July 13, 2017

O’Leary: Butler embracing new opportunity with argos

If you listen closely on a Toronto Argonauts game day, you might be able to hear it. If you close your eyes and focus, you might think it’s a small, calming breeze coming northeast across the border.

As Victor Butler racks up quarterback sacks — he’s gotten Zach Collaros and Jonathan Jennings twice and hauled Trevor Harris to the ground three times last week — the sensation you’re feeling isn’t the weather. It’s the collective sigh of an entire neighbourhood of middle-aged men in Butler’s Dallas-Forth Worth neighbourhood.

The man that leads the league in sacks hadn’t played organized football for the last two years. When you’re out of the game you love for that long for the first time in your life, you reach a breaking point. For Butler, it was either CFL quarterbacks that were going to feel his wrath or his neighbours.

» Victor Butler stats
» Butler named Shaw Top CFL Performer for Week 3
» Preview: Toronto at Winnipeg Week 4

Butler has been terrorizing quarterbacks with a league leading seven sacks in just three games (Dave Chidley/CFL.ca)

“If I had to make up my own league and play in it and just get dads from around the neighbourhood and just destroy them, I was going to play football again,” Butler said on Tuesday, after a hot day of practice at York University. “I’m glad it happened this way and that I didn’t have to go to Coppell High School and recruit all the dads and literally emasculate them. That would have sucked.”

The 29-year-old is having fun back on the field and being in front of cameras and microphones again. A fourth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2009, he spent four years in Dallas before bouncing between New Orleans, Arizona, Indianapolis and the New York Giants over the next three seasons. His time out of the NFL was hard for him.

“It was torture, man. It was horrible,” he said.

He leaned on his family. He and his wife have a little girl, but he also felt the stress that comes from wanting to support them.

“When (football is) taken away from you there’s a lot of things that come into play. How am I going to provide for my family? I’ve got a daughter now. What kind of a legacy am I going to leave for her? Is my wife going to leave me now, that I’m technically unemployed?” he said.

“I worked out every day; literally every day. EXOS in Frisco (a high performance centre where he trained) was probably tired of seeing me. I was up there every day. I had a key, they don’t know that.

“I was coming in every day, just to keep sane. When I got the opportunity to come back and play I jumped at it.”

He’s jumped, run and thrown himself at this opportunity with every bit of his six-foot-two, 248-pound frame. Kerry Locklin, the Argos’ defensive line coach, knew he had something special in Butler when he started working with him in mini-camp in Florida this spring.

“He’s a very talented guy and he’s a very focused guy. He works hard every day after practice,” Locklin said. “He’s got tremendous speed and agility and he’s played at the highest level.

“He’s a student of the game and he gives a lot of credit to his teammates and everybody around him. He’s an unselfish player and a joy to coach. He understands the game of football and he’s made a good transition up here to the CFL.”

Butler said Locklin and his fellow linemen have been a big part of that transition.

“Shawn Lemon and Cleyon Laing, coach Locklin, those guys spent extra time with me,” he said.

“It wasn’t something that I was shocked by when I got my first taste of activity. Shawn put in countless hours. Kerry Locklin spent time with me in Florida in mini-camp after practice, well after I was done. When I just wanted to get a chocolate milk and a brownie and relax he had me on the field sweating bullets, working on this one-yard rush thing.

“You complain about it then and now you see the fruits of your labours and it’s awesome.”

While he had to learn the intricacies of Canadian football the same way any rookie American player would, Butler had a familiarity with the league. He knew of Warren Moon’s career in Edmonton and the success that Doug Flutie had here before venturing back to the NFL. He’d played with Marcus Ball in New Orleans and with Akwasi Owusu-Ansah in Dallas. Both had told him about their experiences with the Argos.

When it comes down to it, Butler loves the game, however he can get it. Two years is a long time not to play, but he said he’d have waited three years or five years to get another shot. When he’s asked why he knew about the CFL, his response: “It’s football,” is said the same way that someone would explain air to someone who’s never needed it.

“If they started playing football in Guam, I’m going to watch. It’s football,” he said again, with that same emphasis.

On the cusp of the fourth week of the season, Butler knows that his success could disappear as quickly as it’s come for him in Toronto. But he’s at his happiest right now, putting in the time after practices, group-texting with his fellow linemen and chasing quarterbacks on game day.

As those quarterbacks scramble, the men that make up the neighbourhood that Butler lives in can cheer from home and be glad they’re not the ones taking the hits.