Colonials to Chargers: Robb Butler’s life in football

Robb+Butler+went+from+playing+at+RMU+to+playing+for+the+San+Diego+Chargers.

Robb Butler went from playing at RMU to playing for the San Diego Chargers.

By Tyler Gallo, Copy Editor

Football has taken Robb Butler across the United States during his lifetime. From playing his college career at Robert Morris to signing to play in San Diego with the Chargers to coaching in Calabasas, football has always been a big part of Butler’s life.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Robb had humble beginnings growing up in the projects, and it was a friend of his that got him started playing football for the Carlynton Cougars. It was from there that he fell in love with the game.

“I had a friend notice how fast I was, and he thought I should play football,” Butler said. “I was seven years old, and I went to try out for the team scared out of my mind. I was terrible, and they put me in at right tackle, I was wearing #63 and wearing forearm guards.”

He cites football as the reason he stayed off the dangerous streets of his neighborhood when he was young, and his mom let him play football as long as he was watching out for his brother and continuing to do well in school. He remembers the practices and how far he had to walk to get there, walking from Broadhead Manor to Crafton-Ingram. He credits a few Pittsburgh greats that visited him during his second year of football that made him realize that he had a future in the sport.

“Bill Cowher was a Carlynton Cougar alum, and he would come to the games and do the coin toss,” Butler said. “A Steelers running back also visited our school that year, and that made me realize that being a professional athlete was a viable option. I am pretty sure I scored about 45 touchdowns in nine games that season [because of that].”

Following his youth career, Butler attended Perry High School where he starred on both the track team and football team, lettering in both sports and winning championships in both youth and high school football. He believes running track prepared him for playing defensive back in his career.

“Running track was something that gave me a leg up on my competition [in football] in terms of learning how to run,” Butler said. “I expected to win [these awards] in high school, but also put in the work so it was not a surprise when I won these awards.”

After high school, Butler stayed local and attended the University of Pittsburgh to start his college football career. He believes, however, that he would not have attended Pitt had some other schools offered him scholarships.

“Had Penn State or West Virginia offered me [a scholarship], I probably would have never gone to Pitt,” Butler said. “I also had offers from Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, North Carolina State, and Maryland, and if I had the chance to do it all again, I probably would have played at Michigan State with Nick Saban, but I decided to stay home at Pitt.”

Saban was recruiting him as a physical cornerback, but he says that playing physical was not the hardest part of being a cornerback.

“I didn’t know how to backpedal until college,” Butler said. “In high school, we played man defense, and I didn’t have to backpedal. As a 6’2, 190-pound senior and running a 4.4 [40-yard dash] in high school, I wasn’t afraid of anybody’s speed. Learning all the technical nuances of the position, however, was tough.”

Butler played through his sophomore season at Pitt as a cornerback, including deflecting a pass on the final play in the history of Pitt Stadium. After his sophomore season, Butler developed osteitis pubis, a condition that wears away the cartilage in one’s pelvis, making it harder to run and walk, and that sidelined him during training camp. After spending time undergoing treatment for it, he had lost his starting job, so he transferred to Robert Morris in 2001 where legendary head coach Joe Walton helped him make a name for himself.

Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

“Coach Walton knew who I was and the player that I could be as long as I was healthy for the season opener,” Butler said. “When the pelvis condition would flare up and I had to be in the training room for treatment for a few weeks, I didn’t lose my starting job.”

Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

To Butler, Walton was one of the most professional coaches he had ever met, creating a locker-room environment that mirrored that of Walton’s time in the National Football League.

“[Walton] transferred all of his framework and philosophies from time in the league as a coach and player from the NFL to a 1-AA mid-major college,” Butler said. “He was big on film study, big on knowing one’s roles and responsibilities. He gave me a lot of wisdom and nuggets that really helped me make an NFL team after Robert Morris.”

Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

Butler spent two seasons from 2002-03 at Robert Morris, redshirting as a wide receiver in 2002, and leading the team with 29 receptions for 459 yards. In 2003, he converted to strong safety, where he blossomed. He registered 84 tackles, two interceptions, nine pass breakups, and two forced fumbles which earned him First Team Division 1-AA honors. He remembers a practice moment from his two years here where the team hyped him up at the expense of Victor Akintimehin, better known as rapper Wale. Butler said they knew him as Vic or AK during his time at RMU.

“AK played running back on the scout team at practice and was very shifty. He got a stretch play, and was shaking the jockstraps off of our linemen,” Butler said. “He is on the right and I am on the left. He puts his foot on the ground to plant it and cut back and he was met by myself. I hit him so hard that he was flipping in the air, and the whole team [was hooting and hollering] after that.”

Following his time at RMU, Butler signed as an undrafted free agent with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, becoming the fifth Robert Morris product to sign an NFL contract and the third to appear in an NFL game. For Butler, coming from a smaller college that hadn’t sent a lot of players to the pros was extremely humbling.

“To be amongst Tim Hall, Hank Fraley, Tim Levcik, and a couple of others was quite an honor,” Butler said. “Especially with Robert Morris being a 1-AA powerhouse for as long as it was, it was just such an honor.”

