As two dozen rookies concluded their first workout at sun-high noon Saturday, only one new Broncos player remained on the field at Dove Valley.
The tall (6-foot-53/8), chiseled (246 pounds) young man in orange jersey No. 80 — worn in the franchise’s proud past by Broncos Super Bowl wide receivers Rod Smith, Rick Upchurch and Mark Jackson — lined up at the tight end position while assistant coach Bill Musgrave stood at quarterback.
Jake Butt hobbled 5 yards, turned 180 degrees and caught an imaginary ball.
“I want to practice with everybody else. My health is most important now, but I’ll be there in training camp,” Butt told me a few minutes later as we sat on a bench and compared knee injuries — his a torn anterior cruciate ligament, mine a torn meniscus. Butt’s had one of those, too, and tore his right ACL the first time in 2014, and again in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30.
The second serious injury (which also caused nerve damage) prevented Butt from being drafted in the first or second rounds and cost him millions of contract dollars. The Broncos took a calculated risk on the John Mackey Award winner (college football’s best tight end) in the fifth round.
“I don’t play football for fame or money. I do it because I love the game.”
After his freshman season at Michigan — he started eight games and, against Ohio State, caught five passes for 85 yards and a touchdown — Butt was doing routine offseason drills in February when the knee buckled.
“Doctors said rehab would take, on average, eight or nine months. But I’m not average,” he said without hint of ego. “I knew Notre Dame was second on the schedule (Sept. 7), and I was determined to play in that game.”
He played against the Irish just six months after surgery.
So, if Butt says he will be good to go in training camp in late July with the Broncos, expect it.
The first word Jonathan Duane “Jake” Butt (born on July 11, 1995) ever uttered, according to his father, Rob, was “ball.” Jake’s grandfather played for the Fighting Irish in the 1940s, and Rob was a rugby player at Cincinnati. However, Jake was a skinny soccer player until the sixth grade. “My mom picked me up after school, and I was talking about soccer season. She said we were going to try football. And from the first day, I loved it.”
The family is from Pennington, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, and about 30 minutes from the Ohio State campus and stadium. Obviously, the Butts were Buckeye fans, and Jake was an all-state tight end with 68 receptions for 907 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Neither Ohio State nor Notre Dame offered him a scholarship.
So Butt visited Michigan on the weekend the Wolverines played Ohio State (and lost in the final seconds 42-41).
In his junior season, Jake earned All-American honors and was projected as an early draft choice if he opted out. “I wanted to return for my senior year and graduate with my teammates. I wanted to be a captain. I wanted to have a chance at a national championship.”
He now possesses a degree in sociology. He was named captain.
And the Wolverines won their first nine games before losing to Iowa by a point and Ohio State by three in double overtime.
When Jake chose to play one more season in Ann Arbor, he and Rob discussed purchasing insurance policies for disability ($4 million) and loss-of-value ($2 million). “If you drive a car, you must have insurance. I didn’t have any money. My dad took out a (sizable) loan,” said Butt, who previously had declined to talk about the subject until our conversation Saturday.
Butt never thought for a moment about sitting out the Orange Bowl.
In the second quarter, he went down and limped off, with another torn ACL. His soaring NFL stock dropped immediately. “I wouldn’t change any of my decisions,” he said.
When Butt wasn’t drafted by the middle of the third round, the loss-of-value payoff of $10,000 per pick cut in. The Broncos ended the suspense on the last day at the 145th pick.
Butt will collect $543,000 (tax free) from the policy, and on Thursday, he signed a four-year, $2.8 million deal, with a $300,938 bonus.
“I paid back my dad last week with my own money,” Jake said proudly.
Broncos Empire hopes that Jake Butt will become the team’s most superlative selection steal of a tight end since the seventh round of 1990.
Shannon Sharpe wasn’t average.