Craig Butler got down on the gymnasium floor at Regina Mundi elementary earlier this week to take part in a push up “competition” between his Hamilton Tiger-Cat teammates and some students from the school. The Ticats “lost” but Butler didn’t seem to mind.
A year ago, at the same school launching the same community program – the BeFit campaign in support of healthy eating and exercise – Butler was hobbling around with the use of a cane. His knee had been surgically repaired once and he was facing a second procedure that would ultimately force him to miss the entire 2016 CFL campaign.
Butler’s knee issues actually began in the second half of 2015, when he played the last 11 games on what doctors would later determine was a partially torn ACL. It’s an injury that should put him on the sidelines but instead, Butler finished the year and was named an CFL all-star at safety.
“I had pain but I was able to play at a level that would still help the team so I kept going,” he said. “It did not feel good.”
The 28-year-old has his second operation last May, two weeks before the start of training camp and knew that, barring a miracle, he’d be relegated to role of part-time coach and full-time rehab patient for the entire season.
“When you’re not playing, you kind of feel like an outsider. You’re kind of in football purgatory when you’re injured, there but not there,” Butler said. “I helped out where I could, another set of eyes and ears for guys. I was a resource as much or as a little as anyone wanted me to be.”
If his role on the team was somewhat diminished, his activities in the community were not. Butler has been one of the Ticats’ most visible representatives since joining the team as a free agent before the 2014 season, doing dozens of school appearances, football clinics and hospital visits year ’round.
“You don’t have to make cuts, back pedal and tackle guys at a school – it’s a pretty easy thing to do compared to playing football,” he said. “I know it sounds cliche but being able to give back to the community is one of my favourite parts about being a professional athlete.”
The Ticats BeFit program has been around since 2010 and has now reached more than 80,000 students across the Hamilton area. It features Ticat players conducting a short, high-energy presentation on the value of exercise and good food choices and will include the first ever BeFit Day at Tim Hortons Field during a June 16 pre-season game.
“Kids kind of hang to every single word and eating healthy and getting exercise is such a simple message,” Butler said. “They’re listening not because it’s me telling them but because I’m a Hamilton Tiger-Cat.”
Butler says the knee is back to about 90 per cent and he expects to be cleared for full participation in training camp. Whether he returns to his old spot at safety – where Courtney Stephen played last season – or finds another role is of little consequence at this point.
“Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do it and flourish. I just had a season where I didn’t take any hits to my shoulder, my chest, my neck, my head,” Butler said. “The rest of my body feels better than it ever has.”
Must be all the healthy eating and exercise.