Would you cut off a leg to play foot­ball?

In­jured rookie Jake Butt is in­spired by a child­hood friend who did just that

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Mark Kis­zla

Butt is a rookie tight end, antsy to score a touch­down for the Bron­cos but un­cer­tain how long a heart­break­ing in­jury in his fi­nal col­lege game will force him to wait for a cel­e­bra­tory dance in the end zone. When he drops a bulky, black brace in the grass and lets it bake un­der the sum­mer sun at team head­quar­ters, Butt’s eyes burn with a 24/7 ob­ses­sion to get healthy enough to strap on a hel­met and join the Den­ver hud­dle.

Butt wants to tell me a story about the heavy price a player will pay for the love of foot­ball. There’s a tale from a wicked-aw­ful De­cem­ber night at the Or­ange Bowl, as Butt sat on the trainer’s ta­ble in the Michi­gan locker room, with two teeth miss­ing and his right knee swelling. Fam­ily mem­bers cried and a pastor prayed and the team doc­tor re­luc­tantly told him the dream of be­ing an early pick in the 2017 NFL draft was in tat­ters.

The story of pain and per­se­ver­ance by a 22-year-old tight end itch­ing to make his mark in Den­ver can wait, though. What Butt needs to do first is pose a tough ques­tion.

Would you cut off your leg to play foot­ball?

Butt knows a guy who did. “More peo­ple should hear his story,” adds Butt, his voice soft and ripe with emo­tion. “I get choked up. It’s such an un­be­liev­able mes­sage.”

His name is Kody Kasey. If all that sweet con­so­nance sounds a lit­tle like a hero ripped from the pages of Mar­vel Comics, then maybe it’s be­cause, in a foot­ball sense, he’s ev­ery bit as amaz­ing as Spi­der-Man.

Be­fore earn­ing his f irst dol­lar in the NFL, the sport Jake Butt loves wrecked his knee two times. “That’s the thing you like about foot­ball,” he says, gen­tly plac­ing a hand on his dam­aged right knee. “Only a select few can take that beat­ing. It’s an elite club.”

“My young sons look at Kody like he has su­per­pow­ers,” said Shan House­keeper, the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Ge­orge­town Col­lege in Ken­tucky, where Kasey is a red­shirt se­nior for the Tigers, who fin­ished with a 7-4 record last sea­son at the NAIA level.

Kasey re­turns kicks for Ge­orge­town. So what’s the big deal? He does it with foot­ball cleats taped to the pros­thetic blade on his right leg, am­pu­tated be­low the knee.

A freak foot­ball in­jury in Oc­to­ber 2014 robbed Kasey of his shin bones, the flesh and mus­cle of his calf, his foot and all five toes. Gone for­ever. Rather than di­min­ish­ing him, the am­pu­ta­tion forced Kasey to grow as a man.

“I know it might sound strange, but I don’t re­gret it. I love foot­ball more than ever,” he says. “I stand in the end zone, wait­ing for the kick­off … Am I scared? Never. As the ball is kicked and it’s in the air, com­ing in my di­rec­tion, I think: ‘OK, this is it. Let’s go!’ ”

Kasey and Butt have been bud­dies since they were 5 years old, bonded by foot­ball, Ohio kids who grew up in metro Colum­bus un­der the spell of the Buck­eyes, then be­came team­mates at Pick­er­ing­ton North High School. Butt caught passes and the eye of Michi­gan re­cruiters. As a de­fen­sive back, all Kasey wanted was a shot at any col­lege team that would take him.

“Jake Butt, he’s one of my boys,” Kasey says. “Jake has al­ways been the tallest dude in the class, even in kinder­garten. And crazy ath­letic.”

That ath­leti­cism is no joke. As a 248-pound, 6-foot-6 se­nior at Michi­gan, Butt won the 2016 John Mackey Award as the na­tion’s best col­lege tight end. The Bron­cos felt lucky to grab him in the fifth round, re­gard­ing Butt as a steal rather than dam­aged goods. Af­ter the draft, gen­eral man­ager John El­way in­sisted if not for an un­timely in­jury, Butt never would have lasted past Round 2.

