April 20, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The acceptance speech Jake Butt gave at an academic banquet on campus as the recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor came from the heart and combined both his strong academic and athletic influences.
He refined and rehearsed the speech with John Rubadeau, his favorite English professor, and the topic came from his soul-searching after suffering an injury in the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl that required right-knee surgery for the second time in his college career.
Butt said: "The theme of my speech was: 'What would I do if football was taken away from me?' So, I set the scene of when I went down in our bowl game. I remember walking back to the locker room with my mind just racing. 'What if that was my last snap of football?' Now, I know it's not. But it was my second ACL, and I was sitting there thinking that I had a world-class education from one of the top public universities.
"I'm literally saying my speech back to you now: I got to network with some of the most brilliant people from across the country, and I got to live out a dream playing high-level football here at Michigan on a national stage. I knew that if football had been taken away from me, I would have all of those things to fall back on."
The Big Ten Medal of Honor is given annually to two student-athletes, one male and one female from each member institution, who exhibit flair in both academics and athletics. Wolverine gymnast Nicole Artz was selected recently along with Butt, who graduated as a sociology major while becoming a two-time All-American and Michigan's first winner of the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end.
Butt also became the first Wolverine in any sport to win the Senior CLASS Award as the top Division I football player displaying outstanding achievement in terms of community, classroom, character and competition. He was very active at Mott Children's Hospital and with the Chad Tough and Make-A-Wish foundations and became a true friend to many of the children he's impacted, meeting them for dinners or at gatherings and often speaking with them on the phone.
Jake Butt and Alec Vorhoff at Signing of the Stars in 2016
"When you can impact somebody's life like that," said Butt, "it impacts your life."
Butt was the 39th Michigan football player named the Medal of Honor winner since the award originated in 1915 and the first since All-America defensive lineman Rob Renes in 2000.
"I was blown away when I learned that I won," said Butt. "There were plenty of deserving people to win that here at the University of Michigan. When they told me I won it, I was like, 'Whoa. This is crazy.' And then I came to learn that I was the first football player since 2000. That was pretty cool."
Football wasn't taken away by the injury, but it made him wonder that night in the Orange Bowl.
"All of a sudden," said Butt, "things changed. But that's life, and you can sit there and whine about it or get down on yourself. But it comes down to how you are going to attack it. My mind was racing for 10 or 15 minutes, and it was tough.
"I prayed, and my family came in to see me. Once I collected my thoughts, I told my family they had to stop crying because we were going to get through this: 'Things are going to be okay; they can fix an ACL nowadays.' "
Butt had the surgery on Jan. 10 at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
"I had it done by Dr. (Neal) ElAttrache, who did Kobe Bryant's Achilles' (tendon) and Tom Brady's (left) knee (in 2008)," said Butt, "and so I said, 'Take me out there.'"
April 10 was the target date to begin running in the next step of rehabilitation.
"And three months on the dot," said Butt, "I was running on April 10. I keep telling people, 'Hey, if I say I'm going to do something, don't doubt me because it just gives me motivation.'"
That also happened to be the day Butt gave his Big Ten Medal of Honor speech to fellow Wolverine student-athletes who also graduated with 3.0 GPAs or higher.
"Now, I'm just going to keep rehabbing," said Butt. "It doesn't matter what people doing mock drafts say. All that matters is what the owners, front offices, general managers and coaches think. I've maximized all I can. I've shown them that I'm rehabbing strong. All my interviews went great. They know that I'm a smart kid and that I care about football and that I'm a leader."
He said the latest date on which he's projected to be back playing football is Oct. 10, but he quickly noted that he came back much earlier than anticipated from the earlier knee surgery he had at Michigan.
Butt, who also won the Kwalick-Clark Big Ten Tight End of the Year Award, was a four-year starter who set Michigan career records for the most receptions (138) and yards (1,646) for a tight end.
Where he goes in the NFL Draft beginning April 27 remains to be seen, but Butt already knows where he's headed when football's over.
"I want to get into business," said Butt. "But something I learned in sociology from an independent study (course) I took came from a book, 'Savage Inequalities,' and it really opened my eyes to inequality in education. I read about one entire school that had only four or five textbooks, and they were outdated."
He credited his sociology professor, Michael Ybarra, with challenging him with that book and also for his overall influence.
"For me, I'll have a big platform, and I am going to try to make a difference," said Butt. "I can't fix the problem by myself, but something needs to be done. We need to make education more opportune for every single kid. If I can play in the NFL as long as I hope to, I think I can open up a foundation and try to make a difference. I've identified a problem and let me brainstorm to see how I can make a difference.
"I try to give back. I feel very grateful for the position in and feel very lucky and blessed. It's the least I can do."
He said Rubadeau has become a "dear friend" whom he talks with several times a week and occasionally meets for meals.
"His passion for English and teaching made me want to be a better student," Butt said. "He didn't like or know much about football but became a football fan. He's a fan of mine, and I'm a fan of his."
Butt is quick to thank everyone, and when he was presented the Mackey Award with his name inscribed on the plate at Saturday's (April 15) spring game, the nearly 60,000 fans in Michigan Stadium showered him with thunderous applause.
"It sent chills down my spine," said Butt. "That was loud, and I said, 'Holy cow, all I do is catch it when they throw it to me and try to block some people.' It was pretty cool, and I just wish I could've said thank you to the fans. I was hoping I could do that with a microphone.
"But, 'Thank you to the fans.' Those fans helped make the four-year experience at Michigan everything I could've dreamed of and then some."
Further Reading: Butt Mentoring Michigan Tight Ends, Ann Arbor Youngster (March 1, 2016)