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The Rise of Jack Butler

The Rise of Jack Butler

Note: Several months of research was conducted for this detailed review of Jack Butler’s first four years, including analyzing extensive rare footage of each game covered in this article. Multiple relatives of former Steelers of the era have also offered information. Most of all, I’m thankful to the Jack Butler family, who have been gracious and supportive.

 

The elite pass catcher named Hugh Taylor stood 6’4” and lined up to face the black clad corner whom cared not for the 3 inch height disadvantage he conceded to the man they called “Bones.”

Taylor darted off the line with Jack Butler his shadow, fully intending to be the recipient of a deep pass that will lead him to the end zone. Such a pass indeed arrived, perfectly spiraled by its cannon, Harry Gilmer, and as Taylor’s lengthy frame made the reception, his nemesis quickly offered a punishment 10 yards shy of the goal line. Taylor was smacked to the ground as Butler used their collective momentum to implant Taylor onto the grass of Forbes Field, void of the football, which Taylor’s teammate managed to recover. With his bones in pain, Taylor was knocked out of the game. However, such a man who finds a worthy rival doesn’t rest long. He returns to further prove himself and to face the continuous challenge of his foe. On this day, Taylor did return.…and his foe happily accepted another offer of combat.

Such was life for Jack Butler, the Hall of Fame defensive back of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like him, his rivals were unrelenting.

Butler played nine years in the NFL, all in the 1950’s and all for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was one of the two cornerbacks (then known as defensive halfbacks) named to the NFL All-Decade Team, the other being Dick “Night Train” Lane. In Butler’s rookie season of 1951, he wasn’t even aware that he would have to worry about covering receivers. He was undrafted and joined Pittsburgh as a defensive end. When Jim Finks was injured in the opener against the New York Giants, Butler came in to play defensive back.

For the most part, Butler played safety in his rookie year then moved in his 2nd year to right cornerback only to move back to safety in his 7th season. For this article, after a brief description of his rookie year of 1951, I’ll detail his first three years at corner.

In 1951, the most feared Steelers cornerback was Howard Hartley, who picked off 10 passes (keep in mind, these were 12-game seasons) to tie a then franchise record that was set by Bill Dudley in 1946. Butler played safety for 10 games and intercepted five passes for an average of one pick per two games, an average he would maintain for his career. Although he showed good range and was clearly opportunistic, he also had his share of bad plays, especially against Philadelphia and Cleveland, but made the move to corner for the 1952 season where the challenge would be much greater.

Due to the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers since the 1970’s, the Steelers of the first four decades of the franchise’s existence are generally breezed over or forgotten entirely. The Steelers Legends Team of 2007 was an attempt to name a team of the best Steelers who all played out their careers before 1970. Jack Butler and Howard Hartley are the two starting cornerbacks for Pittsburgh’s Legends Team. From 1951-52, they were actually teammates and combined for 26 interceptions in those 24 games. As Hartley excelled, Butler showed signs of greatness, but struggled through what one can likely deduce were his worst two seasons. However, such seasons still showcased his ballhawk ability as he intercepted 7 passes in 1952, his first year at corner.

 

 

1952


Jack Butler woke up the morning of Pittsburgh’s opening game with a severe upset stomach. It wasn’t nerves for having to start at corner, nor for having to face Eagles receiver Bobby Walston, but rather it was a stomach virus that threatened to eliminate several Steelers from the lineup including Ed Kissell and standout linebacker Dale Dodrill. By the opening kickoff however, all of them chose to play. They may have wished they didn’t.

The Eagles capitalized just 54 seconds into the game as Adrian Burke hit Harry Grant who left the Lakers of the NBA to play in the NFL. Better known as Bud Grant, the future Minnesota Vikings head coach took a short pass for an 84-yard touchdown to beat Claude Hipps. It was the first 6-pointer of Grant’s career.

Burke then exposed Jack Butler later in the 1st quarter for a 4-yard TD to Frank Ziegler to conclude a 9-play, 79-yard drive in what would be a 31-25 Eagles win in Forbes Field. The Steelers showed promise in the rematch two weeks later, but fell short to suffer an early season sweep by their fellow statesmen.

