Before earning his first dollar in the NFL, the sport Jake Butt loves wrecked his knee two times.
“That’s the thing you like about football,” he says, gently placing a hand on his damaged right knee. “Only a select few can take that beating. It’s an elite club.”
Butt is a rookie tight end, antsy to score a touchdown for the Broncos but uncertain how long a heartbreaking injury in his final college game will force him to wait for a celebratory dance in the end zone. When he drops a bulky, black brace in the grass and lets it bake under the summer sun at team headquarters, Butt’s eyes burn with a 24/7 obsession to get healthy enough to strap on a helmet and join the Denver huddle.
Butt wants to tell me a story about the heavy price a player will pay for the love of football. There’s a tale from a wicked-awful December night at the Orange Bowl, as Butt sat on the trainer’s table in the Michigan locker room, with two teeth missing and his right knee swelling. Family members cried and a pastor prayed and the team doctor reluctantly told him the dream of being an early pick in the 2017 NFL draft was in tatters.
The story of pain and perseverance by a 22-year-old tight end itching to make his mark in Denver can wait, though. What Butt needs to do first is pose a tough question.
Would you cut off your leg to play football?
Butt knows a guy who did.
“More people should hear his story,” adds Butt, his voice soft and ripe with emotion. “I get choked up. It’s such an unbelievable message.”
His name is Kody Kasey. If all that sweet consonance sounds a little like a hero ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics, then maybe it’s because, in a football sense, he’s every bit as amazing as Spider-Man.
“My young sons look at Kody like he has superpowers,” said Shan Housekeeper, the defensive coordinator at Georgetown College in Kentucky, where Kasey is a redshirt senior for the Tigers, who finished with a 7-4 record last season at the NAIA level.
Kasey returns kicks for Georgetown. So what’s the big deal? He does it with football cleats taped to the prosthetic blade on his right leg, amputated below the knee.
A freak football injury in October 2014 robbed Kasey of his shin bones, the flesh and muscle of his calf, his foot and all five toes. Gone forever. Rather than diminishing him, the amputation forced Kasey to grow as a man.
“I know it might sound strange, but I don’t regret it. I love football more than ever,” he says. “I stand in the end zone, waiting for the kickoff … Am I scared? Never. As the ball is kicked and it’s in the air, coming in my direction, I think: ‘OK, this is it. Let’s go!’ ”
Kasey and Butt have been buddies since they were 5 years old, bonded by football, Ohio kids who grew up in metro Columbus under the spell of the Buckeyes, then became teammates at Pickerington North High School. Butt caught passes and the eye of Michigan recruiters. As a defensive back, all Kasey wanted was a shot at any college team that would take him.
“Jake Butt, he’s one of my boys,” Kasey says. “Jake has always been the tallest dude in the class, even in kindergarten. And crazy athletic.”
That athleticism is no joke. As a 248-pound, 6-foot-6 senior at Michigan, Butt won the 2016 John Mackey Award as the nation’s best college tight end. The Broncos felt lucky to grab him in the fifth round, regarding Butt as a steal rather than damaged goods. After the draft, general manager John Elway insisted if not for an untimely injury, Butt never would have lasted past Round 2.
He will begin training camp, however, on the nonfootball injury list. When will Butt catch his first pass for the Broncos? Nobody knows for certain. Is Butt bitter or anxious or frightened? No way. Standing on one leg, catching soft tosses at the team’s practice facility, he thinks of Kasey.
“What he went through,” Butt says, “is 10 times worse than what I did to my knee.”
The date that shattered a young football player’s world was Oct. 14, 2014. Homecoming at Georgetown. The foe was a rival from down the road, the University of the Cumberlands. Kasey was on the field for a punt and got engaged on a block. It was a routine play, so mundane his father went to buy a soda. When Mike Kasey returned to the stands, however, there was a circle around an injured Georgetown player, with a stretcher on the field and an ambulance on call. He asked his wife: “Where’s Kody?”
The tibia and fibula in the sophomore defensive back’s right leg were broken in half. During surgery, a rod was inserted for support. Kasey, however, figured he would be back on his feet in time for spring practice.
Nine unsuccessful operations and 13 wheelchair-bound months later, Kasey faced a decision no football player ever anticipates confronting. A stubbornly virulent infection was eating his leg alive.
After consulting with physicians, Kasey sat in bed at Grant Medical Center back home in Ohio for more than two weeks, praying for the peace and strength to accept a leg that would never be fully functional or to take a more radical approach.