He will be­gin train­ing camp, how­ever, on the non­foot­ball in­jury list. When will Butt catch his first pass for the Bron­cos? No­body knows for cer­tain. Is Butt bit­ter or anx­ious or fright­ened? No way. Stand­ing on one leg, catch­ing soft tosses at the team’s prac­tice fa­cil­ity, he thinks of Kasey.

“What he went through,” Butt says, “is 10 times worse than what I did to my knee.”

The date that shat­tered a young foot­ball player’s world was Oct. 14, 2014. Home­com­ing at Ge­orge­town. The foe was a ri­val from down the road, the Univer­sity of the Cum­ber­lands. Kasey was on the field for a punt and got en­gaged on a block. It was a rou­tine play, so mun­dane his father went to buy a soda. When Mike Kasey re­turned to the stands, how­ever, there was a cir­cle around an in­jured Ge­orge­town player, with a stretcher on the field and an am­bu­lance on call. He asked his wife: “Where’s Kody?”

The tibia and fibula in the sopho­more de­fen­sive back’s right leg were bro­ken in half. Dur­ing surgery, a rod was in­serted for sup­port. Kasey, how­ever, fig­ured he would be back on his feet in time for spring prac­tice.

Nine un­suc­cess­ful op­er­a­tions and 13 wheel­chair-bound months later, Kasey faced a de­ci­sion no foot­ball player ever an­tic­i­pates con­fronting. A stub­bornly vir­u­lent in­fec­tion was eat­ing his leg alive.

Af­ter con­sult­ing with physi­cians, Kasey sat in bed at Grant Med­i­cal Cen­ter back home in Ohio for more than two weeks, pray­ing for the peace and strength to ac­cept a leg that would never be fully func­tional or to take a more rad­i­cal ap­proach.

“I talked to Kody,” Mike Kasey re­calls. “But I made him make the fi­nal de­ci­sion, be­cause he had to live with it his en­tire life.”

On Nov. 16, 2015, Kody Kasey gave ap­proval for doc­tors to am­pu­tate his right leg be­low the knee.

“Some­times,” says Kasey, a de­vout Catholic, “God breaks you down in or­der to bless you. God broke me down be­yond any­thing I could imag­ine with my leg in­jury. But then he blessed me even more. The in­jury is part of my tes­ti­mony. It’s what al­lows me to touch peo­ple. I speak at churches, in camps. Lit­tle kids come up to me and want to say hello af­ter games. Ev­ery­body’s strug­gling with some­thing in life.”

Col­lege foot­ball staged 41 bowl games last sea­son. Un­less you’re Nick Sa­ban, whose Alabama Crim­son Tide seems to play for the na­tional championship ev­ery year, these late De­cem­ber “clas­sics” ex­ist pri­mar­ily as an ex­cuse for fans to de­lay tak­ing down the hol­i­day lights. With first-round draft grades and mil­lions of dol­lars at stake, run­ning backs Chris­tian McCaf­frey of Stan­ford and Leonard Four­nette of LSU might have started a trend by skip­ping their dear old alma mater’s bowl ap­pear­ance to pro­tect their health.

“I would never sit out of a game,” Butt says. “You can get hurt do­ing any­thing. You can’t just sit in a bub­ble all day. I love foot­ball.”

A fever of 103 de­grees that landed Butt in a hos­pi­tal dur­ing the days be­fore the Or­ange Bowl begged him to take a pass on suit­ing up against Florida State on Dec. 30. In­stead, he told Wolver­ines coach Jim Har­baugh: “This is why I came to Michi­gan, to play in a big game. … Don’t limit my reps. I’m go­ing to empty the tank.”

While run­ning a route dur­ing pregame drills, Butt ex­haled and blew out his two front teeth, re­cent cos­metic ad­di­tions to his smile. He picked them up off the turf and laughed, think­ing the gap-tooth look made him ap­pear old-school nasty.

