It really was a nightmare scenario.
I wasn’t even supposed to run a route on the play. I stayed in to block on the backside. We were expecting man coverage, but it turned out to be zone. So the sprint-out pick play to the right side we had called broke down immediately. I saw Wilton Speight, our quarterback, scrambling back to my side of the field, and I realized that I was the only eligible receiver over there. So I leaked out into the flat, Wilton hit me at about the 25-yard line, and I was in a race to the end zone.
I stiff-armed the first defender and spun off of him. Just as I came out of my spin, I saw the safety coming. He went low on me at about the 10-yard line and took out my knees — nothing dirty, he was just making a tackle.
As soon as I hit the ground, the stadium went dead silent.
The trainers rushed out onto the field.
I knew right away what had happened.
The Orange Bowl. My last college game. Four months away from the draft. A projected second-round pick.
And I had just torn my ACL.
My first thought was exactly what you’d expect: You’ve GOT to be kidding me!
But my next thought was that I had to get off that field. The trainers were talking to each other, and I stopped them and said, “Listen, I know what happened. You know what happened. Now just help me get off this field, because I feel like I’m making a big scene.”
The trainers got me on my feet, and I was surprised that I was actually able to walk off. On my way to the sideline, I gave a thumbs up for my mom, who I knew was somewhere in the stands freaking out. I just wanted her to know that I was O.K.
Even though I knew that I wasn’t.
Since that day, a lot of people have asked me if I regret playing in that game. They ask that if I could go back, would I have skipped the Orange Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. A few other guys who were expected to be high draft picks had made that choice, and I remember some of my Michigan teammates, leading up to the Orange Bowl, asking me, “Dude, are you gonna play?”
But in my mind, there was really no question.
I was gonna play.
Some players who skipped their bowl games were criticized in the media and by fans. And even though I wouldn’t have considered sitting out in a million years, I didn’t see anything wrong with the decisions those guys made. I mean, I didn’t know anything about Leonard Fournette’s family situation or how Christian McCaffrey’s body felt, so who was I to judge them?
Now, I know I wasn’t a projected top-10 pick like those guys, and there’s no way for me to honestly say what I would have done if I had been. But I know that in my heart, I wanted to play in that game — for my teammates, for Coach Harbaugh and the rest of my coaches, and for the University of Michigan.
I mean, playing in big games like the Orange Bowl was one of the main reasons I went to Michigan in the first place.
I feel like a lot of people don’t look at bowl games like that anymore, though. All of a sudden, I see people saying that bowl games are just exhibition games. That they’re meaningless. I don’t know when that started — maybe it was when the College Football Playoff began — but meaningless?
I couldn’t disagree more.
For me, there is no such thing as an exhibition game. When I play my little brothers in basketball in our driveway back home in Ohio, that’s not even an exhibition to me. I’m trying to destroy them. That’s just always been my mentality.
That’s not a knock on Leonard or Christian or anybody else who decides to skip their bowl game. It doesn’t mean I’m any more competitive or loyal to my team and school than they are. It’s just that my circumstances were different. There is no universally right or wrong decision.
They made the decision they felt was right for them.
The right decision for me, was to play.
After the injury, I just remember thinking, Man, how could this happen?
Especially after everything I had gone through just to be able to play in that game.
Four days before the game, I came down with a 101° fever. The next day, it went up to 102. The following day, two days before the Orange Bowl, I went to the hospital with a 103.5° fever.
If I had wanted an out — an excuse to skip the bowl game — that would have been an easy one. I mean, think about it: When somebody is deciding whether they’re going to play in their bowl game or skip it to prepare for the draft, it’s only natural to consider what people are going to think — their coaches and teammates, their family and friends, the media.
With this fever, I wouldn’t have had to worry about that. If I wanted to skip the game, I could have just said, Hey, I wasn’t healthy enough to play. And people would have understood.
But I wanted to play.
So I pushed through it.
A couple of days and two IVs later, I was able to take the field for my team.
Now, after all that, here I was, sitting on a training table with a torn right ACL.
My whole family had come down to the training room to check on me. My mom was crying. My dad was consoling her. My two younger brothers were there, too, and even they were crying.
And I don’t know why, but sitting there and watching them cry, I suddenly thought about my friend Kody Kasey.
