He was the Colts’ last feared receiver before they left town in 1984 — a skinny guy with warp speed and a vertical leap that scraped the clouds. Time and again, Ray Butler outjumped defenders to catch the football. Provided they could even keep up with him.
“Ray has great acceleration,” Colts coach Frank Kush once said. “He can be with his man and then, zzzooommm, he’s gone.”
In four years in Baltimore, Butler caught 107 passes for 1,881 yards and 16 touchdowns. On occasion, he led the Colts to victory. They went 16-40-1 in that span, a turbulent time when both players and coaches came and went. The team lost 14 straight in 1981, ending the woeful streak with a 23-21 win over the New England Patriots in their finale. Butler scored twice, including the game-winner on a 37-yard pass from Bert Jones, and received the game ball.
“You’d have thought we’d just won the Super Bowl,” Butler said of the victory, before an announced 17,073 at Memorial Stadium. “By then — my second year — Bert and I were getting more comfortable with each other and I could see him thinking, ‘I can trust this guy.’ ”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound scarecrow caught 46 passes that season, nine for touchdowns, building hopes for 1982. But Jones was traded that April.
“I hated that he was taken away from me,” said Butler, who would work with five quarterbacks during the next two years before the team moved to Indianapolis.
A fourth-round selection from Southern California, he was surprised to be chosen at all in the 1980 NFL draft.
“We had two great running backs in college, Charles White and Marcus Allen [both first-round NFL picks], so I only caught 23 passes my senior year,” Butler said. “I was excited just to be in the league.”
In his fifth game of his rookie season, a 30-17 win over Miami, he caught a 41-yard rainbow from Jones, leaping over a Dolphins defender at the 2-yard line. The rookie had 34 receptions that year, averaging almost 17 yards a catch for the 7-9 Colts.
Then came the Crash of 1981. Each game brought a bitter new twist. In September, against Miami, Butler caught the apparent winning touchdown, a 47-yard pass from Jones, with five seconds to go. But a holding penalty nullified the play and the Colts lost, 31-28.
“When I caught that ball, I was excited that we’d given the home fans something to cheer about,” said Butler, who’d scored twice already that day. ”Then I saw the flag and it just took the air out of me.”
The next year brought a new coach (Kush), a players strike, a carousel of quarterbacks and a winless (0-8-1) season.
“Kush did nothing but break us down,” Butler said. “He was made to coach 17-year-olds, to discipline them and teach them to be men. He was like a sergeant. Whenever something went wrong in a game, he’d make us run 3 miles a day in practice, through the bushes, so that, by the fourth quarter of the next game, everyone was dead tired.”
Injured much of 1983, Butler was rehabilitating at home, in Houston, that winter when he learned the Colts had left town.
“I watched the [Mayflower] trucks pull out, on TV,” he said. “I thought, ‘What am I gonna do with my townhouse? I can’t commute to Indianapolis.’
“I wish we’d stayed in Baltimore. It was a good sports city, and people cared about us there.”
And vice versa. While here, the civic-minded Butler gave $100 for every touchdown he scored to the Kennedy Krieger Institute. His salary then was $55,000.
He spent almost two years in Indianapolis before being released and picked up by Seattle, for whom Butler played three full seasons, scored 13 touchdowns and helped the Seahawks reach the playoffs twice.
Now 61, he lives outside Houston, where his home escaped the fury of Hurricane Harvey.
“I got lucky,” he said. “When I walked outside, I was knee-deep in water.”
Butler works as a warehouse clerk for an international valve company and volunteers as a coach at two high schools. Gone is that 36-inch vertical leap.
“It’s more like 26 now,” he said.
He still has a Baltimore Colts windbreaker jacket and several cherished photos of himself with teammates Curtis Dickey and Randy McMillan.
“Playing there was a good experience for me,” Butler said. “I just wish [management] had left that team alone. In three or four years, I think, we’d have been all right.”