Pittsburgh lost their first four games, creating a different kind of upset stomach. That losing streak included a heartbreaker against Cleveland. Despite a 20-7 lead that featured a big interception by Butler of an Otto Graham pass, the Steelers folded for a 21-20 defeat. They also fell at home 28-24 against Washington when Butler gave up the game-winning touchdown. The 0-4 start was followed by a 5-3 finish which included a sweep of the Cardinals and a rematch win over Washington.

Bobby Layne, who would be Butler’s teammate in Pittsburgh by decade’s end, had his way with the Steelers and gunned a 46-yard touchdown pass to Cloyce Box that beat Butler in a Lions victory. It was the 4th time in the season’s first seven games that Butler was beaten for a touchdown. He faced significant challenges in his next three games but he allowed no scores despite taking on the Browns, Cardinals, and Giants. During that three-game stretch, he actually scored two offensive touchdowns as he sometimes would come into a game to play receiver.

After a legendary 63-7 beating of the Giants, which is still the biggest blowout win in Steelers history, Pittsburgh ended their season with a two-game west coast road trip. They played their first ever game in San Francisco and eliminated the 49ers from the championship race with a 24-7 win. Jack Butler gave up his 5th TD of the year when Gordie Soltau beat him for a short score in the 1st quarter after fooling Butler by blocking him as if it were a running play. However, Butler responded and made 2 interceptions to help Pittsburgh win. Unfortunately, he had no such response for the Rams in the finale.

Facing one of the greatest aerial offenses that the league had seen, Butler played what is likely the worst game of his career. He gave up 2 touchdowns to Tom Fears, the longest of which was only 10 yards but Fears not only caught the ball in front of him, but also easily sidestepped him for the score. When Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch caught a pass against another DB, Butler had a chance to make a tackle but Hirsch had no problems avoiding him and taking it 65 yards for a touchdown. Clearly, the new cornerback couldn’t yet successfully compete with the best pass catchers of the league.

On that day, Butler watched one of his counterparts, Dick “Night Train” Lane, make NFL history as Lane intercepted 3 passes, took one for a TD, and set the NFL record for most interceptions in a season with 14, a record that still remarkably stands despite teams playing more games per year than in 1952.

Overall, Jack Butler’s strength was obvious as he recorded 7 total interceptions in the 12-game season. However, his weakness was also obvious as he gave up 7 touchdowns. It was both his natural skill and his inexperience that showed in his hit or miss style. His mistake was that he was still playing cornerback like a safety. His range was outstanding as was his overall run support. He reacted immediately to the ball but not necessarily to the receiver. Of course, it was his first ever year playing cornerback on any level so immediate success can’t be expected but he would have to learn quickly and make some significant adjustments if we wanted to keep pace with the many exceptional flankers of the NFL.



1953

In the 3rd week of the 1953 season, the Steelers hosted the Chicago Cardinals in what became a wild game. Gern Nagler, the Chicago receiver who would play with Butler on the 1959 Steelers, scored twice in the 2nd quarter. He beat Jack Butler for a 34-yard touchdown, then scored again on a short 6-yarder. The Steelers found themselves down 28-7 but, incredibly, won the game to complete the greatest comeback in franchise history. Just as incredibly, Jack Butler did not give up another touchdown until 1954.



So what changed?

The first thing that needs to be noted, though I certainly wouldn’t rank it as the most significant factor, is that Howard Hartley retired. In his place, the Steelers started a rookie, Art DeCarlo, on the left side. Obviously, this caused more quarterbacks to test the rookie but something odd happened in that early season Cardinals game. While Nagler was beating Butler, DeCarlo made two key 4th quarter interceptions. Each one set up the last two Pittsburgh scores to complete their improbable comeback. This likely made teams not so anxious to test DeCarlo anymore and, in addition, not too apprehensive to test Butler.

