How I Became a Michigan Man
First things first. Let’s address the elephant in the room.
Or, in this case, the Butt in the room.
Yes, my name is Jake Butt.
Yes, I play tight end.
Yes, I’ve heard every butt joke known to man.
If you don’t think so, try me. I’m on Twitter, @JakeButtTE. Send me your best butt jokes or Sir Mix-A-Lot lyrics. I’m always up for it. I never get tired of hearing them.
Honestly, I used to hate my last name. I got picked on and made fun of a lot growing up. When I was just a skinny, little kid in the third grade, I got into a fight with a bully because he wouldn’t stop making butt jokes. I went home and told my dad, “When I grow up, I’m gonna change my last name.”
“Jake,” he said, “you’re gonna love your last name one day. Trust me.”
I didn’t believe him.
“You just gotta learn to laugh at it, son.”
I really had no choice but to take my dad’s advice once I started playing football and became a tight end. I thought, O.K., Jake Butt, the tight end. Now I’m really gonna get it.
And you know what? My dad was right. I love my name now. Not only has it taught me to laugh at myself and to not take myself too seriously, but it’s also become my greatest marketing tool. I mean, who doesn’t love a good butt joke?
I’m also proud of it — proud of my family and proud of it’s small place in the history of Michigan football.
My four years in Ann Arbor have been nothing short of incredible. I’m proud to say that I’ll be a Michigan Man until the day I die — which is funny, because I grew up 15 minutes away from Ohio Stadium in a house full of die-hard Buckeyes fans.
When I was growing up, our family would gather in our basement on football Saturdays to watch Ohio State. We had a real man cave, too. There was a big-screen TV, a pool table and a little bar, and the whole room was decked out in scarlet and gray. Above the bar, there was a photo of the final play of the 2002 national championship game — linebacker Cie Grant bringing down Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey, forcing the incomplete pass that sealed the Buckeyes’ overtime win. The photo was my dad’s prized possession, commemorating the moment when his team won it all.
Ohio State was always my No. 1 team. But Notre Dame was my No. 2 because my grandfather, Bob Lally, played there. In three years with the Fighting Irish he never lost a game and won two national titles. He’d never lost a game in high school either. In high school and college he won 63 straight games — a fact that got him featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! He was a legend.
So he’s the reason Notre Dame was my No. 2 behind Ohio State.
When I started getting recruited to play college football, I didn’t really know anything about Michigan. All I knew about the Wolverines was that my family didn’t like them much because we were Buckeyes fans. I knew there was something between Michigan and the Fighting Irish, but I didn’t really see it as a rivalry. I really didn’t know much about it.
Then, when I was a recruit as a junior, I got invited to two games on the same day: Notre Dame at Michigan, and Alabama at Penn State. I talked it over with my dad, and for some reason, even though Notre Dame was my No. 2 team, I was really jacked about going to the Penn State game.
My dad’s best friend is a huge Wolverines fan. And when he found out I wanted to go to the Penn State game, he said to me, “Uhhhh, dude … you’re gonna want to go to Notre Dame vs. Michigan. Trust me.”
My dad agreed, so I trusted them and decided to accept the invitation to the Big House. Notre Dame vs. Michigan, Saturday night, under the lights.
At first, it was kind of a weird game. The Irish got out to an early 14–0 lead and went up 24–7 in the second half. But then the Wolverines came back in the fourth quarter. Denard Robinson scored on a one-yard run, and then threw TD passes to Jeremy Gallon and Vincent Smith. Suddenly the Wolverines were leading 28–24 with 1:12 left, and I kind of felt myself actually rooting for them.
But the moment when they really had me was after the Irish scored to retake the lead 31–28 with 30 seconds left, and Denard took the Wolverines 80 yards in three plays, the last a 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with 0.02 seconds left.
Standing down on the field, I looked around at the 110,000-plus fans in the stands going absolutely crazy, and I could feel the energy pulsing through me. It was so loud that it literally shook my bones.
