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Butler recalls when Steelers cut Unitas at St. Bona

By Tim Graham

CANTON, Ohio -- They drove from Pittsburgh to Olean in 1955, two young Steelers trying to make their marks with the hometown team.

Behind the wheel was an undrafted defensive back who didn't play high school football. In the passenger seat was a rookie quarterback who couldn't get any reps in practice and was about to get cut on the St. Bonaventure University campus.

Neither of them could've imagined that half a century later their bronze busts would be on display together in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The driver was Jack Butler, who will be inducted Saturday night.

Riding shotgun was Johnny Unitas.

Butler, a St. Bonaventure alum, recalled the story for me. At the time, Butler was an established player but had yet to be selected for any of his four Pro Bowls. Unitas was a ninth-round draft choice who might as well've been invisible.

The Steelers held training camp on the St. Bonaventure campus.

"Walt Kiesling is the head coach," Butler said. "He's from the 1700s. If you weren't bleeding and hurt and had a broken arm or something, then there was something the matter with you.

"We played a preseason game in Pittsburgh. Coach said you could drive back because we were going to break camp at St. Bonnies and come back to Pittsburgh and start the regular season. So John and I are both from Pittsburgh, and we ride back to Olean together.

"We drive up to St. Bonnies and park the car. We had to be there in time for the team dinner. We're walking over to the dinner hall and Big Kies was standing there. He calls John over and cut him right there. Why didn't he cut him when we were in Pittsburgh? Now he has to drive all the way back to Pittsburgh."

The Steelers cut Unitas to keep one of Butler's best friends, St. Bonaventure teammate Ted Marchibroda. The third quarterback, Vic Eaton, also was Pittsburgh's punter.

Even so, Butler was stunned the Steelers let Unitas get away.

Because Unitas couldn't get any reps, Butler would volunteer to stay after practice and run routes for him. Butler, a star receiver at Bona, never gave up the idea of catching passes in the NFL. He loved the position, and the Steelers would use him there occasionally. Over Butler's nine-year career, he caught seven passes, four of them for touchdowns.

It was through those impromptu workouts that Butler, who would become a highly respected scout after his playing days, saw that Unitas was special -- even if Kiesling did not.

"He'd throw to anybody because they never let him do anything during practice," Butler said. "I ran all sorts of patterns, and he threw the hell out of the ball with that strong arm. And I never could figure out why he never got into practice.

"One time he said, 'I think they're going to cut me,' and I said 'How the hell can they?'

"But that was it. He goes to Baltimore and look what happens."

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | [email protected]


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | [email protected]


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | [email protected]

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