Mario Butler's father was murdered in the most unspeakable way. This is what Butler did next.
Maybe you've never heard of the former NFL cornerback. How he lives his life? After everything? That's a lesson for us all into 2021. Today's "Throwback Thursday" Q&A inside.
Everybody has a story. That’s the beautiful thing about this job and what, no doubt, will serve as the backbone for everything you read at Go Long.
The human side to this sport.
Going beyond a spreadsheet to tell the story of the game.
Yet even then, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything remotely close to what Mario Butler’s been through in life. “Who?” you may be asking right about now. Butler was an undrafted cornerback out of Georgia Tech who operated on the fringes of the league from 2011 to 2015. He spent time on the Cowboys’ practice squad, the Broncos’ practice squad, toggling tryout to tryout, before latching on with the Bills’ practice squad in 2013 and scratching and clawing his way to the active roster in 2015.
It was right then — in the summer of 2015, in what felt like a last shot at NFL roster — when we met. During training camp, at St. John Fisher College, I spotted Butler walking alone toward Haffey Hall to eat lunch and figured it was worth introducing myself. A few minutes into conversation, when asked what gives him hope that he can make the team, Butler stopped in front of the door and pointed to childhood trauma that still gives chills to this day.
Here’s what I wrote then as a Bills beat writer at The Buffalo News in a story you can read in full here:
On the spot, his mind traces back to the day his faith was tested, the day he calls the “defining moment” in his life: Jan. 21, 2000. He was 10 years old. Butler trudged home in a torrential downpour after a long day of pick-up basketball, stepped inside and his family delivered news that’d make him go numb, crumple him into a heap of tears and keep him awake for three days straight.
His father was murdered. And not only that. His father, Jeffery Butler, was killed, sliced to pieces and stuffed into his own refrigerator inside his home 10 minutes away.
“So it was a closed casket,” Butler said. “Literally. It was locked.”
Police never found the killer. To this day, it’s a cold case in the Jacksonville (Fla.) Police Department. All that you’ll find on the case is a three-page Jacksonville Sheriff’s Report. The time of the incident was 14:15. Alcohol related? “Unknown.” Drug related? “Unknown.” The 37-year-old victim is listed as “Stabbed.” The type of weapon? “Knife/Cutting Instrument.”
It’s the kind of memory that should’ve haunted Butler then and still haunt him today.
But what Butler did next remains stunning: He forgave.
He wasn’t filled with hate and rage. He didn’t spiral out of control at such an impressionable age. He miraculously found a way to use this all for good. Butler made the team that year and even appeared in 14 games before his career came to a close. A father of three today, Butler tries spreading the love as much as he possibly can. Keeping with the theme of just how surreal this 2020 year has been for millions of Americans, I figured it was worth giving Butler a call to see — truly — how he was able to move on when his Dad was murdered in such an unspeakably gruesome manner.
As I think you’ll see here, we could all live a little more like Mario Butler.
(Ed’s Note: As you might’ve noticed above, we’re calling these Q&As (which will be more free-flowing conversations with past NFL players) “Throwback Thursday” here on out. Thanks, all!)
What have you been up to these days, Mario?
Butler: I’ve been up to a lot since my transition away from the NFL. Being a — and my wife would agree — a full-time Dad and not going back and forth. Being a full-time husband is key as well. We live in Gwinnett County right outside of Atlanta. My current role is a recruiter for AWS (Amazon Web Services). So that’s exciting. I get to impact lives with that as well.
So for people who might not have caught the story five years ago, what did you really go through as a kid when you found out what happened to your Dad? You can’t even make it up. It’s the kind of thing I didn’t even believe when you told me because it’s that gruesome, that awful, but it happened. And it seems like you faced that reality right then as a kid.