I played football with Kody in high school. When I left for Michigan, he went on to play at a small NAIA school in Kentucky. During his sophomore year, he broke his leg while blocking a gunner on a punt return. Over the next year and a half, he went through a number of surgeries. But his leg never healed. Eventually, he had to have his right leg amputated below the knee.
And not only did I never hear him complain once — he didn’t even let that end his football career.
As a senior, he returned to the field — with a prosthetic leg — and returned kicks.
So I thought to myself, Man, this guy literally had his leg cut off. What do I have to complain about?
In that moment, my whole mindset changed. I looked around the room and said to my family, “O.K. everybody, here’s what we’re gonna do: We’re gonna pray. And after we pray, I don’t wanna hear any more crying. I don’t wanna hear anybody complain. My ACL is torn. And feeling bad about it isn’t gonna un-tear it. We need to be positive and focus on the next steps.”
And that’s what we did.
If there was a silver lining to the whole situation, it was that I had torn the same ACL before. So I knew exactly what the road back was going to be like. Right there in the training room, while I could still hear the Orange Bowl being played outside, I wrote down a list of doctors I knew of who could potentially do my surgery. It was like drawing up a play. Then I thought about where I was going to do my rehab. And once I cleared my thoughts and formulated a plan, I was able to calm down a little bit, accept what had happened and turn my focus to getting healthy and back to 100%.
The next few months were tough. I wasn’t able to work out for any teams before the draft, which was frustrating. But the most difficult part of the whole process was probably the draft itself. It was the best, worst and longest weekend of my life.
While I was watching the first round on TV, I made the mistake of letting the thought creep into my mind of what could have been. I was happy for my teammates Taco Charlton and Jabrill Peppers, who both got picked, but it was tough not to think that if I was healthy, maybe I would have had my name called, too.
But rounds 2 and 3 were when I didn’t really know how to feel, because even though I honestly had no idea when I was going to get drafted, I still had high hopes for those second and third rounds. You know, maybe a team would take a chance on me based on what I had accomplished during my entire college career.
But my phone didn’t ring.
I had my whole family at my house because I wanted them to share the moment with me when my name was called. So when two days of the draft had come and gone and I was still on the board, it was pretty awkward. They didn’t know what to say to me, and I didn’t know what to say to them. All I could say was, “Listen, I’m not down on myself. Let’s all just get some rest and go to bed. Tomorrow is the day!”
The next day, the seventh tight end came off the board in the fourth round.
It wasn’t me.
That’s when panic started to set in a little. It was like, O.K., this is getting kind of scary. How far am I gonna fall?
Then my phone rang.
It was John Elway.
He said he was excited to tell me that I was going to be a Denver Bronco. And when I say that a weight was lifted off my shoulders … I can’t even describe the feeling. The panic and the fear were just gone. I let out this huge exhale because I had been so focused on my rehab and taking the right steps to get back on the field, and now, I finally knew what the next chapter was going to be.
I had gone from possibly being taken in the second round to being the first pick in the fifth round. And that definitely stung.
But that one phone call made everything O.K.
It was one of the best moments of my life.
A few weeks ago, the Broncos officially put me on injured reserve, ending my rookie season before I could even take the field. I’m still working hard, and I will come back.
But I understand that to some people, I’m a cautionary tale — the potential second-round draft pick who tore his ACL in his final college game, fell all the way to the fifth round and missed his whole rookie season. And from now on, whenever a player is thinking about whether he should play in his bowl game or sit out and start preparing for the draft, my name will come up. Somebody will always say, “Well, you saw what happened to Jake Butt….”
And that’s O.K. People are going to say what they will.
But for any player who is deciding whether to play or sit for his bowl game, as somebody who’s been there, my advice is pretty simple.
Trust your gut. Talk to the people around you — the people you trust — and lean on them for guidance. But at the end of the day, trust your gut and do what you feel is best for you.
Also … don’t make your decision out of fear. Don’t let what happened to me scare you into not playing in a game that means something to you.
You can’t play in a bubble. Injuries happen. I played because I love the University of Michigan, and I wanted to be there for my teammates and coaches. And unfortunately for me, I got injured. Nobody wants to be a comeback story. But when you’re put in that situation, what else are you gonna do?
You can’t change the past. All you can do is make the best possible decisions for yourself in the present and as you move forward. If you do that, and you trust your gut, you’ll never look back with regret.
I know I don’t.