Alvin Butler grinned and laughed. The smile hasn’t changed in the thirty years since he was a standout cornerback for the Gators from 1972-74. Back in those days, he was not only a fine player, but an articulate young man who always had time for reporters questions. He never made excuses for his play, always had a smile on his face, and his polite answers always seemed to defer the credit to his teammates.
The smile he wore Tuesday morning was the smile of a proud father. He was taking time away from his business to watch his son, Alvin Jr., a redshirt freshman walkon linebacker from Orangeburg, South Carolina go through the second day of fall practice. Even though Alvin Jr. isn’t a scholarship linebacker and he is likely to spend his second consecutive year with the scout team, this is a priceless time for his dad.
“I didn’t get to see him practice when he was in high school, “ said Butler, a Gainesville native who wore number 38 in his three years starting for UF. “Seeing him practice now is something special to me.”
Divorce split the family when Alvin Jr. was 10. He moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina with his mother. The separation was painful for a dad who loved being involved in his son’s every activity, but he was determined to remain an active part of his son’s life in spite of the distance. Alvin Jr. would come to Gainesville in the summers, spend time with his dad and attend Gator football camps. When Alvin Jr. entered high school and began playing football, Friday meant travel day for his dad. Alvin Sr. would load up the car and make that long drive every weekend when there was a football game.
“It’s a long way to South Carolina, but I never missed a game,” Butler said. “Every mile I drove was worth it the moment I got there and made eye contact with him. He would be looking for me in the stands and when he found me, well, that was something special.”
Alvin Jr. was a standout linebacker on championship teams at Orangeburg and there were scholarship offers from Division I-AA teams as well as all the Ivy League Schools. In Division I, Butler’s former Gator teammate Chan Gailey, now the Georgia Tech coach, showed tremendous interest, but Gainesville beckoned.
“He grew up being a Gator,” said Alvin Sr. “He had attended the camps, he knew that I had played here, and he spent his first years in Gainesville as well as the summers after he moved up to Orangeburg, so this is where his heart was all along. He had some opportunities available to him to get a football scholarship, but we talked about it, and this is really where he wanted to be. He wanted to come here as a walkon to see if he could develop himself to play at this next level. He was from a small school, so we knew it would be tough, but he’s very much a competitor so he came here ready for the challenge.”
Alvin Butler Jr. is not your every day walkon at UF. He’s a National Merit Scholar, one of only a handful of students nationally who aced the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) with a perfect 1600. When word of his academic prowess leaked to his Gator teammates last fall, he was given the nickname “1600" which has stuck with him into this, his second year on the squad.
“When I hear his teammates call him 1600, that makes me prouder than anything he could do on the football field,” said Alvin Sr. “We always knew he was a bright kid. When he was in the seventh grade, he was part of the Talent Identification Program of Duke University. He scored 1120 on the SAT when he was in the seventh grade.”
Nothing could prepare this dad for a perfect score on the national test, however.
“Shocked?” he asked. “Yeah, you could say I was shocked. Proud. Very proud. But certainly, I was shocked. I knew he would do well, but 1600? I don’t think anyone realistically expects a perfect score, but when he got it, I was so proud of him.”
Alvin Jr. came to UF interested in engineering programs, but has since decided to major in accounting. His mother is a CPA, while Alvin Sr. has a bachelor’s in sociology plus two master’s degrees in counseling fields from UF.
“I think he’ll probably go into the graduate program in business when he gets his bachelor’s,” said Alvin Sr., “but for now, he’s happy with accounting and he is really working hard to earn a chance to play football here.”
When Alvin Jr. reported for fall practice as a walkon last year, he was barely 200 pounds, but hard work in the weight room has bulked him up to a strapping 6-1, 220. With continued work in the weight room and added strength to go with his impressive speed, he could become a contributor before his days at UF are over.
“They hardly had any kind of weight room in Orangeburg,” said Alvin Sr., “so the hard work with the weights has been something new to him. He’s added a lot of muscle and he’s got room to add some more. I think he could help the team someday.”
For Alvin Sr., the road to the University of Florida was a short trip down 13th Street from Gainesville High School where he earned All-State honors playing for GHS’s legendary coach Jim Niblack. Niblack was one of the first coaches in Florida to recognize the importance of a good weight lifting program. There was a time in the 1960s when the GHS weight room was as impressive as that at UF.
“Coach Niblack took boys and put them in the weight room, then turned them into young men,” said Butler, who says that there aren’t many days that go by when he isn’t reminded of Niblack. “He was a great football coach, but most importantly, he got us ready for the game of life. There are a lot of us who owe so much of our success to Coach Niblack. I’m one of them.”
Gainesville High had been one of Florida’s first public schools to integrate. Niblack opened the door for African-American athletes and made them feel part of the team immediately.
“With Coach Niblack, there wasn’t color,” said Butler. “He didn’t care what color anyone was. He wanted us all to grow up, be men, to get a good education, and if we got the chance, play college football.”
Playing for Doug Dickey at UF, Butler was only the fifth African-American athlete recruited to the football team. The recruitment of Willie Jackson Sr. allowed the Gators to break the color barrier for the first time in 1969. Two years later, when Butler was recruited, there were still only a few blacks in all of the SEC.
“Back in those days, there were teams that still hadn’t integrated,” he said, “and of course, there were certain positions that were off limits. There weren’t any black quarterbacks. We were all wide receivers, cornerbacks, running backs and safeties.”
Things began to change. Tennessee, the first SEC school to play a black football player (wide receiver Lester McClain in 1968), became the first SEC school to have a black quarterback. A couple of years later, the Gators played Don Gaffney at quarterback and began recruiting African-American players in more of a wholesale manner.
“I don’t think of myself as a pioneer,” he said, “but I am proud that I was one of the ones who may have opened the door for others to follow. The expectations on us were very high back then. We had to prove ourselves on the field and prove that we were capable of competing in the classroom, too. Trouble? We couldn’t afford to get in trouble because the opportunities then were so limited. We were under the microscope. We all were aware that if we got into trouble whether in the classroom or off the field, we might shut doors for others.”
Thirty years later, he is a respected member of the community, an owner of a mental health counseling firm that has offices in other cities in the state. He’s still an avid Gator fan, even more so now that he sees his son following in his footsteps.
“I come out here to watch him practice, and we get together a couple of times during the week,” he said. “I try not to crowd him because I know he has to grow up, make his own choices and his own decisions in life, but I try to be there for him as much as I can. He knows I’m there for him any time he needs me. Right now, just having him here in Gainesville where I can watch him practice is a joy for me. He’s really given me a lot to be proud of.”
(Photo courtesy of UF Sports Information)