DeKALB – With players dropped to a knee and circled around him, Devon Butler’s uncle made one thing clear Sunday at Northern Illinois’ practice.
“If we don’t get a MAC Championship ring this year,” Jeff Butler told the Huskies’ players, pointing to his right ring finger, “I’m coming back and going after each one of you.”
Butler’s challenge came at the end of an inspirational talk he gave NIU players. The speech lasted only about five minutes. It made a big impression.
“I thought it was awesome,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “He needs to go on a motivational circuit. He did a great job talking to the team.”
Butler, who declined an interview request, talked about more than the Mid-American Conference title.
He thanked players for their prayers and visits to his nephew’s bedside at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, where Devon Butler is recovering after being shot in the upper right side of his back last week. After initially being listed in critical condition, an OSF Saint Anthony official said Devon Butler’s status was serious Sunday afternoon.
Jeff Butler also stressed the importance of being in the right situation, a lesson everyone heard last week. He reminded players it’s rare for someone to play college football. He said each better take full advantage of his opportunity.
But, maybe most important, quarterback Chandler Harnish said Butler’s appearance showed it was OK for the Huskies to focus on football.
“To know that he’s here,” Harnish said, “that means Devon is doing pretty well.”
After returning to practice Saturday with light contact, NIU put the pads back on for full contact Sunday. It was a chance for players to release their aggression after a long and difficult week.
“I think it’s therapeutic for a lot of guys,” Harnish said. “A lot of us have stress built up with the whole situation. It’s been a long week, so it’s good to get out here and hit each other.”
The pain players had being without Butler was evident Sunday. When running back Akeem Daniels was asked what it was like to not see Butler on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the volume of his voice suddenly softened. His simple response was he misses his teammate.
When asked what has been missed most, most of the players have given the same answer.
There’s a certain sound Butler makes when he’s lined up at middle linebacker, right before the snap. Harnish described it as a half bird, half dinosaur call.
For the past two practices, linebacker Jordan Delegal has worn Butler’s No. 9 jersey. His uncle was at Huskie Stadium on Sunday. But nobody has been able to make that half bird, half dinosaur sound.
“It’s definitely different not having it around, because it’s one of those sounds you just don’t forget,” Harnish said. “When you don’t hear it, it’s kind of like something is missing.
“I couldn’t even replicate it, but you know it’s Devon, it’s his signature. And guys try to replicate it, and no one comes close. When Devon gets back, hopefully that’s the first thing he does.”