To say injuries have hindered tight end Jake Butt during his NFL career is the understatement of the century. His second ACL injury came in his final college game and delayed the start of his pro career. Because of a third ACL injury and then meniscus surgery, Butt played a total of eight games during his four years with the Denver Broncos. Resilience has been the theme of Butt’s journey. With his rookie deal expired, Butt recently signed with the Chicago Bears. He agreed to share his journey here with the 33rd Team:
The Denver Broncos were so good to me during my first four years in the NFL, but when the 2020 season ended I was a man without a team. It was a long offseason of waiting. That’s the challenge when you’re not a sought-after free agent. You’re working out with this uncertainty hanging over your head. You’re waiting for a phone call and the longer you wait, the demons in your head start creeping in. The phone may never actually ring. That’s a thought you’ve got to fight off.
But I got the call last week to attend the Chicago Bears’ minicamp tryout. It was a three-day opportunity to prove myself. In the end, I guess I did enough for them to want to bring me in on their 90-man camp roster.
Sure, it was a challenging winter and spring as I dealt with the uncertainty, not knowing if I was going to get this second chance at an NFL career. But compared to what I’ve been through, this was nothing.
I can talk about the injuries, but it really goes back further than that. We can go all the way back to fifth-grade basketball. I was the tallest dude on the court. And I was athletic, too, so you’d think I’d be dominant. But I was really uncoordinated, not too confident in myself. I remember we were playing in this tournament. Somebody shot a free throw and I get the rebound right underneath the basket. I go up for a layup and I shoot it over the backboard.
It was horrible, just a really bad attempt. And I vividly remember parents in the stands chuckling out loud.
And that’s when I first felt it – that burning desire to prove you wrong. If you’re being disrespectful to me, I want to go out there and shut you up.
I don’t even remember if we won or lost that game, but I remember what happened next. It was pouring when we got home but that didn’t matter. We had a basketball hoop in the driveway and I just stayed out in the rain and took shot after shot for more than an hour.
I was never afraid to fail. But if I did fail, I was going to do what it takes to prove people wrong.
After a couple of years, it all came together – both in basketball and football. Over time, it began to click, and I was starting to get some college football offers.
Now, I’m from Columbus, Ohio. Grew up a Buckeyes fan. So I thought for sure I was going to go to Ohio State. But the Ohio State offer never came. I never thought I’d end up at OSU’s biggest rival, Michigan, but that’s exactly what happened. And I experienced plenty of success in Ann Arbor.
And then the injuries came.
As you reflect on the challenging times, you don’t always realize it as you’re going through it, but the best things that have happened to me in life have been the biggest challenges. When I’m staring adversity in the face, they seem like the worst things at the moment — but as long as you weather the storm, what I’ve found to be very true is that the most challenging times help you grow as a person. That’s where you make your most progress as a man, as a player. As long as you weather the storm, you come out the other side better because of it.
The stretch I had after I tore my ACL in the 2017 Orange Bowl was my next tough challenge. That sucked for a number of reasons. But I was not necessarily in a bad mental place then. I was able to overcome it. The rehab wasn’t that bad. Everything was routine. I missed my rookie year after being drafted by Denver, but it still wasn’t that bad. I was rehabbing. At that point it had been about 12 months since I played football.
We’re going into the offseason, heading into my second year with the Broncos. I’m healthy again. I’ve got big expectations for myself. I know Denver has big expectations for me. I continued to rehab and work hard. I come back for spring OTAs that year, and at this point I’m still wondering, “Can I play in the NFL?” And I knew that spring that I could, because I tore it up. And I got a little bit of a taste of it. That little taste of goodness was great, because I proved to myself that I could do this.
But it also set me up for a dark, dark stretch of months.
We go through camp and I’m our primary receiving threat at tight end. We’re going through our first three weeks and I’m playing good ball and on pace to have a very productive season. Everything’s looking good and I’m like, “Hey, I’ve never been hurt in my life, fluke injury in the bowl game is behind me.”
