Indianapolis — When he was 16, Hakeem Butler had to say goodbye to his mother, then to his hometown.
In 2012, Sheryl Butler died after a battle with breast cancer. She had raised her three children in a one-bedroom house in the Greenmount/33rd Street neighborhood of Baltimore, a “rough place,” Hakeem said Friday. His aunt and uncle, Marian and Aaron Harrison, took Hakeem, then only 16, and his brother in to their Houston home after her death.
Losing his mother affected Hakeem profoundly. The Iowa State receiver referenced his backstory indirectly Friday at the NFL scouting combine, as if he’d rather not talk about what happened. But moving to Houston, he said, was “maybe the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my lifetime.” He loved football, and so did Texas.
“I wouldn't be here talking to you today if I never moved to Houston,” Butler said. “And everyone knows how Texas football is and how they treat it. And the way that they treat Texas football there, I love football, so to even be able to do spring football, we didn't have that in Baltimore. So that's just amazing to me.”
In Baltimore, he learned, “You’ve got to be a dog,” he said. “You can’t take no days off.” The credo has been self-fulfilling: Few receivers in this year’s draft class have improved as much as Butler.
He entered college as a two-star recruit in the Class of 2015, according to Rivals.com, with offers from Iowa State and Houston but few other noteworthy programs. A subpar academic record had chilled interest elsewhere.
Butler redshirted his freshman season, only to have the head coach who’d signed him, Paul Rhoads, fired that fall. He started to lose faith. Then he started to catch passes.
By the end of 2018, his redshirt junior season, he’d finished among the top 10 nationally in receiving yards (1,318) and yards per reception (22.0). At 6 feet 5, he was a bona fide red-zone target, catching nine touchdowns in 13 starts.
“You've got to go out there and eat,” he said. “It's a dog-eat-dog world, and you've got to eat. So I think every day I come with that, and I keep that with me.”
If anything has prepared Butler for the crowded field vying for the draft’s “top receiver” label, it’s his training partners. For the past two months, he’s worked with former Raven Anquan Boldin and four-time All-Pro Calvin Johnson.
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Boldin and Butler share a training site, while Butler’s agent set up the workouts with Johnson. He said meeting the former Detroit Lions star was “surreal”; he tried to not “fan-girl” too much upon his introduction to Johnson.
“Those dudes, both of them legends, they have a different mentality than anybody that I've talked to,” he said. “They go get it every day. Every day, they want to be the best. They wake up and eat, sleep, breathe wanting to be the best, and you've got to have that to be successful in this league.”
Butler, who said he’s met informally with almost every NFL team, knows there are worries about his speed. He didn’t seem too worried about them himself. When a reporter Friday asked him how fast he wanted to run in the 40-yard dash, the receiver jokingly asked him how fast he wanted Butler to run.
And Butler’s favorite route? The go route, of course.
“You put me on tape, and you just see long legs eating up space,” he said. “You don't know how fast they're moving, but if you put me next to a small guy, you're going to see that we're moving the same speed. I play fast. I firmly believe that I play fast, and I've just got to show that I can run fast on the track, I guess.”
That’s how life goes, he said at one point Friday. He knows what he can do. So does the family that supports him. The Ravens, with the No. 22 pick, could make Butler the first wide receiver off the board. That’s what his mother would’ve wanted, then and now.
“She’d be immensely proud,” he said. “She’d be crying tears of joy. She’d be wearing my jersey and hoping I’d get drafted by Baltimore to get back home. I know she’s looking over me always.”