The Washington Post

In Mitchell, rookie has inspiratio­n, a confidant

- BY NICKI JHABVALA

Shortly after he received a call from the Washington Commanders on April 30 and learned they had selected him in the fourth round of the NFL draft, Percy Butler’s phone rang again. This time, it was a familiar name.

Washington great Brian Mitchell was calling to check in on Butler — and to tell him he has a friend and confidant should he ever need one in Ashburn.

Mitchell, the former NFL running back who remains the league’s all-time leader in punt and kick return yards, knew Butler’s path well. Both starred at Plaquemine High in Louisiana. Both went to Louisiana Lafayette (known as the University of Southweste­rn Louisiana when Mitchell played there). Both were drafted by Washington. And to top it off, both became fathers just before their

rookie seasons.

“The whole time I was in high school, the whole time I was in college, everybody used to always ask me about B-mitch because we’re from Plaquemine and we had the same journey,” Butler said. “So I always knew of him.”

Plaquemine, a town on the Mississipp­i River about 15 miles south of Baton Rouge, has only about 6,300 residents, per the 2020 Census. For it to produce two NFL players who attended the same college and were drafted by the same team is, well, rare.

Like many small towns, the community is close-knit — as evidenced by Mitchell’s longtime relationsh­ip with Butler’s grandfathe­r, Tip Butler, whom the rookie safety has cited as a mentor. And though their connection has been brief, Mitchell and Butler describe themselves as close friends because of their shared journey.

“Once he got to my college, I started following him a lot. And then when Washington drafted him, I started thinking about that path,” Mitchell said.

The two didn’t meet when Butler was in high school, and they didn’t meet when he was at Louisiana Lafayette. But since the draft, they have had multiple conversati­ons.

“We have a very good connection with people down South — especially from my hometown,” Mitchell said. “So I wanted to make sure he had someone he could lean on.”

Added Butler: “I know if I need anything, I can reach out to him. We got that from home . . . so I can always call if I need anything.”

Until 11th grade, Butler was a multisport athlete, starring on the football field, the track and the diamond. He handled shortstop and center field for the Green Devils but admitted he played “the whole outfield.”

So it shouldn’t be a surprise

that some analysts, such as Chris Simms, viewed Butler as the best “pure safety” in his draft class, showcasing range, rare speed and an eagerness to hit.

Butler’s ability to play safety and nickelback in defensive subpackage­s drew Washington to the 22-year-old. So far at training camp, he has proved a standout in more ways than one.

Early on, Butler has been all over the field, deflecting and

intercepti­ng passes. His teammates, including the receivers who went against him, lauded him as a young player who has impressed.

“I want to prove that I can come in and learn — and I can play,” Butler said. “A lot of people were talking about special teams coming in. I can do everything at a high level.”

Defensive backs coach Chris Harris describes Butler as “football smart,” with the savvy to understand the game fully and be able to pick up the scheme quickly. He noted Butler’s speed (he ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the combine) and physicalit­y, traits that the Commanders seek on defense.

“Especially from the safety role and our back end, [we want] guys that can come up, guys that can cover, guys that can run,” Harris added. “The traditiona­l safety, like myself when I was playing, those days are gone and out the window. And so guys got to be able to run. You got to be able to match. You may not be able to cover all wide receivers, but you need to be able to match up and cover some receivers in the slot, and that makes you a little bit more versatile. And so he has those traits that we like in our safety spot.”

Butler also has special teams experience, which the Commanders covet. That is often a path onto the 53-man roster for young players, especially those at crowded positions — such as Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis and Super Bowl-winning cornerback Chris Harris Jr. And also Mitchell, a fifth-round pick in 1990 who played quarterbac­k in college.

Mitchell finished with a bevy of NFL records and ranks second all-time in all-purpose yards, behind only Jerry Rice. His success — and the hometown connection — has fueled Butler even more.

“It definitely just made me want to go harder,” he said, “to put more history into it for Plaquemine.”

 ?? JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Commanders rookie safety Percy Butler, left, has impressed during the opening days of training camp.
JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST Commanders rookie safety Percy Butler, left, has impressed during the opening days of training camp.

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