Before Vernon Butler was a Ray Ban-wearing, Jordan-sporting mountain of a football player, he was “Little Vern,” a high school sophomore in southwest Mississippi who wanted to follow his father’s path to a Division I basketball scholarship.
Butler, the Louisiana Tech defensive tackle drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the first round Thursday night, had quit the football team after his freshman season at North Pike High in Summit, Miss.
Butler was dealing with tendinitis in his knee that was brought on by a growth spurt. But Vernon Butler Sr. says his son also was disappointed over his lack of playing time as a freshman.
So he sat out a season – until “Big Vern” had a talk with him.
“I said, ‘Go back out there and help those boys win a championship,’” Butler Sr. said. “That was his dream. And everything started clicking from there.”
North Pike fell short of a championship, finishing as the state runner-up his junior season. But Butler had found his sport – one that would take him to Louisiana Tech on a scholarship and on to the NFL as the school’s first defensive player to be drafted in the first round.
Butler arrived in Charlotte on Friday to meet his new team. He wore a blue suit to his introductory press conference and spoke in a deep, but quiet voice.
Butler might be a man of few words. But don’t mistake his soft-spokenness for timidity.
“Small-town kid, very respectful,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said Friday. “He’s one of those kids you get mad at and he’s just, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’ And you’re like, ‘Stop. I can’t get mad at you.’ He’s very respectful. He’s quiet, but he’s a heck of a player. He’s a talent now.”
Holtz was hired at Louisiana Tech in 2013, a year after Butler arrived on campus. Holtz’s first impression of him: “Big and talented.”
Butler, 6-4 and 323 pounds, became a full-time starter in 2014 and considered turning pro early. But the NFL’s college advisory committee recommended Butler stay in school, so he returned for his senior season.
Holtz said Butler took his game to another level in 2015, playing with more passion than he’d exhibited his first three seasons.
“He’s playing the game angry. He’s playing it with an attitude,” Holtz said. “He didn’t come back (to school) to protect something. Like a lot of guys will come back and not have very good years. He came back to earn something and he certainly did it on the field this year.”
Butler was a first-team All-Conference USA selection after finishing with 50 tackles (including 10 for loss) and three sacks, a somewhat pedestrian total. The Panthers had no issues with Butler’s productivity.
“When you put the tape on it’s not necessarily the sack as a number that people get excited about, but how does he impact the play,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “This is a guy that comes straight up the gut and affected the play. Quarterback threw off-balance, quarterback had to tuck the ball and run. He’s getting doubled and someone else is hitting the quarterback.
“This kind of potential and ability for growth you get excited about because he can be a guy that can impact from the inside, and the quickest way to the quarterback is through the (interior) gaps.”
A natural athlete
Vernon Butler Sr. was a shooting guard from 1981-83 at Northeastern Louisiana, which made the NCAA tournament in 1982. He played against future NBA Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Joe Dumars, and says his son was a good basketball player, too.
But he was better at football.
“When he was in Pee Wee, he was dominating. He was playing D-tackle when he was in the fifth grade,” Butler Sr. “He was lighting (running backs) up. They’d go the other way.”
Butler was 6-3 and 270 pounds by his senior year of high school, when he and A.J. Jefferson formed a potent defensive end tandem for North Pike. Mississippi State and Ole Miss recruited both players, and it looked like both would end up at the same school.
But Butler cooled on Mississippi State (where Jefferson wound up) when the Bulldogs weren’t ready to take his early commitment. And Ole Miss was scratched because the Rebels wanted him to play offensive line, according to Butler Sr.
That left the likes of Memphis, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, which had a small-town vibe that reminded Butler of his hometown of McComb, a former railroad town with a population of about 14,000.
“It is small. But everybody knows everybody around there,” Butler said of McComb. “So we’re pretty close around there. All my family stays there. Probably not much to do, but you find something to do.”
Small town respect
Vernon Butler Sr. has worked 23 years as a technician in a local sawmill and takes his family to church on Sundays. While Butler and his wife, Beverly, accompanied their son to Chicago for the draft, about 100 friends and family members threw a party at a hamburger place in McComb.
Tasha Dillon, pastor of New Life Fellowship Church where the Butlers are members, used the same word to describe Butler as Holtz did – respectful.
“What I’m proud of the most is who he has always been throughout this whole process. He has remained that young man even up to the draft time,” Dillon said. “I’m not only proud of his accomplishments. His integrity and character are A-1.”
Butler has a weakness for nice clothes, expensive shoes and Ray-Bans, a pair of which he had on before the draft. He owns about 30 pairs of Jordans and had on a pair of Balenciagas on Friday that retail for more than $500.
“He’s got a closet full of shoes. He gets that from his mama,” Butler Sr. said. “I think he’s got about 100 pairs in the closet.”
Butler wore a dark maroon tux, made of 100 percent silk, to the draft on Thursday. Holtz said he was not surprised to see Butler looking dapper.
“If we were having a banquet or doing something, Vernon’s going to show up in like a yellow suit,” Holtz said. “Vernon’s always going to be dressed to the nines.”
Still getting better
Butler played four seasons at Louisiana Tech, but won’t turn 22 until June.
“He’s young,” said Rick Petri, Butler’s defensive line coach in college. “He’s just 21 years old. To be that age and with that size and that athletic (ability) – because he is extremely athletic for 300 and whatever he is now.”
Petri said Butler’s sack total might have been higher, but the Bulldogs went to a lot of three-man fronts in obvious passing situations. And rather than have Butler rush straight upfield, he often was asked to stunt or slant.
“He’s really just scratching the surface as a pass-rusher,” Petri said. “There’s so much ahead of him on that.”
Butler saw his draft stock soar after an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl, where his performance was equal to if not better than many of the higher-rated defensive tackle prospects.
Although Butler’s 40-yard dash time (5.32 seconds) was the slowest among defensive linemen at the combine, scouts marveled at his athleticism.
“They look at me and probably don’t think I’m as athletic or as explosive as I am. But I feel like I move pretty well at my size,” Butler said. “I get the offensive linemen off guard with my quickness.”
Butler said the Detroit Lions told him before the draft they planned to take him with the 16th pick, but instead went with Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said he was pleasantly surprised each time Roger Goodell would announce a pick and not call Butler’s name.
When the Panthers finally took him at 30, the crowd watching at the hamburger spot in McComb went wild. Dillon, the pastor of Butler’s church, took a group of children outside the restaurant and released several dozen multi-colored balloons in Butler’s honor.
“The sky’s the limit,” Dillon said. “Beyond the skies. We don’t believe in any ceiling.”