Butler suited up for the first time with the Chargers during the 2004 preseason before making his NFL debut during a Week 12 victory over Denver. During camp, Butler played with the mindset that he was cut until the head coach of the Chargers noticed him.

“Coach Walton had told me I was not going to make the team as a safety, but on special teams, and played with the mindset that,” Butler said. “By the time we got to my first game, I knew what I was capable of, so it was time to show the world what I was capable of. Marty Schottenheimer was my head coach, and I came in with the rookie class that Philip Rivers came in, and when he called my agent and said I was the most impressive rookie in camp, I was filled with confidence after.”

Butler played five games during the 2004 season, registering three solo tackles and four tackle assists. He also received time on special teams, returning two kicks for 35 yards. Butler got the chance to play in the Chargers’ 2004 Wild Card loss against the New York Jets, a game in front of a sold-out Qualcomm Stadium where Al Michaels mentioned his name and Robert Morris on national television. For him, this experience was like no other.

“I had played in championship games before in my life, but this was nothing compared to that,” Butler said. “This experience was a little more ramped up than the regular season, so it was nice.”

One player stuck with Butler as the hardest player he had to cover while he played in the NFL, and that was former Pro Bowl wide receiver Santana Moss.

“Taller guys or heavier guys were easier to cover because they telegraphed their routes, like Tim Brown, who was easier to cover than Santana,” Butler said. “Santana would go from stopping on a dime to top speed in three-to-four steps, he was insane.”

Following his season with the Chargers, he signed onto the Ravens practice squad and was later promoted to the active roster. While he didn’t get into a game, the experience of playing with Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in addition to other great players which really stuck with him.

“Before I played myself off that team, I was running with the first team all spring,” Butler said. “Ed was my workout partner, and I was running with him, Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. They taught me beyond knowing what my role was and being an expert on the personnel we were playing next. They were reading opposing teams’ offensive coordinators. Those guys were at Harvard while everyone else was at community college in terms of studying tendencies.”

After Baltimore, Butler signed a two-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, and he says that Kansas City and Oakland were some of the craziest NFL cities he ever played in as a player.

“Kansas City is a very hostile environment, and so is Oakland,” Butler said. “You could tell in Kansas City how loyal they are to their team, and a distant second in terms of that is Green Bay.”

After playing in Kansas City, Butler headed to indoor football, playing with the Kansas City Brigade in the AFL, then went to the Erie RiverRats of the AIFA, and the Wheeling Wildcats of the CIFL. Adjusting to the level of competition indoors was interesting according to Butler.

“The speed of the game is much faster in the AFL,” Butler said. “You have guys that can hit the line of scrimmage quickly using high motion, and the condensed dimensions of the field make it a lot tougher. I felt like I was at my best in coverage ability when I was in the AFL.”

At the end of his career, Butler became a player-coach and cites that as a big reason why he got into coaching after his career. He felt he could run plays and teach the game a little better from that standpoint.

“I always respected coaches who played [football], especially those who coached the position they played,” Butler said. “Those who didn’t yield unrealistic expectations. Being a highly touted wideout and corner out of college, and running routes with Drew Brees prepared me. The transition to coaching was easy. I was a student assistant at Robert Morris, so getting to teach guys like Sherrod Evers and T.J. [Green] was an amazing experience. Even to this day, I can relate to wideouts and defensive backs better than most.”

Butler is currently the wide receivers and defensive backs coach at Calabasas High School in California and has been awestruck by the California high school football experience.

“We’re not from California, and having to move a lot due to the NFL and corporate moves, I have never seen anything quite like it is here,” Butler said. “The kids here are committed to training year-round, private schools are majorly important. I am just amazed at the level of talent here in Southern California, and the level of acumen here is incredible.”

Robb’s sons are at that level of football, and he has been happily passing his knowledge of the game down to them.

“I didn’t encourage my boys to play football, but I think they saw me playing it and wanted to try it out themselves and were good at it,” Butler said. “Everyone talks about trying to get bigger, faster, and stronger, but I try to teach them the mental side because I believe it is 90-percent mental, especially as you go up levels. Mentally from an X’s and O’s perspective as well as a positive mind. It is easy to let one bad play lead to one bad game, as there is a seed of doubt created because you got beat. It’s those things that will carry them further than all the training.”

While Butler has this advice for his sons, he also has even stronger advice for kids who are at smaller schools, like he was at Robert Morris, trying to make names for themselves.

“First and foremost, take school seriously,” Butler said. “A lot of guys are football players first and students second. If a player can get a redshirt and get a chance at his master’s, he should do it, because it is going to take him a lot further than his legs. In terms of football, don’t worry about stats, play with your mind, all the prep work will take care of itself. Worrying about the stats will drive you crazy.”

Butler has things coming soon on both the football side and motivational speaking side as well. You can follow him on Twitter (@RobbDavon) and Instagram (@RobbDavon). You can watch the full interview here.

Robb Butler has been all over the United States during his football career, and he was grateful that one of his stops was in Moon Township, wearing the red, white, and blue of the Colonials.