“I was lit­er­ally leav­ing it all out on the field,” Butt says. “Blood, sweat, tears … and teeth.”

Dur­ing the sec­ond quar­ter, with Michi­gan trail­ing 17-3 but driv­ing into scor­ing range, Butt hauled in a pass from quar­ter­back Wil­ton Speight and rum­bled 16 yards to­ward the goal line.

“I stiff-arm a guy, turn around and get chopped right on my knee,” Butt re­calls.

As soon as he hit the turf, Butt knew it was bad. He had blown out the same ACL ear­lier in his col­lege ca­reer, and the same queasy feel­ing washed over him.

“My whole leg went numb,” he says. “My mind started rac­ing. I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve got to be kid­ding me.’ ”

In the locker room at Hard Rock Sta­dium, with fam­ily mem­bers at his side weep­ing and ev­ery­body else too shocked to talk, Butt broke the awk­ward si­lence by say­ing, “Some­body give me a piece of pa­per.” On the back side of a sheet that had printed di­rec­tions for the Wolver­ines’ pregame rou­tine, Butt calmly wrote down three choices about where his surgery would be done and be­gan chart­ing his come­back on an NFL jour­ney that had not yet of­fi­cially be­gun.

In his mind, there was an im­age that gave Butt peace: A friend, run­ning on a blade, foot­ball tucked high and tight, re­turn­ing a kick­off for Ge­orge­town Col­lege.

His sec­ond T-shirt of the day drenched in sweat af­ter a work­out, Butt looks at his heal­ing right knee and tells me: “I thought of (Kasey) when I did this and said, ‘I’m not go­ing to com­plain. I’ll be just fine.’ ”

Within weeks af­ter be­ing fit­ted with a pros­thetic leg in Jan­uary 2016, Kasey was in the weight room at Ge­orge­town, sweat­ing pro­fusely and drop­ping jaws by do­ing 36-inch box jumps un­til “he nearly rubbed the skin off the nub,” ac­cord­ing to House­keeper, who serves as the Tigers’ strength coach.

Last Septem­ber, wear­ing the No. 10 for the black and or­ange, on the same field where Kasey had bro­ken the bones in his right leg, he camped un­der a kick­off from by Ryan Cur­ran of Faulkner Univer­sity, nes­tled the ball close to his heart and ran 19 yards be­fore be­ing tack­led. Kasey was back. Mi­nus a large por­tion of his right leg, but made whole again by foot­ball. Be­fore the sea­son was over, he would re­turn three more kicks for 79 yards.

Since writ­ing a let­ter on Ca­reer Day in the sixth grade, when Butt de­clared his goal to play pro foot­ball, he has en­vi­sioned scor­ing a touch­down in the NFL. It can be a bru­tal game. But a twice shred­ded knee won’t stop him.

“You’re go­ing to take a beat­ing,” Butt says. “But with­out strug­gle, there can be no progress. That’s what I love about it.”

Be­fore each home game dur­ing his fi­nal sea­son at Ge­orge­town, Kasey will take part in a school tra­di­tion and touch The Rock for good luck. Like his long­time friend on the Bron­cos, Kasey has a dream.

“I’m go­ing to try to take a kick to the house. And I re­ally feel like I will,” Kasey says.

With­out clos­ing his eyes, Kasey can see it now: Glid­ing the length of the field, all the way to the end zone. Un­touched. Un­stop­pable. Un­bro­ken.

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Bron­cos rookie tight end Jake Butt isn’t afraid of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion for his in­jured knee — or run­ning up a hill to do it at Dove Val­ley.

M ARK KIS­ZLA

Mike Ehrmann, Getty Im­ages

Jake Butt, play­ing for Michi­gan, is at­tended to af­ter in­jur­ing his knee in the Or­ange Bowl. The in­jury prob­a­bly dropped him sev­eral rounds in the NFL draft.

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