Beloved Bruin: Bruin country gathers to celebrate the life of Justin Butler tonight
Justin Butler loved football so much that before he entered his freshman year he had persuaded his parents to let him transfer to Bear River High School in order to be part of the Bruin football program.
In fact, Bear River’s current starting quarterback, James Harris, even helped his buddy make the case to Eric and Kendall Butler, coming over to the family’s home on a Lake of the Pines recruiting trip of sorts, in order to get one of his favorite Junior Bruin receivers on his team’s roster.
Eventually, Justin’s parents allowed their boy to pursue his pure passion for the pigskin.
Being a nurse, Kendall said, she was concerned about her son being injured, but seeing how much he wanted to play football through a couple of years of him bugging her about it, she just couldn’t say no.
“He was attending Forest Lake Christian School and he came to us and said ‘I want to play football, I want to play football,'” Kendall said. “I realized I had to put my own fears aside and let him pursue his dreams.”
Before Justin Butler passed away on Sept. 20, at the age of 16, he realized one of his own dreams on the prior Friday night, under the lights of Woodcreek High School’s football stadium. Taking a handoff toward the right sideline, the 6-foot, 155-pound wide receiver sped to the 2-yard line, where he was met by a pair of Timberwolves.
But he would not be turned away.
Plowing through the would-be tacklers, Butler blasted his way through to the end zone, despite losing his helmet in the fray. His first and only varsity touchdown of his career was the lone score for Bear River on a tough night for the Bruins in a 35-7 loss. But he put his passion for the game on display with that play, something his teammates and those who loved him will likely never forget.
It only seems appropriate that tonight, as his family, friends, teammates, teachers and coaches celebrate his life, they will do so at Bear River’s J. David Ramsey Stadium.
Talking with teammates, there didn’t ever seem to be any doubt that the Bruins would take the field last Friday night at River Valley. But after losing their friend and teammate so suddenly in his accidental death just four days earlier, one wondered whether it would have been better for Bear River’s boys to not rush back to action.
Sure, it seemed like a fair question. But, rest assured, it wasn’t one the Bruins were pondering.
“It was the only place I wanted to be that night … was with my team playing football – God’s gift to Earth,” said Brian Kenyon, a senior lineman. “We all knew that’s exactly where Butler wanted us to be. And we all knew he was watching us that night.”
Before they took the field, the Bruins had dedicated the game in his honor. They carried his No. 8 jersey out onto the field for the pregame coin flip. They drew “8” on their cheeks in eye black. And they replaced the traditional bear claw logo from the right side of their helmets with solid black “8.”
Their coaches wondered whether there was just too much pressure on their players, wondering how they would react if they weren’t able to win the game while still grieving the death of their teammate.
“You just didn’t know how they would handle it, if we didn’t win,” said co-head coach Terry Logue, adding it was one of the toughest nights in his long coaching career.
“All night long, over the headsets, Terry and I were just saying ‘We’ve got to win this thing,'” said co-head coach Scott Savoie. “It was exactly what these kids needed.”
It sure didn’t come easy. After falling behind 7-0 on the second play of the game, the Bruins seemed to have an uphill fight the rest of the night, even after tying the game by halftime. Twice the Bruins were stopped short of scoring, while deep in River Valley territory in the second half.
But like Justin Butler did one week earlier, driving through the tacklers at the goal line, Bear River kept fighting forward. And with 3:27 to go, Sam Houston’s one-yard touchdown run and Jack Tortorici’s extra point gave the Bruins a lead they were certain not to relinquish.
“I’ve never been so nervous for a football game,” Kenyon said. “I can’t even imagine what kind of a train wreck I would have been on Friday night if we hadn’t gotten it done. In a way, that game helped everyone heal so much. There was such a sense of relief.
“It was like ‘We can still function together’ – and not only in terms of football, but that we can make it in life, in general. It was so energizing, so great.”
It didn’t take long for the Bear River community to rally around Justin Butler’s family after learning of his death. Less than 24 hours after he died, Bear River students, faculty members and administrators joined in a candlelight walk to the Butler’s backyard swimming pool, where they embraced the family in a circle of candlelight and love.
“I thought when we talked about the candlelight vigil, it would be something contained to the JV and varsity football team and his parents,” Kenyon said. “But it turned into such a big thing that it was so great – not only for me and the team – but it must have been great for the Butlers.”
The show of support didn’t stop that night. Later in the week, Bear River honored its beloved Bruin with “Justin Butler Day,” in which students wore headbands, as he was known to do, along with turquoise, his favorite color, and his No. 8.
Students spent time together in Chris Bean’s classroom, grieving together and trying to smile at the great memories they had shared with their fallen friend. That classroom, and adjoining room, served as a sanctuary of sorts from the reality of returning to school so soon after his death.
“Kids would go to class and just couldn’t handle it,” Kenyon said. “So they’d go to that class as sort of a safe place to go. The school just did so well in making sure everybody was taken care of.”
Kenyon said a crowd of about 300 students filled the bleachers at River Valley “going crazy the whole game.”
“It was unbelievable to see how many kids made it to River Valley,”he said.”It was just unbelievable and they really helped us win that game.”
Support for Butler’s family and teammates didn’t end at the Bear River campus. While the Bruins were battling to victory at River Valley, Nevada Union’s Miners were doing the same at Elk Grove, wearing red-and-silver bands on their ankles in support. Schools across the Sacramento area held a moment of silence in Butler’s honor, including Placer High School, which observed a moment of silence prior to every Junior Bruins-Junior Hillmen youth football matchup last Saturday.
“Knowing they’ve got such support from our community is just amazing to me,” Kenyon said. “This was all about the Butler family, everything we’ve done with what kind of community this has turned into.”
Before every game he played, since his “Grandma Margaret” passed away a few years ago, Justin Butler wrote “8-5-07” the date of her death on each of his taped wrists prior to kickoff. And when he was fortunate enough to find the end zone for a touchdown, he would look upward and point to the sky as a way of recognizing his source of inspiration.
“He played his heart out for her every game,” said his mother. “I’m going to try and have that same passion in my life. He was a really good role model for me. He was a really good team player. And he was a really good friend. He wasn’t just a friend to the kids on the football team. He was my friend, too.”
Kenyon, one of his closest friends, said the love the Butlers shared for their son was obvious. And if he and his fellow Bear River students could help ease their pain by showing how much they loved Justin, whether with a “spirit day,” a candlelight vigil or even with a win on the football field, in his honor, that’s all they really wanted.
“After that game, I was hugging everybody,” he said. “But there was nothing like seeing Mr. Butler after the game and giving him a fat hug, as he said ‘Thank you, so much. Justin would be so proud of you.'”
Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.
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