Butler: When that happened — looking back now — I’ve had this conversation so much but not too specific because I try not to go there. I’m a big-picture person. But it has made me a better Dad. You lose a parent, no matter what age you are, it puts things into perspective. And I didn’t try to use it as an excuse but as a driving force to make me a better parent with my kids. I have two boys and my youngest is my daughter. It helped shape me as a man. I think when we go through things, we don’t really realize how much they shape us. Thinking now, when I was in fifth grade and everything happened, I don’t think I was able to digest everything in that moment. But I definitely know that shaped me into the man I am today.
Were you filled in on the grisly details of it all at that young of an age?
Butler: No, not that I recall. I just knew that it wasn’t good. And that was all.
What went through your head when you found out that you lost him?
Butler: I think any fifth-grader would look back through everything and try to figure out Why? I think you wrap your head around that more than anything: “I don’t have a father anymore.” I think it’s an out-of-body experience, too, any time you’re experiencing the death of a loved one. Again, I was 10 so I don’t think it hit me like I was 30, right? I knew my father’s gone. That’s it.
You’re 10. You’re walking back home in a downpour after playing pick-up basketball. You get the news. So, he was into some stuff in the streets and might’ve been running with some unsavory folks as you said then. But did you ever have a desire to find the killer? To get to the bottom of this? To get any information on what happened?
Butler: I think at first, yeah. But as I grew older, when you grow up in this type of environment, the murderer doesn’t get caught a lot. I grew up in the inner-city so it wasn’t like someone gets shot, they find the killer and they put him in jail. It’s more so, you get shot, you get murdered and they never catch the killer. And it keeps going on and on. It keeps happening. It’s the stages of grief. So, at first, it’s anger. Trying to figure out Why? and you want to catch the killer because you’re like, “I have to grow up without a Dad.” Even to this day, I would not even be able to say, “Maybe this person did that.” Maybe he’s still out. Maybe he’s dead. I don’t really know too much at all. And there’s nothing I physically can do about it now, too, looking back as a 32-year-old man. It was just something I couldn’t really control myself, just looking back in retrospect. All I did was try to focus on the memories. It’s always tough when your kids ask you. Especially my daughter. She’s four. And I have my Dad tattooed on my arm. So it’s hard for a four-year-old to grasp — like, “Hey, where’s granddaddy?” All you can say is, “He’s in heaven.” And sometimes, that doesn’t register as well.
I remember looking the case up and it’s still technically a cold case. But were there police, detectives, investigators on it for a while?
Butler: I don’t have the slightest clue. I’m past that point. I try not to even dwell on it. But I tell my Mom quite frequently that there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my Dad.
What do you think about? What do you try to jog through your mind?
Butler: I think about the memories. Him and I throwing the football around together. How his death has shaped me as a man and what can I do better every day? I want to carry on his legacy and some of the positive things he did. He was always super proud of me and bragging on me a lot. And so I try to think about the positives throughout this whole thing. But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. And for the rest of my life I’ll think about him every day. And sometimes on holidays—you look at other people, you sit around—and he has helped me tremendously when I just talk to other people and they may not have a father or a loved one and saying the right thing or expressing their gratitude or gratefulness. And I can step in and say, “Look, I don’t have a Dad. I wish I had a Dad. So here are some things you need to do. Time is not guaranteed.” So I’m able to take a bad situation and turn it into some good with my words and how I encourage people.
So that’s very important to me — how can I look at the situation. And find the positive out of it. How can I impact someone’s life through what somebody would call a “negative situation.” Now, that I’m older, I really do believe things happen for you, not to you. So I look at my Dad’s death and wonder, “How can this help me?” I see now that it makes me a better father. I want to be present for my kids. I want to be at every sporting event, every gymnastics practice, every swim practice. It matters to me to be present all the time. Without that, I don’t think I would be the father I am today. I don’t think I’m Superman by any means but kids probably do. They don’t know any better. They think I’m the best Dad ever because I’m present. And that’s what I’ve definitely been focusing on. Being present in their lives and spending time with them because time is not guaranteed.
How are you able to be so forgiving? That was a big point you made, too. As awful as this death was — with your Dad being found in a refrigerator — you could be full of rage and vengeance and those emotions could literally consume you for the rest of your life. Do you remember the point where you were able to forgive and your brain was able to fill with so much positivity? I think most people would really struggle to make that switch after something like that.