I thought, O.K., Michigan. You have my attention.
Later that season, I got invited to the Ohio State–Michigan game at the Big House, where the Wolverines sealed the win with a late interception.
That’s when I started to realize that Ann Arbor was a special place. That’s when I really found myself rooting for Michigan — even against my hometown team.
Notre Dame didn’t really recruit me that aggressively, and even though Ohio State invited me to its Junior Day and to a couple of games, I never felt like the Buckeyes were serious about me either. And one thing my high school coach told me about recruiting was that if a school didn’t offer me early on, it meant they had a lot of guys they wanted before me. He told me to pick a school where I was a top priority because that school would give me the chance I deserved.
I had started to feel like Michigan was that school.
In February 2012, Michigan invited me back for a third time, to Junior Day. It actually turned out to be one of the biggest recruiting weekends in Michigan history. A bunch of offensive line prospects committed that weekend, and Taco Charlton, who was one of the top recruits in the country at defensive end, and who went to my high school’s crosstown rival in Pickerington, Ohio, also committed that weekend. So Michigan was landing top recruits left and right, and the future was looking bright.
When I got home, I told my dad, “I want to win a national championship, and it seems like everything’s falling into place at Michigan. I want to commit.”
My dad, wise as he is, wanted me to slow down a bit.
“Sleep on it, Jake,” he said. “Let’s see how you feel in the morning.”
He was right. It was a big decision, not something to be rushed. I needed to take my time. So I slept on it.
The next morning, I woke up and ran straight to my dad.
“I slept on it, and I’m ready. Let’s hop on board! Let’s seal the deal!”
That day, I called Michigan coach Brady Hoke and committed.
A few other top guys also committed that week, and soon I was a part of one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. And just like that, the kid from a family of Buckeyes fans, and whose grandfather was basically a Notre Dame legend, had somehow become a Wolverine.
I had three goals — aside from graduating, of course — when I got to Ann Arbor. One was to win a national championship. That’s why you play the game. One of the major reasons I chose Michigan is because I felt like we had a great opportunity to do that.
Another goal was to beat Ohio State, because when you play at Michigan — whether you’re an Ohio boy like me or not — that’s always the goal.
And another goal I had was to fulfill my Papa’s dying wish.
My grandfather had died in 2008 from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. His will stated that he wanted his ashes spread on the field at Notre Dame Stadium.
When I committed to play at Michigan, I knew I would get a chance to play in South Bend. My freshman year, the Irish came to Ann Arbor. I caught a couple of passes and we came away with the win. My sophomore year, the second game on the schedule was at Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame football tradition goes back generations. So my Papa wasn’t the first fan or alum to want his ashes spread on that field. It’s such a common request, in fact, that the school forbids it. So I knew my only chance would be on game day, when I went into South Bend as a Wolverine.
Coming off a solid freshman season, I had high expectations for my sophomore year. I had put in a lot of extra work in the off-season, both in the weight room and in players-only workouts, when we mostly worked on route-running and timing.
In February, during one of those workouts, I ran a route toward the front corner of the end zone. I came out of my break and turned to look for the ball. Just as the ball got to me, my right foot hit the ground, and as soon as it hit, I felt a pop in my knee and immediately went down.
The second it happened, I knew.
I said to myself, I just tore my ACL.
This couldn’t be happening, right? It was nobody’s fault, just a freak accident — one that requires a six-to-eight month recovery, if everything goes well. The Notre Dame game was just over six months away. Making it back for that game would really be pushing it.
After I was officially diagnosed, I asked the trainers what the fastest recovery they had seen from a torn ACL had been, and they said seven months.
“I’ll be back in six,” I said.
