TAMPA — Ah, the stories Ed Butela can tell — and he can tell a lot of them.
Today he works as the tennis maintenance supervisor at Northdale Golf & Tennis Club. Really, he is their Mister Fix-It, the guy who can perform maintenance on anything from the clay tennis courts — which is not as easy as it sounds — to replacing sprinkler heads.
Now 70, Butela has quite the past. He joined Northdale after working for years as a truck driver — but the story goes a lot further back than that.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Butela lived in the cradle of quarterbacks. There was Johnny Unitas, the greatest of all time. Joe Namath and Dan Marino are among several others also from Pittsburgh.
But Butela, still powerfully built today, was more of a grinder. He became a fullback in high school and soon found himself recruited by colleges all over the nation. He ended up at a tiny college in Missouri, Tarkio College, which was such a powerhouse that it filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991 and only recently reopened.
Sure — Butela had most of the needed football skills; he just lacked one thing.
“I was recruited by a lot of schools, but Tarkio didn’t require an entrance exam,” he said. “That was good enough for me.”
Through some connections, the Chicago Bears came calling and offered him a spot. He worked for the Bears for several years, putting his time in on the taxi squad, which is called the practice team today. He never got into an official game, but he can say he blocked for Gale Sayers, one of the greatest running backs of all time, played right behind Brian Piccolo, best known as the cancer victim in “Brian’s Song,” and even had his nose broken on a hit taken in practice from Dick Butkus, one of the meanest guys to ever walk onto a football field.
He played in a day when the rules were a lot more lenient and safety was not a major concern.
“I had concussions from practice,” Butela said. “There were times I remember or don’t remember walking into the wrong huddle. You just kept playing. There was always someone to take your place.
“I had my nose broken, got some concussions and a bunch of other things and that was in practice. You were supposed to play hurt. Butkus hit me right through the facemask and broke it.”
Butkus was a monster linebacker, Butela said.
“He liked to spit into the ear holes of a guy’s helmet,” said Butela. “You can tell him I said that and he’d laugh about it. Every time he picked up the football he’d spit all over it and hand it to the ref. That’s how the game was played in those days.”
Butela never made it to Sunday game day, but his career didn’t end when his stint ended with the Bears. He played until the age of 42 in various semi-pro leagues while working his way to Florida. Very few football players, let alone running backs, make it to the age of 42. But Butela says he doesn’t feel much lingering pain from his playing days.
“The only reason I quit playing was because I started getting old,” he said. “I didn’t have the same moves I once made when I got to be 42.”
His last game was a big one. It was in Michigan and a local high school rounded up a team to take on a team from a Michigan police department.
“I was a ringer,” he said. “It was my last game. I was the best guy on the field.”
At 70, Butela still plays golf and tennis and is a fixture at Northdale. He may have come to Florida to settle down, but not to slow down. Living about a mile from the club, most days he fixes what needs to be fixed and knows everyone there.
As for the players of today, Butela thinks they are too pampered, but he’s not a curmudgeon about it. He still watches the game and has only great thoughts and stories about his days in the NFL. And, he knows, there aren’t a lot of people alive who can vividly remember getting their nose smashed in by Butkus.