Butler: I think as you get older — and this sounds kind of weird — but you get used to not having a father. So things kind of fade away in a sense. You don’t worry about it as much. And as I got older, my grandad was a pastor in the church. So that Word and that sermon: forgive, God forgives us. I always kept that at the front of my mind. How can I be forgiving? I think that’s why God gives us grace, so we can extend it to others as well. I’d be a hypocrite, right? So I try not to be like that. As time went on, you just figure out, “Look, by me holding all of this anger inside, I don’t think that’s going to make me a better person. It only would make me worse. I tried therapy when I was younger, too. A few sessions. So that was able to jump start it. But I don’t think it was as effective. I think it was something inside of me that I had to deal with and I think that was important. Just recognizing that I’m able to forgive and forgiving is something that’s good. I can’t point to one situation and say, “Hey, this happened.” I just think having my values be my values. And I had a great support system that I learned from. My grandmother. My Mom. My siblings. Leaders around the community that I just held onto. They filled that void that I was missing as a father. From my brother to my Pop Warner coaches. They were there for me. So I don’t feel like I was missing a lot. So, that filled that void. I had father figures along the way.
So as you get older and as you learn more and more about your Dad and about what happened, there was never a point where you said, “You know what? I’m going to give the Jacksonville Police a call and try to get to the bottom of this?” You never had any point like that?
Butler: No. Not once. I was so young so I don’t think my brain didn’t even operate in that fashion — at least I’d like to think so, right? But it probably does. Like, “I’ve got to get the killers!” I think I dealt with it and it made me stronger. That shaped my perspective on my life, too.
Butler: I realized at that point that I can only control so much. If I’m negative all the time, that’s going to really affect the people around me, too. My Mom, my brothers, my sisters. You see it throughout America all the time, with kids having behavioral issues in school. You have so much rage inside of you that you want to do a lot of things. This happens all the time. You turn on the news and someone’s parents are shot and killed. A drunk driver. Anything can happen. But when you’re so young, you don’t really know. If I can really sum that up, I didn’t really know what I didn’t know until I got older. And as I got older, I just wanted to make sure I was able to be positive. And every time I’m sharing the story with people — that happened, my Dad died — I just knew as I got older, it gave me a perspective of peace and forgiveness and positivity and wanting to share that with other people as well.
I don’t see the meaning of holding in a lot of stuff. I believe that it doesn’t end well if you hold in a lot of anger, frustration, anxiety. I believe it causes that. So you’re trying to control what you can’t control and at that point, it’s over. I can’t bring my Dad back. I can’t do any of those things.
So what is the next step? Identifying. Grieving. You do have days where you’re in la-la land, where you’re gazing and like, “What if my Dad could see my kids?” Those type of moments. But then you’re like, “Look. I can’t control it. Let me think about the positive things he left for me to do.” His death provided me an opportunity to be a better husband, be a better father, all of the things he may not have done well, I want to point to that and do that better. I want to make sure that I spend time with my kids. I want to make sure that I’m a good husband for my wife. Out of that, comes forgiveness. I have to implement that in my marriage and relationships and our kids.
I was just thinking of Darius Leonard, the Colts linebacker, who lost his brother, his best friend. His brother died in a fight at a club when he was cracked over the back of the neck. Darius could’ve been filled with that rage, too. He was 17 at the time. Rather than let it consume him — and he even said he knew who did it, he saw video of the incident. But he said his brother wouldn’t want to see him in jail so he decided to harness all that rage and, here he is, maybe the best defensive player in football. Did all of this help you get to the NFL in a way and help you in life after the NFL?
