During my rookie year with the Seahawks in 1987, fellow linebacker Keith Butler was one of the best mentors I could have asked for. Butler is now in his 10th season as the Steelers’ linebackers coach and has one of the best football minds I’ve ever been around. But back then he was a seasoned and intimidating looking veteran who I figured wouldn’t give me the time of day.
Instead, “Butts” turned out to be a wealth of knowledge and I soaked up everything he said like a sponge.
Butts was only 30 years old then but to this 22-year-old rookie he might as well have been 90. He had a scraggly red beard that was peppered with gray hair, half of his body was surgically repaired and his two front teeth had been knocked out and replaced with two crooked, aluminum replacements that looked like a bottle cap. Other than calling me “boy” (his way of keeping me in my place), Butts was very good to me and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
My favorite words of wisdom from Butts: “Boy, if you haven’t been knocked on your butt in this league, you haven’t been playing very long.”
I could hear those words in Butts’ thick Tennessee accent on Sunday as I watched J.R. Sweezy and Russell Wilson struggle through their first NFL starts. Being knocked on your butt can be in a literal sense, as Wilson found out, or in a figurative sense, as Sweezy learned. It means being physically, mentally and emotionally abused.
For Wilson, it was being chased and hit and body slammed so often that I was sore just watching it. For Sweezy, it was the mental challenge of blocking one of the most bizarre and unique defensive fronts in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of your assignments when the guy you’re supposed to block is always in a different place and never wearing the same jersey number.
It’s tough enough making the adjustment from college to pro without the added complication that both Wilson and Sweezy faced in Arizona. Starting as a rookie in the first game of the season on the road at quarterback, the hardest position to master, is perhaps the most difficult challenge an NFL player can face. That is, unless you’re a rookie offensive guard who was playing defensive tackle last year at this time … in college.
So welcome to the NFL, rooks. Just as Butts passed down his wisdom to me, I will pass it on to any rookie who will listen. Everybody gets their butt kicked.
I remember a string of bad games during my first year that landed me on the bench in the middle of a game in Cleveland. I sat on the sidelines and thought, “What happened? I thought I was good. Do I suck?”
This is part of the physical, psychological and emotional assault an NFL season has on your psyche. Sweezy may be thinking these very things since coach Pete Carroll announced Wednesday that John Moffitt will replace him in the starting lineup on Sunday against the Cowboys. The key is to get back to work, learn from your mistakes and move on.
The good news is that once Monday films are over, your focus is solely on the next opponent and not the previous one. The bad news is that you are faced with a whole different set of problems. There will be no Darnell Dockett or Paris Lenon this week. But there will be DeMarcus Ware, who was the second-fastest player to 100 sacks in NFL history, and tackling machine Sean Lee, who had 12 stops and a forced fumble in Week 1.
You can dwell on the past, or look ahead and stay positive. Any good coach knows that.
Keith Butler and Pete Carroll certainly do.