Most pros fade away by now. They're finding other occupations, maybe getting into coaching back home. And cornerback Mario Butler has bounced from Dallas to Denver to Buffalo, a 2011 undrafted football vagabond.
Practice squad to practice squad. Cut to cut. He appeared in two games his first four seasons.
Last Sunday, Butler started for the first time. In the Bills' 16-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys, he played 46 snaps (78 percent) with two impressive stops in the first quarter. His tackle of Darren McFadden for five yards could've been a home-run shot. And then Butler broke on a third-and-10 throw to Terrance Williams for a difficult pass break-up. The Bills are missing starters all over the place. Last weekend felt like an exhibition game at times.
But don't tell Butler these games don't mean anything. He's fighting for his NFL life.
“You want to go out and play," Butler said. "It’s a NFL game. It’s definitely meaningful to us because you want to win. Any time you step on the field, you want to win. But it’s always meaningful for us.”
He called Sunday "a great feeling," much different than anything he's experienced since entering the league in 2011, scratching and clawing for preseason reps.
"Being a part of the game plan was pretty neat," Butler said. "Being able to compete was the main thing. I think I played pretty solid. Definitely could’ve done better. You’re never going to have a picture-perfect game. There’s some things I can work on. Overall, I think it was pretty solid.
“It’s all about putting out good film. And over the course of this year, I’ve been able to do that and assert myself as someone who’s been able to come in and make plays and be consistent. That’s the main thing — coaches know what they’re going to get from me and that’s somebody who knows what they’re doing. I’m in the right place. And I’m making plays when they come to me.”
He brings ideal size to the position (6 foot 1, 187 pounds) and looked like a cover corner worth keeping into the 2016 season against the Cowboys.
Now, instead of Kellen Moore, Butler faces Ryan Fitzpatrick. Instead of Williams and Brice Butler, he faces Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Whoever trots over to his left side the field, he'll face. So there's a good chance he squares off with the 6-time Pro Bowler Marshall.
They don't get any more physical than this wideout at the top of a route.
“He catches the ball away from his body," Butler said. "He uses his body well. He’s a physical receiver. So all the traits you’d want to have in your teammates on your team. I guess it shows through making the Pro Bowl.”
Butler said he has prepared like a starter every week — that's always been his mentality. You never know when you'll be pressed into action. He saw 28 snaps Week 1 vs. Indianapolis, eight in Week 2 vs. New England, four in Week 3 at Miami, four at Kansas City and then nearly the entire game against Dallas. Otherwise, he's been inactive three times and played zero defensive snaps in every other game.
All along, he insists he's been studying his opponent's tendencies to stay ready. He'll have a golden opportunity to prove he belongs Sunday.
“My approach has always been the same — continue to work hard, continue to prepare and I think that’s gotten me far in the NFL," Butler said. "Being able to prepare. If you know what you’re doing, that’s half of the battle. The other things naturally go along with it — the natural ability to make plays. You can see what receivers like to do through film study. So I always approach the game the same way no matter what. Even when I was on the practice squad, I always did the same thing.
"Now, that I’m playing, it’s just the same way to me. I learned from guys like Terence Newman and Abe Elam when I was in Dallas. Now looking four years ahead, into my fifth year, it’s kind of paid off because I kept doing the same thing, no matter what.”
The last time you might've heard from Butler was when he detailed the surreal death of his father, who was murdered, chopped to pieces and stuffed in his own refrigerator. The family never found out who killed him and Butler, somehow, found a way to forgive. To this day, it's a cold case in Jacksonville.
On the morning of his first start last Sunday, Butler endured some more heartbreak. His sister texted him at 6 a.m. that one of his closest childhood friends, Joshua Lee, was about to die from colon cancer. At 9 a.m., he learned Lee had passed. Four hours later, he was playing.
“It was crazy Sunday going through that," Butler said. "An emotional roller-coaster. My biggest thing was just trying to put everything into perspective and just go out there and play for him because there’s nothing else I could’ve done at that point.”
"He was one of my good friends I’ve known since middle school that always kept me motivated, pumped up. So he’s a guy I’m going to play for and hopefully, finishing up this last game, play for him as well.”