring on a degree in building construction.
To a great degree, the two-time first team All-ACC selection (2003-’04) and two-time member of the ACC All-Academic Football Team built himself on The Flats.
Tech has been a launching pad, so when Butler and fellow former Tech student-athletes Michael Johnson, Alvin Jones, Luke Manget, Bryan Prince and Lynette Moster are honored today at halftime of the Duke-Tech game in Bobby Dodd Stadium, he will reflect affections.
“The brand of Georgia Tech made me who I am,” he said. “You have to be a well-rounded person in academics with success on the field, and build relationships. That carries you forward into the real world. You have to balance your life out.”
Butler was a big deal when he arrived at Tech in 2001 from Bainbridge High, yet even at 6-feet-1 7/8, 213 pounds with athleticism to spare, he had to wait.
Tech was stocked with safeties. Happy to learn from others, that worked for Butler. Junior Jeremy Muyres was on his way to becoming a four-year starter, junior Cory Collins started most of three seasons, and Chris Young started 37 games at safety or cornerback.
“The older safeties in the group, they taught me the ropes,” Butler said. “I was prepared in my third year to take the reins.”
That’s understatement by a former high school triple jump state champion. In 2003, Butler set a Tech record for tackles by a defensive back with a whopping 119, and in his first start at free safety, at Brigham Young, he had 13 tackles and an interception.
There were six double-digit tackle games that season, plus five interceptions, three forced fumbles and a blocked kick. An interception on the first play of overtime at Vanderbilt was central to victory.
Awards rolled in as Butler was named first team All-ACC, became one of 12 semifinalists for Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, and was tabbed to the ACC All-Academic Football Team.
He repeated all of these honors as a senior in ’04, when he led the Jackets with 85 tackles on a unit that ranked 12th nationally in total defense (297.3 yards per game), 13th in rushing defense (104.6) and 21st in scoring defense (18.9). The Jackets didn’t miss a beat at safety in ’03-’04, when Dawan Landry manned the strong spot alongside Butler.
The two eventual NFL players teamed with fellow future NFL players Keyaron Fox, Darryl Smith, Chris Reis and Eric Henderson and others in the aggressive game plans of former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
“It was a combination of all of it. Those guys pushed me, and coach Tenuta did a great job with the schemes,” Butler said. “I had a lot of great linebackers.” He had the fortune of signing with the New York Giants as a free agent.
“I was surprised,” he said of not being drafted. “I still don’t really know why to this day, but everything happens for a reason.”
After two solid seasons as a reserve and special teams standout, Butler’s first season as an NFL starter went rather like his first as a college starter: quite well. The Giants were nothing special for most of 2007 before pulling off one of the two greatest Super Bowl upsets.
New York (10-6), made the playoffs as a wildcard team, and won games on the road against Tampa Bay, Dallas (13-3) and Green Bay (14-3) to land a spot opposite the undefeated Patriots.
New England (18-0) was heavily favored, and had won at New York during the regular season, but then the Cowboys had beaten the Giants twice during the regular season so there might have been foreshadowing before Super Bowl XLII.
After the Giants pulled out a 17-14 win on a late touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress and the defense soon thereafter registered its fifth sack of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Butler was in semi-shock.
“For me to say no would be lying. Just the way that we won the game was awesome,” he recalled. “But to say that it was impossible to beat that team . . . we knew we had prepared to beat that team. It was a magical moment, a lasting moment.
“The game was going so fast. It was like a blur almost. Our defense was on and . . . I remember confetti falling and unbelievable moments.”
Butler spent one more season with the Giants and three with the St. Louis Rams. He’s married, living in Roswell with his wife and two sons (5 and 1). He and a business partner own and operate a pair of Golden Corral steak houses.
“After I finish [at Tech] next semester, I want to get an MBA to help expand the restaurant business,” he explained. “I’ll be looking for the best opportunities, whether in Atlanta or outside.”
Sometimes, going back in time while also marching forward in the same place strikes Butler as no less amazing than the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII win might seem to others. There is symmetry at work.
The Tech coach who spent the most time recruiting him, Ted Roof, is back at Tech in his second stint as defensive coordinator.
In some ways, Butler has gone full circle back to where he began.
“I wanted to stay in the state of Georgia,” he said of his recruitment. “What sold me on the brand of Georgia Tech was the education, rich football tradition and the alumni. It offers a great opportunity to do positive things in the community.
“It’s wonderful to be honored in the Hall of Fame and be part of an elite group. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without teams. I had the privilege to be part of a lot of great teams in high school, my family, and the football and academic teams at Georgia Tech. You have to think strategically at Tech, and lessons from football carry into life – accountability, teamwork, dedication.”