JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s a Pro Football Hall of Fame class like no other for Jacksonville.
It features the adopted son (Tony Boselli) and the native son (LeRoy Butler) for a combination unlike anything the area has seen before. They will be enshrined with the game’s greats Saturday afternoon in Canton, Ohio, continuing a local trend that has seen area products enter the Hall at a rapid recent pace.
Five of those selections have come since 2018. Hayes, widely regarded as the greatest athlete in Jacksonville-area history, was the first local elected to Canton, earning the honor posthumously in 2009.
This class is different because of the two local men who are entering it together. They’ve become friends over the years, each elated for the other.
Butler (whose first name is pronounced LUH-Roy) embodies a slice of Jacksonville that so many people can relate to. He grew up as the ultimate underdog, poor and living in public housing, bullied because of his social status, and picked on because of the heavy braces on his legs that helped straighten out his legs and pigeon toes. Boselli came to town as the face of a rookie NFL franchise and made the city his home.
The underdog becomes a legend
Butler’s story has the framework of a movie script.
He grew up in a single-parent home in Jacksonville’s Blodgett projects, raised by his mother, Eunice O. Butler, and grandmother, Rosa Lee Durham, and guided by more teachers and coaches than he can even name. Beyond the social status, Butler’s physical ailments were more likely to derail his dreams of playing in the NFL than his living conditions.
Born severely pigeon-toed, Butler wore braces on his legs and spent time in a wheelchair to help correct his lower body. When he was bullied by classmates for being different, Butler channeled that into fuel. He has such a passion for his teachers and coaches of his early childhood because they treated him like they did other students.
“My teachers were amazing because they never made me feel like I was different,” Butler said.
His coaches were like family, too. Butler credits Hammond Gracy for encouraging him to get into sports and think about more than just football. Then it was the iconic Corky Rogers at Lee High who told Butler he believed enough in him to play both ways on the varsity team as a junior.
“Coach Rogers was everything to me,” Butler said. “Coach Rogers was the one that sat me down and told me that you got to college, where you’re from in the inner city, those kids going to look up to you. He said, ‘You’re going to do some great things when you go back to the projects.’ And he was right.”
It was Rogers who introduced Butler to Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. And it was the sales pitch of both of those men who convinced Butler that he could make it in college, even if he had to sit out as a freshman due to being a casualty of the NCAA’s Proposition 48 regulation and grades. Butler said that if Bowden were still alive, he’d likely be his Pro Football Hall of Fame presenter.
At Florida State, Butler’s most iconic play was the Puntrooskie against Clemson in 1988. But outside of that headliner, Butler was a dominant force for the Seminoles, parlaying that career into a second-round draft selection by the Packers.
As a safety in Green Bay, Butler spent 12 seasons in the NFL and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection. He had 721 tackles, 38 career interceptions and forced 13 fumbles.
For a guy who couldn’t walk without pain as a child and was bullied for his ailments, it’s only fitting in Butler’s story that he’s the player credited with creating the iconic Lambeau Leap.
Butler said that he vividly remembers the day the Leap was born. The Packers were playing the Raiders on Dec. 26, 1993, when Butler forced a fumble that defensive end Reggie White recovered. During the return, White broke one of his coach’s cardinal rules.
“Mike Holmgren always said, if you get a fumble, if you’re a defensive player, don’t lateral the ball. But Reggie wanted to do it,” Butler said.
“So, Reggie laterals this ball. I’m running down the sideline, and it’s all spontaneous. And when I jumped up there, hugging the best fans, well, I take that back. They’re not fans, they’re owners, because you can actually have a stock certificate to keep the team in Green Bay … And I appreciate that. So that was my way of loving the fans and hugging them.”
Butler has parlayed that into products like his Leap Vodka and Leap n’ Lemonade brands. He’s written a book and speaks out against bullying. He has six children and speaks proudly about all of them.
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The franchise star finds a new home
For Boselli, his journey was long and filled with close calls, highs, lows, angst and heartbreak.
His NFL career ended far too soon because of shoulder injuries, something he said still nags at him, but the biggest regret is that his father, Tony Sr., won’t be looking on from the crowd in Canton on Saturday. He was with or close by or a phone call away from his son each of the five times that Boselli was a Hall of Fame finalist.
That included Boselli’s fifth close call in 2021. That time was probably the most emotional of the misses for Boselli. With his father in declining health as he battled cancer, Boselli said that he knew it would take a tremendous miracle for his dad to be around for another Hall of Fame try. Tony Sr. died in May 2021 following a 10-month battle with the disease.
“I know he would have been just over the moon. So, selfishly for me, really more than anything, him not being here is hard. But I know that he’s proud, he was proud of me,” Boselli said.
“Doesn’t take away the fact that he was there every step of the way during my journey. But there’ll be a small little void in Canton without him being there, but I know he’s there in spirit and I believe he’s looking down from heaven smiling and proud of his oldest son making it to the Hall of Fame.”
Boselli grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and started playing competitive football when he was 9 years old — but 10 according to his registration form that day. That was the minimum age to play, so his father crafted a new birthday for his son so that Boselli could join. The NFL was never Boselli’s goal. He just wanted to make his high school team. When he did that, it sparked a football drive that took Boselli from Colorado to Southern Cal to the No. 2 selection in the 1995 NFL draft by the expansion Jaguars.
He was the blueprint of what coach Tom Coughlin wanted, a hulking and nasty presence on the offensive line that would hold down the position for a decade or more.
It came with exorbitant expectations that Boselli put on himself.
“Going into the game, I’m a nervous wreck every game I ever played,” Boselli said. “Just because I set that standard, and I knew I needed to be perfect.”
Boselli and his wife, Angi, came to Jacksonville, started a family (they have three girls and two boys) and never left. If Colorado was home, Jacksonville ultimately became his new one.
Boselli joked that fans probably weren’t too happy when he was taken because he didn’t play a flashy position (Boselli was drafted between running back Ki-Jana Carter and quarterback Steve McNair). But the trade-off for flash was dominance at the preeminent position on the offensive line.
“Being the first pick ever, I took that as a real responsibility. Tom Coughlin, Wayne Weaver and this organization trusted me in ‘95 to make me the first pick,” he said.
Boselli was the player voted as the best in Jaguars history by the media before the franchise’s 25th season. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro and played in the AFC championship game in 1996. Those credentials put Boselli on a path for Canton, although his longevity is likely what took him 16 years of eligibility to reach it. Shoulder injuries ended his career prematurely after the 2001 season and just 97 games. The expansion Texans selected Boselli in the 2002 draft but he never suited up for them.
“I hope I lived up to that [draft status by the Jaguars],” Boselli said. “I tried to every day, I’ve taken being a part of this organization in the city, post-career, as a responsibility to represent the organization and the city the right way. And to be able to do that now as a Hall of Famer is, it’s outstanding. It’s a big deal to me. And I’m honored to be the first representative from the Jaguars in the Hall of Fame.”
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