Leroy Butler ’12 never allowed his circumstances to define him. Now he inspires others.
By Kathleen Parrish
When most students first arrive on Lafayette’s campus they want to know where to go for sushi, how to get to Target, and what there is to do in downtown Easton.
Leroy Butler ’12 had a different sort of question when he transferred to the College in spring 2008 to play football.
“Where’s the neighborhood nobody wants to go?” he asked Bonnie Winfield, then director of the College’s Landis Center.
Turns out the wiry linebacker from one of Florida’s roughest housing projects was looking to make an example out of someone at his new leafy East Coast institution. Just not in the way one might think.
“I want to find a young man and mentor him,” Butler said. “I want to let him know his circumstances don’t define him.”
Winfield was surprised. Then delighted. She looked at Butler’s 6-foot 2-inch frame, his oversized jeans, glint of resolve behind soft eyes. She had been looking for a Lafayette student who could connect with youth in the West Ward, a disadvantaged neighborhood about two miles from campus.
Butler looked like those kids. He talked like those kids. He could relate to those kids. He also liked to read and had graduated in the top five percent of his class.
She had found her man.
When Butler was born, he was already facing fourth and long. His mother had had him when she was 15; his father went to prison for murder soon after. He grew up in the crime-ridden Janie Poe public housing complex in the Newtown community of Sarasota, Fla.
While some of his friends died from overdosing on drugs and gun violence, Butler kept his nose in books thanks in part to his mother, Jewel Johnson, who wanted something better for her son. “My mom was very creative,” he says. “We would go to the grocery store, and she would say, ‘Go find the green beans. Which ones are the green beans?’” He’d search the shelves until he found them.
She also used bills as a teaching tool. When a stack of them arrived in the mail, she’d pretend she had no idea what they said and give them to Butler to read out loud. His grandmother, Mellowese Johnson, whom he calls “my heart,” played along too, having him read from a musty medical encyclopedia she kept at her house from her days working as a secretary in a doctor’s office.
He was 6.
“It was always education, education, education,” he says. “It’s kind of like I grew up in an impoverished environment, but I didn’t live an impoverished life.”
Butler attended Booker High School where he was not only a standout in the classroom but a star on the football team, helping the Tornadoes reach the state finals in 2006. The following year, Butler, whose nickname was J.J. because he was tall and rake thin like the character played by Jimmy Walker on the TV series Good Times, was named Defensive Player of the Year.
Every year John Loose, then defensive coordinator of the Leopards, scouted Florida high schools for talent, but few athletes at Booker had the grades to get into Lafayette. Fred Gilmore, then head coach at Booker, knew No. 45 was the exception and sent a game film of him to Loose. But not before talking up Lafayette to Butler.
“It’s an academically prestigious school,” Butler recalls Gilmore telling him. “It’s where you need to be.”
As for Loose, he liked what he saw on tape.
Butler ran fast and hit hard. He made every tackle. There was just one problem. “Leroy was very light for a linebacker, and I mean ridiculous,” says Loose, now defensive coordinator at West Point.
Nonetheless, he decided to pay the family a visit.
Butler remembers it clearly. “He sat on our couch and talked to my mom and uncle. What really sold my mom on Lafayette was he kept talking about academics. He had a copy of Forbes magazine that ranked Lafayette among the top liberal arts schools in the country. He never brought up football.”
A few weeks later, Loose brought Butler to campus, but higher football powers deigned the 145-pound Butler “too light,” Loose recalls. Lafayette had never recruited a linebacker who weighed less than 200 pounds.
Loose, however, was undeterred. Sure, the young man was thin, his shoulder blades jutted like wire hangers, but heft only goes so far. Butler possessed heart.
“I convinced Leroy to go to Florida State for the fall semester,” says Loose. “I told him, ‘Don’t play football, just eat and lift and do everything you can to put on weight. I’m going to get you in midyear.’”
Butler tried to do as Loose advised, but surgery for a torn shoulder muscle that fall had put a crimp into working out. He did “eat his face off,” but his warp-speed metabolism burned calories as fast as he could consume them. His grades were the bright spot of the semester, and Loose, true to his word, brought him back to Easton that January for a second meet-and-greet.
This time, Butler wasn’t taking chances. When he arrived on campus with his mother and uncle, he wore a jacket with pockets deep enough to hold 20 pounds of steel pellets he had removed from a weight vest. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the timing of the weigh-in.
