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Jim O’brien: Munhall’s Jack Butler knows how to say “Thank you”

August 9, 2012

Jim O’brien: Munhall’s Jack Butler knows how to say “Thank you”

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

Jack Butler was the best speaker of the six former National Football League players who were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past Saturday evening in Canton, Ohio.

         Butler was at the microphone in Fawcett Stadium for exactly 3 minutes and 55 seconds.  That contrasts with the final speaker on the program, Curtis Martin, who spoke for 27 minutes.  It took three hours to induct six players.  That’s overkill.

         Butler said “thank you” or some form of that phrase nine times in that span.  He said he was thankful, grateful, honored, humbled, happy and proud.  What more is there to say?

         Hey, he’s 84 years old and moving as fast as he can on two bad wheels.  He said he was “thankful to God.”  He concluded his reflections by saying, “Heck, I’m thankful to be here.  I thank you all.”

         Butler was midway through his nine-year (1951-1959) playing career for the Steelers when Britain’s Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile for the first time – that was on May 6, 1954 – and the Oxford student completed the distance in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

         So Butler broke Bannister’s record on Saturday night by a few seconds.

         Martin, who came out of Hazelwood and Taylor Allderdice High School and the University of Pittsburgh, told some harrowing tales about an alcoholic father who beat his mother, giving her black eyes, burning her in hot water in a bath tub, setting her hair on fire with a lighter, and putting lit cigarettes out on her legs.

         It might make for an interesting magazine story, or for a book, but not for a Hall of Fame acceptance speech.

         In short, rather in long, Martin told his life story, way too personally as some saw it.  Martin received rave reviews in some publications for his honest account of a dysfunctional family, but drew some strong criticism in social media.  Some observers said it was “the worst speech in Hall of Fame history.”

         Martin went into too much detail or TMI, as my daughter Rebecca says when I do the same.  TMI is for Too Much Information.  I felt the same way when I read “West on West,” Jerry West’s life story, when he revealed so many ugly details about his dad and his upbringing in backwoods West Virginia.

         It’s a good thing Martin spoke last and not first.  Butler was second on the program and he might have packed his bags and gone back home to Munhall if he had to sit through Martin’s marathon talk before it was his turn to speak.

         Butler thanked his wife and his eight children, but he didn’t mention them all by name, thinking that he’d go over his allotted five-minute acceptance speech.  That’s how long Hall of Fame officials ask you to speak.

         I recall that Butler was the best speaker, even though he started out by saying “I’m not much of a speaker,” at a dinner to honor his teammate Fran Rogel of North Braddock.

         That dinner lasted from 6 o’clock to just after midnight at the Churchill Country Club and Butler told a buddy “some of those speakers killed it by talking too long.”

         Butler has always been a man of few words.  He probably spoke longer than former Pirates’ star Bill Mazeroski did the day he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but both were well received because they are “so damn real,” as Steve Blass once said of Maz.  They are down to earth and uncomfortable in the spotlight, and that’s part of their appeal to Pittsburgh sports fans.

         I don’t think the induction ceremony of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is an appropriate place to put out your family’s dirty laundry.

         I have been guilty of staying too long at the mike at the Sports Night Dinner at the Thompson Club in West Mifflin, and I have learned my lesson in that regard.  Nowadays, I make sure I know how long I’m expected to speak and keep a close eye on my wristwatch to make sure I don’t go into overtime.

         I remember going to a football banquet in Belle Vernon in the mid-80s when I was to be the featured speaker.  I got there a half hour early, as is my custom, to meet people and pick up some items I could use in my talk to localize my remarks.  The dinner started at 6 p.m.  By 10 p.m. I still had not been called to the podium.

         A long-time assistant soccer coach was given a surprise award upon his retirement.  He said, “I don’t have a script,” before he went into a 24-minute ramble.  Midway through his remarks, I told the head football coach who was sitting next to me, “Get him a script!”

         When I got up to speak I had to remind those in attendance of why we were there.

         I was happy to see Butler and Martin get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  I knew Chris Doleman, one of the other inductees, from our days at Pitt.  He was about to start his junior season (1983) when I was hired to be the assistant athletic director for public relations at Pitt.

         I remember Doleman got hurt in the first game of his senior year (1984), a season-opener at Pitt Stadium against BYU, and missed most of the season.  He was one of several players who were in the doghouse with Coach Foge Fazio.  The Panthers lost to BYU 20-14. That setback in the first game set the tone for the rest of the schedule and the Panthers finished with a 3-7-1 record.

         There was a lot of talent on that team.  When the Panthers finished 5-5-1 the following season, Fazio was fired as the head coach.  I thought he deserved another year, just as I thought Dave Wannstedt should have been given another year.  Both had recruited the talent to turn out a winner.

         I recall being in the press box in Martin’s junior season (1993) at Pitt when he ran for over 200 yards against a tough Texas team.  There were two Steelers’ scouts in the press box that day.  Martin did suffer some injuries at Pitt that limited his playing time.  That’s why he lasted till the third round in the NFL draft before the New England Patriots, coached by Bill Parcells, took him in the draft.

         I ran into Martin’s mother a few times when I was signing books at Ross Park Mall.  She’d be wearing a New England Patriots’ jacket and she’d make sure you knew she was Curtis Martin’s mother.  I got a kick out of her brassiness.  She seemed like a strong woman, happy and proud of her son’s achievements.

         She told me stories about her son.  She never shared any stories about her husband.

