By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Darius Butler was a second-round pick by the New England Patriots in the 2009 NFL Draft. But one could argue his NFL dream wasn’t truly fulfilled until Nov. 8, 2012.
Butler made his first start for the Indianapolis Colts that evening — filling in for injured cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis — and his professional football career might never again be the same.
Butler intercepted two passes — returning one for a touchdown — and recovered a fumble during a 27-10 dismantling of the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road. He became the first Colt to record three takeaways in a game since Mike Prior in 1992 and just the fourth in team history since the franchise moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
Though he made just three more starts as the Colts rolled to an 11-5 record and an AFC Wild Card playoff berth, Butler set career highs with four interceptions, 101 interception return yards and two touchdowns. He also tied a career high with eight passes defensed and forced his first career fumble.
The good news for Indianapolis fans? The fifth-year cornerback believes he’s just getting started.
“Last year, it felt like I was still kind of learning things on the run,” Butler said this week in the locker room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “Week by week, I got more and more comfortable. This whole offseason, I’ll be even more abreast of things. And I should go strong into training camp and then full-steam ahead into the season.”
There was some doubt whether that season would again be spent with the Colts.
Butler was cut by the Patriots after two seasons and signed with the Carolina Panthers in 2011. He got six starts in 13 games and recorded 32 tackles. But he had no interceptions and was released in August 2012.
Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to help fill out a thin defensive secondary on Sept. 25, but Butler missed two of his first five game weeks with the team because of injury. In the three games he was on the field, Butler made four tackles and forced no turnovers.
It appeared his downward career trajectory would continue until that fateful night in Florida.
Though he rarely started, Butler became a regular in Indianapolis’ rotation after his big game. But with the team focused on re-signing Powers at the start of the offseason, it was unclear whether Butler fit into the Colts’ future plans.
Just as free agency was scheduled to begin on March 12, however, talks broke off between Indianapolis and Powers. He ended up following former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to the Arizona Cardinals, and Butler returned as a restricted free agent.
“It’s a crazy process,” Butler said of free agency. “The business side of things is always difficult sometimes. But I’m glad to be back. This is definitely the place I wanted to be, definitely feel comfortable here. Having a whole offseason under my belt going into next season, hopefully I can build on things from last season.”
Butler feels the same way about the team.
Indianapolis survived injuries, inexperience and even serious illness — head coach Chuck Pagano’s fight with leukemia — to shock the NFL world last season.
The Colts focused on adding new pieces to the defense in the offseason, and Butler is likely to begin the year as the nickelback with Davis and free-agent signee Greg Toler starting in the base defense.
That’s fine with Butler.
He hopes he’s finally found a home in the NFL, and he can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings.
“We were a lot of young guys just going through playing our butts off, and we got 11 wins,” Butler said of the 2012 Colts. “Rookie quarterback, new head coach, interim head coach, you don’t usually see that in this league. It’s tough to get 11 wins, and we’re definitely looking forward to building on that.”