“We walked around the whole campus with weights in my pockets, for like two hours,” he says. “I was tired.”
Then he stepped on the scale. It paused then blinked. 170.
He was in.
Naming Butler a Community Fellow was an easy decision for Winfield. It was a paid path into the West Ward, and Butler relished his role with Summer Nights held at Centennial Park in partnership with Easton Area Community Center. Four nights a week during summer, he and other Community Fellows organized games, played hoops, and taught skills such as hydroponic gardening to children and their families in the West Ward.
The neighborhood was also home to Butler’s 14-year-old mentee. They had met on the basketball court at St. Anthony’s Youth Center soon after Butler had arrived at Lafayette. The boy announced he was a gang member of The Bloods, but Butler was unfazed.
“He used to call me every day,” Butler says, “and sometimes I’d bring him to campus. He was like, ‘College is so fun.’ He had never met someone in college let alone been to one. People don’t understand the power of exposure.”
Butler also began volunteering at Easton High School, spreading the gospel of education, literacy, and careers to as many young people as he could. He still remembers the time a Puerto Rican girl asked why he was wasting his time. “‘College ain’t for us,’” she said. “I was like what? How is it that a minority student in ninth grade thinks college isn’t for her? I said, ‘How many of your daddies killed someone? How many of your mothers had you at 15? Your circumstances don’t dictate who you are. Look at me; I’m at one of the best colleges in the world.’”
Although he was making strides in the community and on the football field (he would go on to be selected to the All-Patriot League First-Team, receive the linebackers MVP, and lead his team in tackles with 91 his senior year), Butler was struggling in the classroom. Despite earning nearly straight A’s at Booker, he was unprepared for the rigor of Lafayette. “It’s like I got hit in the mouth,” says Butler, who was majoring in anthropology and sociology. “I was studying like crazy and failing classes.”
Failure wasn’t part of Butler’s lexicon, and he began working with Dana Filchner, then associate director of the ATTIC, Academic Tutoring and Training Information Center. No longer could he study for 30 minutes and expect to pass an exam like he did at FSU. “I had to change my study habits,” he says, and he credits Filchner for getting him back on track. “She was my mom away from home.”
Eventually, his grades improved and then it was senior year. St. Anthony’s Youth Center had created a job for him with the Weed and Seed program, and he was about to accept it. He was walking to Skillman Library to sign the offer when he recalled a class he had taken sophomore year with Rebecca Kissane, associate professor of anthropology and sociology, titled Poverty in America. “We had read that poor communities fail because anything of added value leaves,” he says. “That sunk into my soul.”
He turned down the job. “I have to go back home,” he told them. “I have work to do.”
That was eight years ago. Since then Butler has worked hard to better his hometown of Newtown. If you doubt his devotion to this historic African American community, ask him to lift his shirt—a tattoo that reads “Newtown” appears in large script across his abdomen.
When he first returned home, he got a job coaching football at Booker High School and working as the in-school suspension teacher at the middle school. In 2015, United Way offered him a job as community outreach coordinator, and he helped build a resource center in the Booker Independent School District. In 2017, he became development director of Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence (SCOPE) where he worked to provide affordable housing, workforce development, and emergency funding assistance.
In 2017, he received the Go Forth and Prosper Award presented by the Sarasota Branch of the NAACP and in 2018 was selected one of 26 participants in the Gulf Coast Leadership Institute along with CFOs, vice presidents, and founders of companies.
He’s now studying for his LSATs—he wants to use the legal system to help people in his community—and occasionally delivers motivational speeches at inner-city schools where he tells everyone who will listen that literacy is the foundation to success. “If you can read and write and command the English language, you do anything you want,” he says. “Reading provides avenues, and avenues provide opportunities.”
He also has a 6-year-old son named King. “I started reading to him in utero,” he says, although he doubts his son retained much of Race Matters by Cornel West. “He’s super-spoiled. He doesn’t have to grow up like I did.”
Maybe not, but he’s following in his father’s footsteps.
King recently won the principal’s award for outstanding academics and conduct at his elementary school, is an avid reader of National Geographic Kids magazine and is sought after by coaches to play on their Pop Warner teams. There’s time for football later, Butler says. Right now he wants King to focus on school.
As for the neighborhood where no one wants to go? Turns out it’s not the West Ward or even the roughest spots of his hometown.
There is no such place. Not as long as there’s a Leroy Butler.