         I was no longer on the Steelers’ beat when Dermontti Dawson came along in 1988.  But he seemed like a good guy, and he was definitely a great center, following in the tradition of Mike Webster, Ray Mansfield and Bill Walsh as outstanding Steelers’ centers.

         This is the second time that Pitt has had two former players inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same day.  Russ Grimm and Rickey Jackson were inducted in the Class of 2010.

         Doleman commented in Canton that this could help Pitt in its recruiting efforts.  He mentioned the problems in the Penn State program, with players abandoning ship at State College in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky Scandal and NCAA penalties.

         He said that Pitt should get some of its Hall of Fame football players, and other alumni, to convince some of the Penn State players that Pitt would be the perfect place for them if they are considering transferring to another school.

         Doleman’s idea sounds good, but it would be illegal and might draw NCAA penalties to the Pitt program.  Todd Graham advanced some similar ideas when he became the head coach at Pitt.   He wanted Bill Fralic and Tony Dorsett to do that.  You would think a head coach in college would know the rules better than that.  Former players and alumni are not permitted to talk to prospects about coming to any college.

         I have been asked many times in recent weeks what I thought about the NCAA penalties against Penn State.

         At first, I wrongly thought that the NCAA should not have anything to say about this scandal since Penn State broke no rules in its conduct of its football program.  But I guess Todd Graham is not the only one who doesn’t know what the NCAA can and cannot do.

         I think Penn State officials were so eager to not draw a four-year “death penalty” that they accepted the terms of this penalty.  But I thought the NCAA went too far.

         I think it was ridiculous and uncalled for to strip Penn State of so many victories in recent years.  They didn’t want Joe Paterno to remain the winningest college football coach in Division I so they cut back on his victory total.

         Hey, Joe Paterno didn’t win those games.  The football team did, and it’s not fair to those players and those students and alumni who were part of the program to penalize them in such a manner.

         I thought it was okay to ban the team from post-season bowl games for four years, and to reduce their scholarships by five each year.  The new coach, Bill O’Brien, was most upset by the decision to permit present Penn State football players to transfer to another school without having to sit out a season.

         Coaches always react to such things on a personal level.  This was the one aspect of the penalty that was going to make O’Brien’s job more challenging.  I am sure he didn’t buy into such a situation when he left the New England Patriots in favor of Penn State.

         I think things will work out fine for Penn State.  O’Brien is right to say Penn State is still an outstanding academic institution and there aren’t any bowl games you can go to and have 110,000 people in the stands as they have at Beaver Stadium.

         I think Penn State will attract a certain kind of kid who wants to help turn things around in the program.  Penn State still has one of the greatest environments any kid could ask for to play college football.  Some of the great prospects will go elsewhere because they want to play in bowl games.

         I think Penn State will appeal to the best kind of kids.

         I have to take O’Brien to task for saying that because of his prior experience as a pro football coach that he can better ready players to move to the next level.  Dave Wannstedt used to say that when he was the head coach at Pitt.

         I don’t think O’Brien’s job is to prepare players for the pros.  How many kids are we talking about here?  Few make it to the pro level.  His job, and Wannstedt’s job, is to develop a clean and proud college football program, to turn out winning teams.

         Joe Paterno set the bar high in that respect.  Paterno made a mistake in judgment when he didn’t see to it that Jerry Sandusky was fired and forced to leave the State College campus.  I have friends, including Franco Harris, who disagree about this, and remain firm in their belief that Paterno did what was required of him.

         Joe Paterno is dead.  Taking his victories away doesn’t punish him.  It punishes people who had nothing to do with the Jerry Sandusky Scandal.  I am a proud Pitt man, but I feel sorry for Penn State people who truly cared about the school’s football team and athletic program, and have been hurt by all this.

          Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien can be reached at jimmyo64@gmail.com

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 17, 2012 4:58 pm

    I loved Jack’s last comment about being here to see his induction.

    I was a personal guest of Bob Brown’s induction in 2004. He went in with Elway, Sanders, and Eller. Bob was the toughest offensive lineman that played the game, he was a brutal player.

    I grew up watching the HOF ceremony every year, and being a guest of Canton is a special experience. The Jacket dinner is a big deal in itself. I sat at one of four tables that were roped off at the convention center, I sat with the Brown Family with my two guest Bret and JB Shugarts (3 year starter at Ohio State who played the same position as Bob). The best part of the dinner is when the player walks up on a platform and receives their HOF Jackets. All the Hall of Famers are introduced right before this and They came out right where I was sitting, I talked with Dan Rooney and promised him a box of Steeler photos my Dad had sitting in the garage (Still need to send that!).

    If you recall back then they use to have LIVE introduction speeches. Carl’s son, Bob’s son, Barry’s coach, and John’s daughter did their introductions.

    These intro speeches were longer than the players. Bob and Cece Brown’s son was a District Attorney in LA at the time and he delivered a wonderful 30 minute introduction. It was a compelling heart warming speech that made both Cece and Bob tear up. Remember this is August and back then it was done at noon.

    So I agree Jack was to the point and stayed on track but I believe that when you are one of 290 players that have achieved this moment then you can take all the time you want.

    Another thing is the crowd was not there. When Elway went in the stands were packed and it was a sellout. To have four men with Pittsburgh connections go in and see such low attendance I would say I was disappointed, but hey I did not go either.

    Curtis Martin’s story was amazing and it felt like he spoke for an hour because what he had to say was so hard to listen to. But the story is one of hope and forgiveness. I am glad I heard it.

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