Butler: Most definitely. That drive. I take that energy and passion I have for spreading a positive word and really try to keep this in the front of my mind: Things happen for you, not to you. I believe everything I’ve been through gets us to our next — I can point to different instances like getting cut and that stuff doesn’t faze me. I share that with younger guys in the NFL. I was cut, what, six or seven times? But it never fazed me. It was surreal. Whenever I’d get cut, people were scared to talk to me. I would text family members, “Hey, I’m quit.” That’s it. I got released. Everything will work out. Even with my wife, I’d get cut and say, “Hey, I’m coming home.” I try to think of the positive things. I’m getting cut, but I’m coming home to a family that loves me. That was fulfilling to me. I may be getting cut but what am I gaining in this situation? So it keeps giving me a perspective that maybe I can’t really understand myself. I just know it needs to happen in that order. I need to show gratitude, I need to show perspective, I need to show empathy. And it has helped me day to day.
Starting out with a death, that death has helped me tremendously in so many other ways. My kids. The way I live my life with purpose and the people I come in contact with. Spreading love and joy and peace and happiness. One of my affirmations each morning is, “I will impact somebody’s life today.” That’s important to me. How can I help somebody today? Not myself. Another person. How can I put a smile on their face today? Given these uncertain times with the pandemic, there are a lot of people who don’t have peace and don’t have joy. They’re unemployed. They’re losing jobs. They’re losing business. It’s about perspective and I know from experience — when I’m getting cut — how I feel. You’re basically getting fired. You know how it feels to say, “I lost my job.” So you can show empathy to somebody else when they lose their job.
So, again, everything happens for you, not to you. I take all these lessons and bottle them up.
Wanting to impact other peoples’ lives, how have you put that into practice?
Butler: It’s kind of weird to think about this but, every morning, I think of my funeral. Who’s going to speak at my funeral? What words would they say? It’s hard day to day to live that way but that provides me with a way to live my life. Throughout the years, just encouraging people. I’ve been super grateful and thankful to have a wife who’s super supportive and understands me. I don’t live on the world’s standards. I do what feels right to Mario. That always gives me peace, whether it’s candidates I’m recruiting at AWS. I’ve been able to coach them through certain things. Or my kids. I’ve been spreading my faith because, some of the things I’ve been through, all I had was my faith. I’m putting the principles into practice the best I can.
I’m super thankful I’ve been able to have this perspective and go through trials and tribulations and lose my Dad and now losing my grandmother, the same type of practices — what type of life did she live? How can I take things she implemented in her life to really inspire others? That gets me going, too. I want to make an impact. I saw what she did in other peoples’ lives. She changed peoples’ lives for the better. That gets me to think, “What do I want people to say at my funeral?” That’s kind of an odd way of thinking but I’m really thinking of the impact I’m leaving on peoples’ lives.
What do you want people to say at your funeral? Many, many years down the road?
Butler: When I’m 85, 90 years old, at my funeral, I want them to say, “Mario really made a difference in my life. He enhanced the way I think. He really made me a better person. I looked at the way he walked and the way he had faith and he made me a believer because he’s a believer.”
You said you do “personal development calls.” What is that exactly? Is that talking to people on the phone who need a little boost?
Butler: Yeah, it’s a group of believers. We talk about scripture and how it applies to our life and how we can help each other get better. So I make sure I talk about things I’m going through personally. Everybody else does the same and we just help each other navigate through life. It makes it so much better. You have other people. I’m not alone. I’m able to share some of my tests, trials and tribulations and can talk to other people who’ve been through the same or maybe I can help someone else that’s about to go through the same thing. Or friends I talk to. We talk about life. Maybe it’s people at AWS I can help people, too. This pandemic is hard because a lot of people have a lot going on — and sometimes, it’s bottled up.
You mentioned your grandmother, the fact you’ve been cut seven times and the morning of your first start in Buffalo in ‘15 you found out one of your closest childhood friends died from colon cancer. What have been your trials and tribulations since your Dad?
