DeKALB – It’s 3:20 p.m. on Wednesday at a sun-splashed and typically windy Huskie Stadium. Northern Illinois’ football team begins its first spring practice.
Defense wears white today. Dressed in his red shorts and red No. 9 stands Devon Butler. Warmups begin, and this is when it hits the middle linebacker. He’s on the field, less than a year after his life transformed when he was the victim of a gunshot to his upper-right back, an innocent bystander in a drug deal gone bad outside a DeKalb apartment complex while he played video games with friends inside an apartment.
He almost died April 5, 2011, undergoing potentially life-saving surgery and spending two weeks in the hospital with a collapsed lung. Not even a full year later, he’s been cleared for full contact by doctors. Butler has conditioned with the team since December bowl practices, an important mental hurdle for him he says because it showed the coaches hadn’t given up on him. His weight is back up to 230 pounds and he’s on his way to his goal of 240. He’s ready. He’s here.
“It didn’t really kick in until we actually got on the field and started running around and the music got going,” Butler says. “I was like, ‘OK, it’s finally that time.’”
It’s 3:36 p.m. Warmups are over. Butler goes through individual drills with the rest of his teammates. Linebackers coach Kevin Kane helps him adjust his footwork. Special teams coordinator Mike Uremovich directs him on hand placement.
Butler calls his spring a process. He wants to show everyone he’s still the all-Mid-American Conference type of linebacker he was as a sophomore. He’s trying to stay humble, take direction.
It’s 4 p.m. Time to hit some tackling dummies. Butler steps in and powers into one. “Let’s go Sckoop,” a couple of teammates say, citing Butler’s nickname. He hits the dummy again. Then he finishes strong, and takes a breath near a wall before rejoining his teammates.
“I still consider myself a little out of shape,” Butler says. “I catch myself winded a lot of times. So definitely my hardest step is just getting back to my football shape.”
It’s 4:13 p.m. More footwork. Time to read and react. Kane throws a ball to Butler. Butler adjusts and manages to hang on and secure it.
Butler runs with the top group of linebackers, back to his old spot in the middle. Tyrone Clark, himself back from a yearlong suspension, is at his side, Michael Santacaterina at the other. NIU’s coaches don’t let an injured player lose his spot to injury.
“He’s got a lot to prove,” Kane says. “He’s playing with the ones. Does he deserve to be a one? He’s got all of the doubters and the naysayers. I think he’ll be OK. He was a great player before his incident and he’s got to bounce back into shape.”
It’s 4:45 p.m. Pass shell. Now it really hits Butler. This is football. Not rehab. Not a bed at OSF Saint Anthony in Rockford. This is real.
The competition is great for Butler. Best of all, he feels like no one has gone easy on him. This practice is without pads, but still, no one is going out of his way to avoid Devon Butler.
“Nobody had any questions. Everybody acted like I never left,” Butler said. “That was the best thing for me. I didn’t want people to treat me any different. I didn’t want people to take it easy on me, especially the coaches. Everybody treated me like I was everybody else.”
It’s 4:53 p.m. Butler lets out a bird call. He’ll laugh about it after practice.
“That’s my little thing, that started a long time ago back in high school,” he says.
It’s 5:30 p.m. Practice ends. Three minutes later he stands near the Yordon Center while coach Dave Doeren comments on seeing Butler back at practice.
“He’s got great command and he understands our system,” Doeren says. “Some guys have football IQ, and he’s got it. So he can learn and react and adapt to situations that you don’t coach in the meeting room sometimes.”
It’s 5:33 p.m. Time for Butler to meet reporters for his first public comments since a news conference last April. He says he was anxious for today, even jittery. But this was a positive day. He calls himself blessed just to be on the sidelines.
It’s 5:45 p.m. Time to head to the locker room. A new journey on his way back to playing for NIU has just started. Butler is out to prove he can not only come back, but play better than he did before.
“Everybody else doesn’t know,” he says, “but inside I know for sure.”