Heading into Week 4, we’re getting ready to play the Chiefs on Monday night. Big rivalry game. Everything’s great. They’ve got me flexed out, running a sluggo, in the red zone. I’m running fades, I’m running digs. And I’m starting to think, “I’m gonna outplay Travis Kelce on Monday night. I’m gonna put myself on the map and prove I truly belong in this league.”
It’s Thursday at practice and I’m running down on a kickoff, 18 months of rehab after my second ACL. And I remember it was a rainy day. The ground was a little soft. I go to make a move and the ground under my left foot just slightly gives way. I just hit the ground right away.
In all three of my ACLs, I knew it right away. You hear a pop. You feel like something in your knee just disappears and then your leg locks up. And you’re kinda laying there and there’s a shock of pain. It’s probably more shock than anything.
Walking off, I just knew, “Shit, I tore my ACL for the third time.”
For the first two ACLs, I was okay mentally. I was just like, “Screw it, what’s the next step? Let’s get to work. Let’s get this thing rolling.”
This one, before they even sent me for an MRI, I was in the training room throwing my helmet, saying words that I can’t repeat here. Crying profusely. And everybody’s just kind of staring at me. Because they knew how hard I worked. They were with me for a majority of the rehab; they knew how long a road it was. To have that happen right as I was hitting my stride.
I remember John Elway coming in and I couldn’t even look him in the eye. I just felt so horrible. He took a risk in me, he believed in me, saying all the great things that he thought I could do. This just sucked so much and I felt horrible.
Eventually, I was able to get my mind right. Surgery went well. I got cleared nine months after rehab. That was on July 16, 2019. We report for camp on July 17. On July 18, I re-injured my knee.
At this point I’m thinking, “Wow, my career’s over. This is it.” It was a very, very dark place to be.
I decided to try to go without surgery and just play with it. I’d be good for two or three days and think, “Okay, everything’s fine.” Then I’d re-tweak it and be down for a week.
It was back and forth like that and I’m going through mental hell. I finally got a stretch of like three weeks leading up to our preseason game in Los Angeles against the Rams. I was ready to go.
It was the first play of the game – and I didn’t even do anything, not even a violent cut – and bang, my knee locks up. I limp over to the sideline. Somehow I un-tweak it, get it decent again. I go back in the game. Yeah, maybe I’m okay.
By the time I got on the plane after the game, I couldn’t even walk. At that point, I knew I needed surgery and I’m like, man, just in a horrible, horrible mental place.
What’s going to happen now? Denver gave me an opportunity to get healthy and then this happens. Am I gonna get cut?
That period of my life was harder than anything I ever could have imagined. The mental hula-hoops and torture, the ups and downs, the emotions. For sure it was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.
Learning how to stay positive through these setbacks took some time. I was okay after my first two ACL injuries. After the third ACL, I just didn’t know how to deal with such poor emotions. It was rough. I wasn’t eating well. I was drinking too much, not doing the things I needed to do to rehab. I was just like, “Eff this. Whatever. I’m done with this.”
After I had the meniscus surgery, I read this book called, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr. Daniel Amen. I think he’s a neurosurgeon who specializes in the human brain. It kind of changed my life, made me realize how wrong I was for having these thought processes. It introduced me to journaling, meditation. I was doing this thing called neurofeedback – hooking up electrodes to your skull and you’re passively meditating and they’re trying to re-train your brain. I got back on my diet, got more sleep. Just got back into the fire – not looking for excuses or shortcuts for rehab.
It all goes back to proving the doubters wrong. My football career hasn’t come easy, but I welcome the challenges. My next challenge – my number one goal – is to compete and make the Bears roster this season.
When you see me take the field, you’re going to see how much love I have for this game, how much passion I have for this game. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spring OTA or the Super Bowl, I’m going 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. That’s just the way I am.