Another contributing factor to Butler’s excellent season was his focus on the receiver. Previously, he focused on the ball off the snap so often that the receiver could get behind him before Butler even realized he was already beaten. Of course, that trait came from his rookie year at safety and, coupled with his superb range, it would serve him well when he returned to safety in 1957. At this point, however, he made sure his focus was more on the receiver first and then confidently let his natural instincts and skills take over from there.

The greatest contributor to Butler’s improvement was his consistency. He already had the tools needed to be a high quality player but those tools previously showed up in spurts. In 1952, he would practically make a great play every game but he also made a poor play just about every game. In 1953, he rarely made a bad play and always played at an extremely high level. Even when initially beaten by Nagler early in the previously mentioned Cardinals game, he nearly defended the pass and was making the tackle as Nagler fell into the end zone with the ball. It took great effort to beat Butler, especially for a score, and Nagler was the only one to do so in 1953.

The year also featured some of Butler’s greatest moments.

In a low scoring contest in New York, Butler was challenged greatly by Cliff Anderson, who caught 7 passes for 128 yards. Butler was able to deny Anderson a score though, and also intercepted a Charlie Conerly pass. The Steelers trailed 10-7 with a minute left and had the ball at their own 12-yard line when Lynn Chandnois caught a Jim Finks pass and took it 55 yards to the Giants 33-yard line. Butler was in the game as an extra receiver. On the next play, Finks tossed the ball to the end zone to a double covered Butler who made the reception and scored the game-winning touchdown with just 41 seconds remaining. The Steelers covered 88 yards on just two plays to win the game.

Even in the games in which the Steelers lost, Butler shined brightly. In the two defeats to the Eagles, he was superb in coverage, defended a pass on Toy Ledbetter to save a touchdown, recovered a fumble in the end zone that was incorrectly disallowed, and stopped Frank Ziegler on a 4th & goal at the 1-yard line as he and Tom Palmer crashed into the Eagle back.

The year finished in Washington’s Griffith Stadium with one of his greatest plays, but I’ll detail that at article’s end. Overall, Butler allowed a touchdown in just one game and intercepted 9 passes.



1954

By this time, Jack Butler was known as a dangerous defensive back mostly because of his interceptions, his playmaking, his aggression, and his talent. No one kept track of how many touchdowns a defensive back allowed then, so it’s eye opening to now realize the extent of what Butler accomplished against his foes.

In 1952, Butler allowed an average of more than one TD every other game. He improved so much that he was nearly impossible to beat for a score in ’53 but he still allowed many big plays. He also had been called for a many pass interference penalties, especially on important drives. In 1954 he cleaned that up, which is an obvious sign of his overall coverage improving. He was also still tough to beat for a score but, unlike before, he also became difficult to gain any significant yardage against.

Butler gave up a total of two touchdowns in 1954. One was in the 4th quarter of a Steelers blowout win when he chose to play the ball instead of the receiver since nothing was on the line. The other was against Don Stonesifer in a Week 10 win. Thus he gave up one significant score in the 1954 season and that was also the only TD he gave up to a man whom he covered for most of the game, many of whom had success against the other right corner halfbacks of the NFL.

It’s likely safe to assume that Butler’s coverage ability, combined with QB’s fearing an interception if they threw his way, resulted in Butler seeing fewer passes. This assumption is further realized with Butler’s interception total of 4 for the year, less than half from the year before.

Referencing the statistical results of left end receivers in their games against the Steelers (who were mostly covered by Butler), there is a clear decline in yards gained per game from 1952-54.

In 1952, Butler played four games in which the left end he mostly covered ended up producing at least 99 yards (3 receivers of over 100 yards and one at 99).

In 1953, he allowed two receivers to reach 100 yards.

The results of 1954 deserve to be shown week-by-week in order to be fully appreciated.

1954 full game results of left end receivers vs the Steelers with Jack Butler at right corner halfback (receptions-yards):


wk1: McGee 1-8
wk2: Barker 3-39
wk3: Walston 4-66
wk4: Brewster 2-21
wk5: Walston 2-35
wk6: Stonesifer 3-54
wk7: Schnelker 0-0
wk8: Barker 1-21
wk9: Soltau 3-27
wk10: Stonesifer 5-63
wk11: Schnelker 1-9
wk12: Brewster 4-63

Total: 29-406 (avg yds per game: 34 yds)

Such results, which feature some of the worst or 2nd worst games of the year by the noted receivers, speak for themselves.