The night after my surgery, at about 2 a.m., I woke up in the worst pain of my life. I couldn’t lift my leg even an inch, and my knee was so swollen that I could push my finger into my shin all the way down to the first knuckle. And when I pulled it away, it left a huge dent in my skin that stayed there for a few seconds before the swelling readjusted and filled it back in. Since I couldn’t move my leg, I took the arm of my crutch and hooked it around the bottom of my foot so I could pull it off the bed, and as I stood my leg upright, I could feel gravity pull the swelling down to the ground, like my leg was melting.
I called my dad every night, just for advice, and he always said the same thing.
“You can sit around and feel sorry for yourself, or you can keep working. Your choice.”
I took that to heart. Within a week of my surgery, I was able to raise my leg. The doctors set little goals for me, like being able to hold my leg out straight for certain periods of time, and I made it a point to try to beat their goals, even by a little bit. I was doing extra rehab in my dorm room at night. Eventually I could balance on one leg, and do calf stretches that put more and more pressure on my knee — however far I could push without feeling pain, that’s how far I would push.
By July, five months removed from surgery, I was back on the field, running gassers in tennis shoes with the other guys, and winning. I started doing agility drills — still in tennis shoes because the trainers thought cleats would put too much stress on my knee — and I was keeping up with everybody. By the time I put cleats back on, I was winning just about every drill. I had also started to regain the most difficult thing to get back after a major injury.
Other than the awkwardness of the knee brace, I felt like my old self again. By the time the first game of the season came around — a little less than six months after my surgery — I had been participating in contact drills and taking full-speed reps with the first-team offense. I was nervous, and a little shaky, but I was working the kinks out.
I tried to convince the coaches to let me play in our first game, but they held me out.
Then, when we came in on Sunday after beating Appalachian State 52–14, Coach Hoke told me that they were going to limit me to only a few plays in Week 2 — but that I was going to play.
Against Notre Dame. In South Bend.
I immediately called my dad.
“Send Papa’s ashes,” I said. “I’m playing this week!”
That Wednesday, I got a package in the mail. It was marked FRAGILE. Inside was a ziplock bag, triple wrapped to make sure it wouldn’t open accidentally. Inside the bag: my Papa’s ashes.
When we arrived at the stadium on Saturday, I grabbed the bag and walked out to the 50-yard line. There, standing in the center of a mostly empty stadium, I pulled apart the top of the bag and fulfilled my Papa’s dying wish, spreading his ashes on the field where he never had lost a game. And as his ashes hit the turf, my dad took a picture of me. In the photo, there’s a light shining on me from directly above.
We believe it’s my Papa saying, Thank you.
It was a special moment for me because of my Papa, but also because of all the work I had done in the six months leading up to that moment that made it possible.
We didn’t win that day. I played only five or six snaps, and we lost 31–0.
And my Papa remained undefeated at Notre Dame Stadium.
When Michigan visits Columbus on Saturday, a family at a house about 15 minutes down the road from Ohio Stadium will gather in its basement, like it has every Saturday for as long as I can remember, to watch the game.
But in the last four years, that basement has changed.
The pool table is still there. The bar is still there. But the photo above the bar has been taken down, either thrown away or tossed in the attic somewhere. In its place is a photo of the the Big House. The scarlet and gray has left the room, replaced by maize and blue.
It’s a Michigan house now.
Despite growing up in a Buckeyes household, and in the presence of a Notre Dame legend, I followed my gut — and my heart — to Michigan. It’s crazy to think that the last four years have flown by so fast. Where does the time go?
I love this team. I love these coaches. I love this university. The classes and the education — it’s not easy. But I love what this university has given back to me, on and off the field.
That’s why I decided to return for my senior season. It just felt like we had too much work to do. We had come so far as a team in the year or so since Coach Harbaugh had taken over. And I couldn’t help but think, Imagine what we could do with another year.
Plus, I had unfinished business.
I had three goals when I came to Michigan. So far, I’ve achieved only one of the three goals: I fulfilled my Papa’s dying wish. But I still haven’t beaten the Buckeyes or won a national championship.
One down, two to go.
And we control our own destiny.