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A Matter of Life and Limb

Alcorn State's Butler has made an amazing recovery from injuries inflicted by a tree branch during Katrina.

September 30, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

From overhead, Mark Butler heard a frightening snap.

That much, the Alcorn State defensive end remembers.

He does not recall running from the sound, or the falling tree branch crashing into the back of his head, slamming him face-first into the sidewalk.

Hurricane Katrina had knocked him flat, generating the winds that whipped across Alcorn State's southwest Mississippi campus in the late morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, and throwing an oak missile into his path.

He was headed to lunch. But he would not eat solid food for another two months.

Underneath a limb so heavy that it took several of his teammates to lift it off him, nearly every bone in Butler's face was broken.

Blood splattered everywhere, and his friends feared the worst.

"He wasn't moving," said linebacker Jayson Williams, the first to see his teammate pinned to the concrete. "I thought he was gone."

And his face?

"You know how you smush a cake in?" said Williams, who also was hit by the branch but escaped serious injury. "His face was smushed like that."

Butler's mind blotted it out. His first recollection is of pleading with Williams, nicknamed Banner, "Hold me up, B, hold me up." He was sped by ambulance to Natchez, 45 minutes from Alcorn's campus outside Lorman, Miss. There, doctors ordered him airlifted to Shreveport, La., but the raging winds would not permit it. He would have to make the trip by ambulance, a four-hour ride.

Butler, whose family was unable to reach him for several days because of extensive hurricane damage in their hometown of Tylertown, Miss., eventually had five metal plates inserted into his face to hold it in place.

His jaw was wired shut, a tracheotomy tube inserted into his neck to facilitate breathing. For two months, he was fed through a tube in his nose.

Unable to speak, he passed notes to his doctors.

When, he asked, would he be able to play football again? They suggested he change the subject.

"We were all concerned about his life," Alcorn State Coach Johnny Thomas said this week, still a little shocked by what has happened since.

Butler is back playing. Better than ever, Thomas said.

Finally freed last November of the tubes and wires that had virtually imprisoned him, his weight having dropped from 230 pounds to about 185, the 6-foot-2 Butler headed straight to Popeye's for a bowl of mashed potatoes. In January, after sitting out the fall semester, he returned to school. But Thomas said something wasn't right, that Butler was "struggling emotionally" and seemed lost.

The lineman sat out spring practice, falling to third string on the depth chart, and Thomas all but wrote him out of his plans -- at least for this season.

But one week into fall practice Butler had reclaimed his place in the starting lineup, which is where he'll be today when Alcorn State (0-3) plays Morehouse College (2-3) in the Silver Dollar Classic at the Coliseum.

"It's miraculous," Thomas said. "He has stunned everybody."

Willie McGowan Jr., the Braves' defensive line coach, said Butler returned with a greater appreciation for the game and a more serious attitude. Though not particularly big or strong, McGowan said, Butler is confident and persistent. "You line him up," the assistant coach said, "and he'll give you all he's got."

Added McGowan: "He's pretty quick, has some God-given talent. But most of all, he's got the heart of a lion. That's the edge he has over most players."

Even Butler, who is second on the team with 19 tackles, is surprised by his almost seamless return.

"I feel like I'm back to where I was before the accident happened," said the sophomore health and physical education major, his appearance unchanged by the accident except for a scar running horizontally across his forehead. "I feel like I ain't lost nothing. I feel like I've still got it all.

"I wasn't expecting that. I thought I was going to have to start from scratch, but I picked up right where I left off."

Sometimes, he said, his face feels "kind of tight," but mostly he is unaware of the plates holding it together.

His weight is up to 215, slight for a defensive end. But he's working on it.

"I need to get back up to where I was, at least," he said.

He never doubted that he'd be back playing.

"When the hole closed up on my neck, I was ready to go," he said. "That's what I was waiting on, for that hole to close up. When it did, I was ready."

Williams, who has since left the team, can't shake the image of Butler pinned by the oak. He still gets emotional when talking about his former teammate.

"He's a soldier," Williams said. "He pulled through."

*

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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