This doesn’t mean that Butler was without flaws, but his pass coverage was outstanding. He also continued to provide strong run support from his right side, but one weakness did show in this part of his game.

 



On outside runs in his direction, Butler was victimized by his own over-aggression. When teams would run outside towards him, Butler would quickly react but he did so by moving into the offensive backfield to where he believed the ball carrier was going as opposed to moving directly towards the ball carrier. So, teams just had the blocker simply push Butler further into the offensive backfield as the ball carrier would easily cut inside the block. In these situations, Butler often unintentionally took himself the out of the play and teams began to take advantage of the outside run to the left and successfully gained crucial yards with it, including multiple first down conversions and at least one touchdown. Ultimately, he responded to this by attempting to avoid the block but he never quite adjusted by moving inside first, likely because he felt his responsibility was to cut off the outside. The irony is that he was normally not easy to block, but he often rode with the blocker on these plays instead of directly taking the blocker on and potentially disrupting the play.

Amongst his already mentioned strengths, it’s worth noting that he never gave up on a play. This paid off in some chases as he was able to run down a few players. He was also always around the ball which comes greatly into play as a safety later in his career, but gives him added value as a cornerback during these years.

By mid-’53, he was a complete cornerback. In an 18-game span from Week 4 of ’53 to Week 9 of ’54, he allowed one total TD and that was the insignificant garbage time TD in an already blowout win. Additionally, he scored 3 pick-6’s during that same 18-game period, meaning that as a DB he scored two more touchdowns than he gave up in that timespan. It’s the most dominant period of his career.

The greatest team of that time were the Cleveland Browns. In Butler’s first four years, 1951-54, the Browns faced the Steelers eight times and beat them seven times. Of course, they won the East every year to earn an annual trip to the NFL Championship Game. In those eight games, Otto Graham threw 12 touchdown passes. Only one of them was against Butler. Considering Butler’s pick-6 in ’54 and his TD catch in ’53, Butler actually scored more touchdowns on Cleveland than he allowed, but the Browns were smart enough and good enough to get points elsewhere on the field. Even so, Butler often came away as Pittsburgh’s best defensive player in those games.

He was clearly up to the challenge of his rivals but his story can’t be told without noting his greatest rival of the era because the story also includes Butler’s greatest game.

Before becoming the Steelers receivers coach that guided Roy Jefferson from 1966-68, Hugh Taylor was a legendary receiver known as “Bones” and he proved to be the ultimate challenge for Jack Butler.

The tall Washington receiver was a record breaker in his first ever NFL game when he burned the Eagles for 212 receiving yards (most in a debut at the time) and did it by scoring 3 TD’s, including a 62-yarder, the last two of which were in the 4th quarter. He didn’t stop there.

He scored a TD in each of his two games against Pittsburgh in his first season. In the two years prior to Butler’s arrival, Taylor faced the Steelers in four total games and put up 4 total TD’s, including 3 of over 50 yards.

Taylor’s first receiver-corner contest against Butler came in 1952 and was a brutal affair. Early in the game, Taylor got just behind Butler and caught a deep pass inside the Pittsburgh 15, but Butler immediately tackled him and smashed Taylor to the ground while also landing a shot to the face during the tackle, which helped to temporarily knock Taylor out of the game. Butler would very often go for the opponent’s face. He usually reserved such attacks for when the opponent was down, but this was not necessarily against the rules and, in fact, always seemed to happen in front of the referee who simply blew the play dead. It was motivated by the fact that the ball carrier was allowed to get up and keep running to continue the play if his momentum was not stopped. Thus, defenders would jump onto the ball carrier to prevent him from getting up. It just so happens that Butler thought a hand to the face would easily do the trick and he was correct.

