LeRoy Butler might have played for the Green Bay Packers for 11 years, but being a professional athlete was a long shot for him. Born with club feet, he required braces from an early age to correct the condition.
"I remember being in a wheelchair and not being able to run and jump like the other kids," Butler said Sunday during a modestly attended speech at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Madison.
Unfortunately braces also made him a visible target for bullying. Butler described being picked on my classmates and called racial slurs. He sought consolation from his mother. "My mother said to me, 'God gives everybody power and you keep your power. Only you can give it away ... Don't be scared, ignore them.'"
Butler, who played strong safety, is perhaps best known for creating the "Lambeau Leap" when he jumped into the arms of fans after making a successful touchdown at Lambeau Field in 1993.
Less known are Butler's childhood trials growing up in poverty in Jacksonville, Florida. In his speech, Butler offered advice to a crowd of churchgoers and youth groups, using his own experiences to suggest ways children and parents can stop bullying.
Butler recently faced another round of bullying, this time from adults. In April, Butler tweeted "Congrats to Jason Collins," a basketball player with the Washington Wizards. Collins recently attracted national attention by disclosing his sexual orientation in a Sports Illustrated cover story, becoming the first active NBA player to come out as gay.
At that time, Butler had an upcoming speaking engagement at a Wisconsin church. The church's pastor abruptly withdrew Butler's speaking contract after hearing about his tweet. The pastor offered to renew the contract if Butler "removed the tweet, and apologize and ask God['s] forgiveness." He refused. Butler has since declined to identify the church.
After reading about Butler's reneged contract, Rev. Miranda Hassett of St. Dunstan's asked Butler to speak to her congregation. Although he did not discuss the Twitter incident, Butler's universal message of childhood resilience evoked a standing ovation from the audience.
Butler said that he focused on his dream of walking without braces and even playing sports. Butler made it his goal to become a professional football player. He took his mother's advice and ignored the taunting.
"She taught me to put these blinders on," Butler said.
Butler said bullying continues to be a problem, even more so in the digital age. He said parents and teens need to reconsider the ways they handle cyberbullying.
"Some people say just delete the Facebook or delete the Twitter," he said. "But when a young lady or a young man starts a rumor about you that you have nothing to do with and it's circulating, you can delete yours, but people will still tell you about it."
Butler offered a different approach to the problem. He encouraged students to counteract gossip by posting positive messages and achievements -- good grades and college acceptances, for instance.
"Put out good stuff and it will go away," Butler said. "You fight it with love."