“I talked to Kody,” Mike Kasey recalls. “But I made him make the final decision, because he had to live with it his entire life.”
On Nov. 16, 2015, Kody Kasey gave approval for doctors to amputate his right leg below the knee.
“Sometimes,” says Kasey, a devout Catholic, “God breaks you down in order to bless you. God broke me down beyond anything I could imagine with my leg injury. But then he blessed me even more. The injury is part of my testimony. It’s what allows me to touch people. I speak at churches, in camps. Little kids come up to me and want to say hello after games. Everybody’s struggling with something in life.”
We’re wishing Kody Kasey & Matt Myers a great season!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/1Sv85BCxyV
— Tom Phillips (@CoachTPhillips) August 23, 2016
College football staged 41 bowl games last season. Unless you’re Nick Saban, whose Alabama Crimson Tide seems to play for the national championship every year, these late December “classics” exist primarily as an excuse for fans to delay taking down the holiday lights. With first-round draft grades and millions of dollars at stake, running backs Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU might have started a trend by skipping their dear old alma mater’s bowl appearance to protect their health.
“I would never sit out of a game,” Butt says. “You can get hurt doing anything. You can’t just sit in a bubble all day. I love football.”
A fever of 103 degrees that landed Butt in a hospital during the days before the Orange Bowl begged him to take a pass on suiting up against Florida State on Dec. 30. Instead, he told Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh: “This is why I came to Michigan, to play in a big game. … Don’t limit my reps. I’m going to empty the tank.”
While running a route during pregame drills, Butt exhaled and blew out his two front teeth, recent cosmetic additions to his smile. He picked them up off the turf and laughed, thinking the gap-tooth look made him appear old-school nasty.
“I was literally leaving it all out on the field,” Butt says. “Blood, sweat, tears … and teeth.”
During the second quarter, with Michigan trailing 17-3 but driving into scoring range, Butt hauled in a pass from quarterback Wilton Speight and rumbled 16 yards toward the goal line.
“I stiff-arm a guy, turn around and get chopped right on my knee,” Butt recalls.
As soon as he hit the turf, Butt knew it was bad. He had blown out the same ACL earlier in his college career, and the same queasy feeling washed over him.
“My whole leg went numb,” he says. “My mind started racing. I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
In the locker room at Hard Rock Stadium, with family members at his side weeping and everybody else too shocked to talk, Butt broke the awkward silence by saying, “Somebody give me a piece of paper.” On the back side of a sheet that had printed directions for the Wolverines’ pregame routine, Butt calmly wrote down three choices about where his surgery would be done and began charting his comeback on an NFL journey that had not yet officially begun.
In his mind, there was an image that gave Butt peace: A friend, running on a blade, football tucked high and tight, returning a kickoff for Georgetown College.
His second T-shirt of the day drenched in sweat after a workout, Butt looks at his healing right knee and tells me: “I thought of (Kasey) when I did this and said, ‘I’m not going to complain. I’ll be just fine.’ ”
Within weeks after being fitted with a prosthetic leg in January 2016, Kasey was in the weight room at Georgetown, sweating profusely and dropping jaws by doing 36-inch box jumps until “he nearly rubbed the skin off the nub,” according to Housekeeper, who serves as the Tigers’ strength coach.
Last September, wearing the No. 10 for the black and orange, on the same field where Kasey had broken the bones in his right leg, he camped under a kickoff from by Ryan Curran of Faulkner University, nestled the ball close to his heart and ran 19 yards before being tackled. Kasey was back. Minus a large portion of his right leg, but made whole again by football. Before the season was over, he would return three more kicks for 79 yards.
Since writing a letter on Career Day in the sixth grade, when Butt declared his goal to play pro football, he has envisioned scoring a touchdown in the NFL. It can be a brutal game. But a twice shredded knee won’t stop him.
“You’re going to take a beating,” Butt says. “But without struggle, there can be no progress. That’s what I love about it.”
Before each home game during his final season at Georgetown, Kasey will take part in a school tradition and touch The Rock for good luck. Like his longtime friend on the Broncos, Kasey has a dream.
“I’m going to try to take a kick to the house. And I really feel like I will,” Kasey says.
Without closing his eyes, Kasey can see it now: Gliding the length of the field, all the way to the end zone. Untouched. Unstoppable. Unbroken.