Taylor may have taken the shot to the face, but he got the last laugh in the game. He returned to score a touchdown when Butler wasn’t covering him and then he beat Butler for the 4th quarter game-winning score, a 43-yard pass that Taylor caught at the 5 and darted into the end zone while being tackled by Butler. Washington won 28-24.

One didn’t have to wait long for a rematch as they met again two weeks later. Butler got the better of Taylor for 3 quarters, including a shot to the ribs that fell Taylor during a short LeBaron TD plunge. The Steelers took a 24-7 lead into the 4th quarter, but Taylor then got the better of Butler who gave Taylor too much cushion on what became a 40-yard touchdown when Bones made a simple move to get away from him for the score. Washington put another six on the board on the next drive, assisted by Taylor catching a 45-yarder while Butler covered an alternate outside receiver, but Butler missed a tackle on Taylor, which sprung him closer to the goal line. Taylor finished with 4 receptions for 139 yards and a TD, but the Steelers held on to win.

Their two 1953 duels happened in the last three weeks of the season. On Thanksgiving weekend, Bones beat Marv Matuszak for a short 5-yard score, but Butler tried his best to prevent it, he flew to the back of the end zone towards Taylor, but only brought him down after Taylor secured the touchdown. He held Taylor to just two more catches for the rest of the game (finishing 3 for 39), but the Steelers lost 17-9.

The season finale was Jack Butler’s masterpiece.

Washington quarterbacks certainly tested Butler, but this time it backfired completely and cost Washington a win. Butler came into the contest with 5 interceptions on the season. In this game, he actually caught more passes from Washington QB’s than Taylor did. In fact, Hugh Taylor was denied a single reception. Butler, covering like a blanket, picked off Jack Scarbath twice in the first half, the only two passes Scarbath threw in the game as fellow QB Eddie LaBaron was the regular.

The Steelers trailed 13-0 in the 4th quarter but finally scored on a Ray Mathews lateral to Lynn Chandnois to make it 13-7. The Taylor-Butler rivalry took a backseat to Butler simply making plays all over the field, regardless of the ball carrier or the intended pass catcher. He was playing on another level in this game, far above anyone else. Washington even tried to avoid Butler from making any further impact by lining up Taylor on the right side but, in this finale, the Steeler ballhawk was not about to let up.

Now nursing a 6-point lead in the final minutes, Washington only needed to avoid the defensive playmaker — a task they failed at miserably.

Eddie LaBaron threw to back Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, but Jack Butler picked off his 3rd pass of the day to set up the Steelers on the Washington 18. Butler put the Steelers into position to win the game but Pittsburgh’s push for the go-ahead touchdown was stalled on downs a foot shy of the goal line. Washington was thrilled. They avoided a comeback defeat….or did they? Jack Butler decided to take matters into his own hands.

Having nearly been trapped for a safety on 2nd down, Washington passed on 3rd & 10. LaBaron threw a short pass from his own end zone, tossed outside to his left along the sideline and intended for Justice at the 5. Jack Butler saw his chance and struck again, picking off LaBaron’s pass for his 4th interception and easily stepping into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Jack Butler’s uniform shone a different kind of gold to the Griffith Stadium crowd on this day.

In the previous year’s finale, Butler gave up two scores in what is likely his worst game. He also witnessed Night Train Lane make 3 interceptions and return one for a touchdown. What a difference a year makes. Butler, in this finale, did Lane one better.

Somehow, Butler was snubbed for the Pro Bowl. That didn’t change the following year but neither did his excellent play.

With Jack Butler’s rise at corner now complete, he had another challenge ahead of him and that was to maintain his high quality play for the rest of the decade. That story is one I’ll tell at another time.



Jack Butler’s success on the football grid is a tale of rapid growth. Much like many players before him and after him, Butler’s pure athleticism was enough to get him on the team but it was circumstances that got him into the lineup and it was his skill that earned him notoriety. However, it was his commitment to improvement and the natural challenge of his rivals that steered him to greatness, one that the Pro Football Hall of Fame would finally recognize.

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Honoring Steelers history through extensive research. Contributor to numerous projects for multiple outlets, including NFL Alumni and CBS.

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