John Butler, who helped build Buffalo's Super Bowl teams of the 1990s before becoming general manager of the San Diego Chargers, died of cancer April 11th. He was 56. Butler died of lymphoma, his wife, Alice, said. He was diagnosed with lung cancer on July 4, but that disease was in remission following his final chemotherapy treatment in late January, she said. Butler began feeling ill again in late February and doctors discovered lymphoma in his stomach, which spread to his liver, pancreas, lungs and intestines.
"We were sure he had it beat," Alice Butler said, referring to her husband's lung cancer. "When he was feeling ill again he said, 'Sometimes you just underestimate the strength of your opponent.'"
Butler was a tough, sometimes gruff ex-Marine who was considered one of the NFL's best talent evaluators. Hospitalized since March 13, Butler remained passionate about his job until the end. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer spent time with John Butler in his final days. "We were talking about personnel, about the draft. Mentally, he was absolutely on top of everything," said Schottenheimer, hired by Butler in January 2002. "I did not sense any anxieties at all. He was very much at peace. "He was the consummate football guy," Schottenheimer said. "Football, after his family, was the thing that was most important to him. We lost a giant here, both literally and figuratively."
A native of Chicago, Butler spent four years in the Marines and saw active duty in Vietnam. After his discharge, he enrolled at San Bernardino Junior College, then went to the University of Illinois, where he played one season on the offensive line before a knee injury cut short his playing career.
John Butler was an imposing man who fought his cancer with gritty determination and humor. Butler announced his lung cancer during training camp in late July, saying doctors warned there would be physical changes during chemotherapy, such as his hair falling out. Butler, who weighed more than 300 pounds, joked that he'd look like Tim Dwight, the diminutive receiver who has a shaved head. "Y'all won't know Timmy from me, will you?" Butler said. "We'll look like a couple of twins out there."
Butler shaved his head, but otherwise tried to divert attention away from his illness. He wanted no sympathy, saying he hoped to be as brave and tough as others fighting cancer. He said his job was great therapy. "Football saves me," Butler said the day he announced he had cancer.
Butler's last public appearance was March 7, when the Chargers announced the signing of wide receiver David Boston. Butler arrived late to the news conference, coming straight from chemotherapy for the lymphoma.
Defensive end Marcellus Wiley spoke by phone with Butler last week. "It's a sad day, but I'd feel selfish if I was saddened in this day, after talking to him last week and knowing that he was at peace," Wiley said. "Talking to him made me feel like, OK, as always, he's leading the charge and he knows what he's doing."
John Butler was a longtime smoker but said in July that his daughter, Andrea, now 18, hounded him into stopping during the 2001 season.
In Buffalo, former Bills special teams star Steve Tasker began to tear up when talking about Butler. "We just didn't believe cancer could kill him," Tasker said. "Today we got a slap in the face with reality. He's going to be missed."
Butler died two weeks before one of his favorite times of the year, the NFL draft. Assistant general manager A.J. Smith, a longtime friend and colleague of Butler's, will be in charge of the team's draft.
John Beake, an NFL vice president and former GM in Denver, remembered how Butler could be intense yet friendly. "He gave you that bulldog impression, but he was always very helpful," Beake said. "He was a straight-shooter and he had a big heart. He loved the game."
Butler's first NFL job was as a scout for the Chargers in 1985. He joined the Bills in 1987 as the personnel director, then became the team's general manager in 1993. He was in Buffalo's front office for all of its record four straight trips to the NFL championship game from 1991-94. The Bills lost all of those Super Bowls. During his tenure there, the Bills went to the playoffs 10 times and had a record of 140-83.
As Buffalo's personnel director, he was known for finding big talent at small colleges, such as wide receiver Don Beebe of Chadron State and defensive end Phil Hansen of North Dakota. He drafted Wiley out of Columbia, then signed him as a free agent after he'd taken over the Chargers in January 2001.
Butler built the foundation for San Diego's offense by drafting running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees. San Diego went 5-11 and 8-8 in Butler's two seasons, improving from 1-15 the year before Butler's arrival the Chargers now have a foundation in place to become a major contender thanks to John Butler, who sadly won't be around to see the seeds he planted bear fruit.