Searching for an infusion of youth and talent at defensive end in the 1977 NFL Draft, the Packers struck decisively, selecting hard-nosed stopper Mike Butler at ninth overall and pairing him with speed-rusher Ezra Johnson at 28th. The bookends would anchor the defensive front for the next six seasons.
Butler arrived from Kansas and started immediately, while Johnson would be a major contributor as a rookie and work his way into the opening lineup a year later. Butler would go on to start 87 of 94 games with the Packers at left defensive end and was a consistent performer, earning second-team All-NFC honors in ’81.
Stout against the run and an able pass-rusher, Butler was the defender quarterbacks would see first when dropping back in the pocket while Johnson steamed around the passer’s blind side. Butler’s approach was more about force than flash.
“Ezra was a better ball-player against the pass, and I was a better run-stopper,” Butler said this week. “Ezra was before his time as a pass-rusher, he had those moves. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, and I was coming straight at them. For awhile there, we were a heck of a combination.”
They also knew how each other would react on the field and off. The defensive ends lived together for their first two years in the NFL and roomed together on the road for their entire careers.
Butler was a key member of Packers’ teams in the late ’70s and early ’80s that entered seasons with optimism, only to typically fall short of the playoffs. In the strike-shortened year of ’82, Green Bay reached the postseason for the first time since ’72, but in ’78 finished 8-7-1 and in ’81 were 8-8. When things went sideways during a promising season, often the club would lose talented QB Lynn Dickey.
“Every year we would get our hopes up, but we had a hard time with injuries,” said Butler. “We had some weapons and there would be a lot of excitement, but there was a frequency with injuries where we would lose people.”
In ’83, the USFL began operations, and Butler signed with the Tampa Bay Bandits before the NFL season, with the expectation to begin playing in the rival league’s spring and summer format. Butler’s contract with Green Bay had a year remaining, but the Packers wouldn’t allow him to play. The Packers finished 8-8 in ’83 while giving up 439 points, and Butler has always felt that had the team let him suit up that season, one more win may have been within reach.
With the USFL aiming to make a splash in its infancy, the new league’s clubs were raiding NFL rosters. Tampa Bay owner John F. Bassett offered Butler a guaranteed contract, a rarity which was too good to pass up.
“At the time, it was basically a business decision and all about the guaranteed contract,” Butler said. “Green Bay didn’t offer contracts like that, and from a business perspective I understand why there weren’t any teams in the NFL that did. But at the time I felt like I’d proven myself to be a good player and I’d been a starter.
“In football, you don’t play for yesterday or tomorrow, you play for today, and you can get cut at any time. At that time, it made sense.”
For Butler, the USFL was a memorable experience. The Bandits practiced at a local community college, so the facilities weren’t up to par with those in Green Bay. But generally, at least in Tampa, the accommodations weren’t all that bad. Steve Spurrier was the head coach, and former Cowboys guard Nate Newton was also on the team, as was former San Diego Chargers running back Gary Anderson. The club played at Tampa Stadium, the precursor to Raymond James Stadium.
“Bassett was a founding owner so he treated us well, and Burt Reynolds was involved, so they had a lot of movie stars around,” he said. “We played at the same stadium the Buccaneers did. We stayed in nice hotels. The first year we went to London and played against the New Jersey Generals. It was interesting, and I was fortunate enough to get back with the Packers.”
In ’85, Butler returned to Green Bay and played in 10 games before suffering a neck injury, ending his season and ultimately his career after nine years of pro football.
“I could have had surgery and come back and I wanted to get to 10 years, but I didn’t want to be a guy who was told it was time to hang it up,” Butler said. “It was a lot of fun. I miss that part of my life, the camaraderie, the friendships, we were a tight group. There were great, rabid fans, and I lived in Madison in the offseason.”
Today Butler lives in Tampa, Fla., but he didn’t make a home there following his stint with the Bandits. He is the Assistant Director for Asset Management of the Tampa Housing Authority, overseeing all non-public housing, assisted living facilities and warehouses.
“I’ve been in this field for 20 years and worked my way up,” he said. “I’ve been a director on two different occasions and in this capacity for 12 years.”
After his playing career, Butler held similar positions in Chester, Pa., New Orleans, and St. Petersburg, Fla., before settling in Tampa.
Butler’s daughter, Michelyn, won the Miss Wisconsin USA pageant and represented the state in the Miss USA competition in 2008. She is completing her doctorate in educational psychology at UW-Madison.
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