Joe Bachie, Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams talk about the 2019 season David Guralnick, The Detroit News
East Lansing — The smile is never gone too long from Josh Butler’s face.
Whether he’s running around with his dogs and posting their adventures on social media, talking about dealing with cold winters in Michigan and or giving a teammate a hard time, Butler is usually smiling.
And why not? He’s got a lot to be happy about.
Butler has already earned his bachelor’s degree in media and information at Michigan State and is working on his master's. And he enters his fifth and final season with the Spartans as the likely starter at cornerback opposite Josiah Scott on one of the best defenses in the nation.
Life is good.
Of course, Butler hasn’t gotten to this place easily. In fact, he’s probably endured as much pain as any 22-year-old.
Back in 2017, just hours before Michigan State was set to take on Penn State at home, Butler got word that his father, Steven Butler, had died suddenly at the age of 51. Butler started that day and made it until bad weather delayed the game more than three hours. The down time had him checking his phone and feeling the effects of the tragic loss. He didn’t play after the game resumed but managed to make it through the season.
Fast forward to this spring. Butler’s mom, Ladrida Bagley, found out her breast cancer had returned. Butler headed back home to Dallas in time to see her before she passed away.
Two parents lost in roughly 17 months. A cruel twist of fate, to be sure, one that’s never far from Butler’s thoughts.
He wears his father’s crematory tag on a chain around his neck, and on his left shoulder, Butler has a tattoo of a pink ribbon remembering his mother.
But instead of letting it send his life in the wrong direction, Butler feels he’s responding the best way he can.
“I was a boy before but now I'm a grown man,” Butler said Monday during the team's media day. “I’m just more focused than ever and everything has been very detailed for me. I just feel like I’ve just got a lot more passion, lot more fight for everything that I want to do. Everything I want to do I just put my mind to and make it happen.”
It’s a remarkable response from a young man who was extremely close to both of his parents. Butler’s mother and father played critical roles in Butler’s life, instilling the work ethic and meticulous nature that has allowed Butler to excel in the classroom and on the field.
Defensive line coach Ron Burton recruits Texas for Michigan State and said you could see early on the positive influence Butler’s parents had.
“Josh right now is proactive, highly organized, intelligent, always asking the right questions, always pushing himself, not worrying about what he doesn't have and instead saying, ‘What can I do to make myself better?’” Burton said. “Josh is a guy that has done a lot of things on his own. He's had to grow up. He has been a very mature kid for his age from the start. When we met him, we went into his room and you see how spotless it is, you see every letter up on the wall and everything in its place. So we've seen a mature kid that you don’t often see at 18 years old, and that's hats off to his mom and dad.”
That attitude has helped the former four-star recruit persevere on a team that has been loaded with talent at cornerback. That talent has made it tough to get on the field regularly.
Butler played 12 games primarily on special teams in 2016 then got four starts at cornerback in 2017. He started five games last season, but injuries plagued him throughout the season. Now healthy, Butler is the easy choice to start the season in place of Justin Layne, who left early for the NFL.
The perseverance is paying off.
“It’s about the opportunities that you get,” Butler said. “I tell the young guys that if you have an opportunity you have to make the most of it, so the coaches look at you and know you can be the guy.”
Butler is getting that opportunity now because he’s persevered. He’s worked hard. That’s not a surprise from a guy who took a 49-hour bus trip to East Lansing for his unofficial visit.
That’s right. A two-plus day trip and he still knew Michigan State was the place for him.
“It felt like family,” Butler said.
It also helped the Spartans have a knack for producing NFL corners and Michigan State was a top school in forensic science, Butler’s first major.
Becoming the next NFL corner is still out there and he has long since given up on forensic science for his major, but that love of Michigan State has not waned. It was clear as can be to Butler as he struggled through the death of his parents.
“They definitely helped a lot, made me feel like I'm not alone, you know,” Butler said. “It gave me some strength and I talked about it to them. A lot of people on the team have lost their parents, so they would help with anything.”
Butler said he’s spoken publicly twice about what he’s been through. Once was to his entire team.
“There's definitely inspiration for our guys,” defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said. “It is definitely an unbelievable story. He’s a strong man of faith. The only way I think he could get through this is through his faith. But for him to go through what he's been through to get his degree, working on his master's, I think Coach D (Mark Dantonio) says it best — he's a kid that has a passion for what he is doing, and the rest of our guys notice it.”
They’ll notice Butler on the field, too. Sure, he’ll be cracking jokes and trotting around his dogs, but his focus now is on finishing his career on a high note.
He’s got the right approach.
“You just got to take it one game at a time,” Butler said. “You can’t take anybody lightly. You’ve got to go one week, one day, one minute, one second at a time. It takes hard work to get there and we have to put it together.”
Good advice for football, good advice for life.