Kelly Butler was signing autographs after practice on Wednesday, and he asked a young group of boys what grade they were going into next year.
“Grade 6,” said one youngster, barely taller than Butler’s waist.
“I remember when I was in sixth grade,” Butler said. “You guys eat your vegetables and you’ll be my size, OK?”
Sure, but Butler was 6-foot-4 when he was in Grade 6. Peas and carrots are good, but they would have to be genetically altered to turn that group of boys into 6-foot-8, 350-pound behemoths. Butler, the starting right tackle for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, is just that.
“I was that guy,” said Butler, standing under the hot sun with beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. “My aunts and uncles always thought I was going to be seven feet, and they were kind of disappointed when I got cut off at 6-8.
“When I graduated (from high school) I was pretty much this size. I started growing out after a certain age instead of up.”
Butler has his 6-foot-5 father and 6-foot-2 mother to thank for his height and a Sam’s Club membership for his weight. “My family always shopped in bulk,” said Butler, who wears size 17 cleats.
Throw in his deep, gruff voice, and Butler is the poster boy for intimidating figure.
“You would have to have that, because imagine if I had a real high-tone voice where the voice didn’t match the body,” he said. “It wouldn’t work out well. So I just kinda gotta go with the whole imposing offensive lineman kind of thing.”
As for his football career, which involves pancaking defensive linemen who try to get after his quarterback and knocking linebackers over like bowling pins on long runs, it was the Purdue University coaches who put him on the offensive side of the ball, which is where they figured he would have the best chance of going pro.
The 27-year-old, who played on both the offensive and defensive lines at Union High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., eventually did go pro, appearing in 22 NFL games for the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 2005 and 2006.
Now he’s in Canada, where he is somewhat comfortable with the Bomber playbook thanks to a CFL connection he had in college. His head coach at Purdue was Joe Tiller, who spent nearly a decade as an assistant with the Calgary Stampeders in the 1970s and ’80s. “A lot of the things that we did at Purdue we’re doing up here,” Butler said.
Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice doesn’t care much about how big and strong Butler is; he wants the tackle’s brain to be his best asset.
“What I’m concerned about is: Is he a mental specimen?” LaPolice said. “Does he do everything the right way? That’s the thing we gotta get these guys to gel and do. Of course they look great, but it’s not about looking great. It’s about performing great.
“… He’s athletic, he’s got great feet, he covers people up in pass protection, and we just gotta get him to make sure he’s assignment ready and does all his assignments perfectly. None of those O-linemen graded out perfect (in the season-opening win over Hamilton), just like none of the receivers and quarterbacks did.”
Butler has gotten mostly positive press since he arrived in Winnipeg, but LaPolice noted that he struggled a bit in training camp versus Odell Willis and Phillip Hunt. Perhaps that’s why Butler had the word “focus” written on the huge mounds of tape that were wrapped around his massive hands for Wednesday’s practice. Every time he bent over to get in his stance, he would see the word.
“I write ‘focus’ because you want to tune in to each play,” he said. “When you’re focusing in on your job and your task at hand, don’t let things distract you. It’s 90% mental and 10% physical. It’s being able to focus on the task at hand and be able to do it on a consistent basis.”
That’s obviously what he was unable to do in the NFL, but he doesn’t sound like someone who is hoping to dominate in the CFL in order to punch his ticket back to the U.S.
“Being up here is a great situation right now,” he said, “and I want to enjoy it as long as I possibly can and just continue to play and make this a home if everything works out like it’s supposed to.”