Butler: Probably my grandmother. That’s the biggest thing since then. I lived with my grandmother since I was 10, 11 years old. I always stayed at her house. I’m one of six kids so I was the lone wolf who always wanted to go with her. That was tough last December. … We talked daily. She passed away from cancer, so it was pretty quick. She got diagnosed in June (of 2019) and she passed in December. When you talk about critical moments, I had to take a step back and really figure out, what do you I want to take from her life? At her funeral, people were saying some really impactful things. From there, I was like “This is what I want my funeral to be like.” A lot of substance. A lot of impact. She did so much for people. How can I impact someone’s life? How can I spread positivity? How can I get someone to see my life and my actions and want to implement it to be better?
And all the times you were cut. When you look back at your NFL career, what were some of the best memories and what were some of the tougher times?
Butler: I will never forget just sitting down in 2013. I was sitting on this field in Jacksonville. I had a workout with Washington and the Houston Texans, in Week 4 and 5, and then it went blank. But I prayed. I said, “I’m trying to be patient but whatever team I go to, I want it to be for the long haul.” My patience was tested then because I didn’t get picked up until a week before Thanksgiving in Buffalo. And it ended up being for the long haul. I think about all the times I was cut. It’s a business.
The good times, 2015. I had waited so long. I was on the practice squad. I was on the active roster and cut. To play and really show what I’m able to do, I think that was a story in itself. Just being patient. Most people would’ve gave up. I had those moments where I’m like, “It may be time for me to transition.” When you’re like, “I’m hitting my head against the wall.” My wife was very supportive of everything. Looking back, now I can share that story with other guys.
When I think about things happening for you, not to you, all those things happened for me to get me to that next moment. It helps me go through life, too. Everybody can adopt that mindset — what you’re going through now is only preparing you for what’s next. We lack that perspective because we can’t foresee the future. If we were able to see what the future looks like, we’d be jumping up and down because of what we’re going through. My career helped me develop as a person.
After everything you’ve been through, you were able to play in some big-time games in 2015. Thinking back, that Bills team went 8-8 but did have a lot of talent. How close was that team to busting through and really doing something special?
Butler: You couldn’t tell me that wasn’t a playoff team in my mind. Everything happens for a reason and I made some great relationships. Created some great friendships. That team was super talented.
Your brother mentioned at one point that, 20 years from now, maybe we see this all on Unsolved Mysteries — and maybe, one day, they get to the bottom of whatever happened — and he had the same attitude as you: “We’ve moved on.” But is there any little part of you that would like to flip the TV on and see what happened?
Butler: I don’t even care. We share the same sentiment. I’m all about moving on. That’s what’s important.
On Twitter, you’d always say you’re blessed for another day. It seems like you’re just filled with positivity, whether it’s being a Dad, your work, anything.
Butler: I’m thankful for each day we have on earth. My sister has a saying: “Time is timeless.” We have to make our time count and I’ve definitely been more conscious about that with my kids and my wife. Sometimes the days go by you and you really need to focus on family. That’s important. I really try to keep that on the forefront of everything we do. When the NFL is gone, you have family. Work is gone, things happen, you always have family. That’s one thing that’s not going to change.
After everything, if you could share a few words of wisdom for someone who might be going through something, what would you tell that person who’s down and out?
Butler: Having a perspective. That’s been critical for me. I’ve always said, “Things could be worse.” So when I look at my life, my Dad died but my Mom and grandmother were there. Then, my grandmother died but my Mom was there. I have my kids, I had peace of mind, look at all the things you do have. You may not have a great job but you have some job. What do you have — so you can be grateful for every moment? Any time I get shipped in another direction, that’s what I think about. The smallest things. It always could be worse. Look at a homeless person. Sometimes, they’re the happiest person in the world. For them, they just may be at peace. At that’s one thing I’m chasing. Having a purpose, having a peace, and having that perspective every day is important. If more people had that, it would be great.
When you are in “la-la land,” what does that feel like?
Butler: Just trying to control a lot. What steps me out of it is perspective. That’s huge. I may not be having a good day but what do I have? My kids. My wife. Life. I can hear, I can breathe, I can see. The smallest things snap me out of it. When I think about how I can impact someone’s life, that makes me super happy.
And forgiveness can just bring you to a great mental state when there’s no resentment pent-up.
Butler: Right. That’s true.