(This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.)
The 2015 season admittedly didn't quite start out the way Brice Butler would have liked. But then came an early trade to Dallas and a chance to contribute to the Cowboys' wide receiver corps while injured star Dez Bryant was sidelined with a broken bone in his right foot.
Butler, who was acquired in a trade with Oakland on Sept. 16, just three days after Bryant went down in the season opener, was thrilled to join the Cowboys then, and for the chance to demonstrate his abilities.
"It was just a relief, knowing that a team actually wanted me enough to trade for me," said Butler, who was selected by the Raiders in the seventh round (209th overall) of the 2013 draft out of San Diego State. "That's a great feeling. I felt like I should have been playing up there where I was, but for whatever reason, it didn't happen. I believe, I trust God and sometimes He'll close a door to open a greater one."
Likewise, head coach Jason Garrett has been pleased that the team nabbed a still-developing prospect in Butler.
"A young player who we think has some of the traits that we look for in a receiver," Garrett said, describing Butler. "He's big, he can run, he has a feel for playing the position. You see him run routes outside, you see him run routes inside, you see him make plays. It just seems like he's comfortable. He's advanced for his age, and he has some physical traits that we like. We just felt like with Dez being out, we needed to bring another guy in here, and we felt like he was a good option for us."
Butler isn't exactly sure why things went sour in Oakland, especially considering that he felt like he had a strong training camp and ranked second on the squad in preseason receiving, gaining 175 yards and a touchdown on 15 receptions in four exhibition outings.
And, he had 21 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns last year, but the Raiders changed coaches this past offseason, which may have played a factor, with former Cowboys linebacker Jack Del Rio replacing interim coach Tony Sparano.
"I really don't know," said Butler. "I had a really good preseason. I had new coaches, I was running with the 1 group and the 2 group. I had a lot of talks with my receiving coach, and he told me what he felt about me, which made me feel like I was going to be OK. The offensive coordinator told me the same thing.
"I think it came down to, with the receivers, after Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, it seemed like they wanted the guys that were going to play a big role on special teams, and I'm not really good on special teams. They didn't have me returning, so it just didn't work out."
When the move was announced, running back Darren McFadden, a former teammate of Butler's in Oakland, had only positive things to say about what kind of player the Cowboys had added to their offense.
"You're getting a receiver that's going to go out there and run his routes and catch the ball for you," said McFadden, who spent seven years with the Raiders before signing with Dallas in March 2015. "Brice is one of those guys who is going to do his job. You don't have to worry about him not knowing his assignments. He's going to go out there and run the right route and make catches for you."
In addition to McFadden, Butler's arrival in Dallas also reunited him with a former teammate from San Diego State, tight end Gavin Escobar, as well as one of his childhood friends in cornerback Corey White, who was eventually let go by the Cowboys later in the season.
"The first year I ever played football, 'C.J.' White was on my Pop Warner team until about 12 years of age, so I've known C.J. longer than anyone in the league," Butler said. "I would say C.J. baptized me into football when I was about 7 years old. I just remember he used to hit real hard. I remember I was really young and I didn't know much about the game, and C.J. would just tear me up."
White remembered things similarly from their childhood together in the Atlanta area.
"When we were little, he didn't really have it. He was just a scared little boy," White said of Butler. "Just a fun guy to be around, always active, always wanting to play something, no matter if it was video games, basketball, football, soccer, baseball, anything. If it involved activity and running around, he would do it. He was a very happy kid."
While he may not have been a prodigy right from the start, Butler always seemed destined to reach the NFL because his father, Bobby Butler, played 12 seasons in the league, compiling 27 interceptions as a cornerback with the Falcons before retiring in 1992.
White remembered how all the kids wanted to follow in the elder Butler's footsteps, and eventually Brice followed suit.
"We all took after Bobby Butler, his dad, and he was around all the time," White said. "We all wanted to be like him, we all wanted to go to the NFL just like him, but (Brice) got it more when we got into high school and college."
For Brice, having his dad, as well as some of his dad's former teammates, available as a reference has benefited him greatly throughout his career.
"Pops and his buddies taught me how to play the game. They've always been there, and still are there for me now," Butler said. "I know it's definitely a blessing to be able to pick up the phone and give a call to somebody, or go to somebody's house and watch some tape, bring down some old-school NFL footage. Learning the game like that, and having someone tell me how to be a student of the game, it seems like it's paying dividends now."
Utilizing his blazing speed, Brice piled up 1,186 receiving yards and caught 15 touchdown passes during his senior year at Norcross High School in Georgia, becoming a highly-sought-after college recruit. Aiming for a future in the NFL, and desiring a change in scenery, he accepted an offer to play at the University of Southern California.
"Coming out of high school, I wanted to go to a really good school, a prestigious school, and a school that would get me prepared for the pros, running a pro-style offense. It seemed like USC was the right school," Butler said. "I had never gone that far away, and I loved it out there. I thought I'd have a great time at a school that's in the city. I'm from the country and I didn't really want to be in the country, so I thought, 'Let's go out to USC and have some fun and learn how to be a pro.'"
After red-shirting for a year, Butler made an immediate impact in his first season at USC, recording 20 receptions for 292 yards and two touchdowns as the Trojans went 9-4 in 2009. With his effort, he earned Pac-10 All-Freshman honors.
But his role diminished a bit during his sophomore and junior seasons, as he registered just nine receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown in 2010, followed by 12 receptions for 150 yards in 2011.
By that point, though, Butler had already earned his degree in public policy, management and planning. Graduating ahead of schedule gave him the opportunity to transfer for his final year of eligibility without having to sit out a season.
"I graduated in three and a half years," Butler said. "My mindset going in was to ball out for three years and then go to the NFL and be graduated by the time I went. Obviously, that didn't happen, but since I had that mindset, it made me stay on top of my schoolwork, so I got out of there early."
The decision to take what might be considered a step down to attend San Diego State may seem curious, but Butler wanted to remain in California and was looking for a school that ran an aerial offense. He also considered Fresno State.
"It didn't really matter where I was going to school. It was just a matter of getting the productivity going, catch some balls," Butler said of his thought process. "They were a team that was known for getting the ball around. I got to know guys like Gavin Escobar, learn a different meaning of working really hard, and getting grit about you. Obviously, San Diego State and USC, there's a difference in talent, but I loved my time there. I grew to love that city."
His wide receivers coach at San Diego State was former NFLer LeCharls McDaniels, who had been a part of the Redskins' championship squad in 1982. The one thing that McDaniels helped instill in Butler was a strong work ethic.
"I tried to recruit him out of high school, but he went to SC," recalled McDaniels, who is now at the University of San Diego. "He was probably one of the best players I've seen at the high school level in a lot of years, and I thought he'd be a no-brainer, but he had his struggles at USC. I don't know why, but he learned to work hard at San Diego State and compete. I think that helped him get to the pro level. I enjoyed my time with him, although it was just a year."
Butler acknowledged that McDaniels pushed him, and that he developed a new appreciation for what it meant to work hard.
"There was a different meaning to the work," Butler said. "Let me tell you, that first month there was real hard for me, but once it became natural, it was nothing."
Butler enjoyed a solid senior season in 2012, as he helped the Aztecs to a 9-4 record by pulling down 24 receptions for 347 yards and four touchdowns, finishing second on the squad to Escobar in each category. Although not quite the production that he was wanting, as the leading wideout on a team that distributed the ball to a multitude of receivers, the effort was still enough to attract the attention of NFL scouts.
After the Raiders selected him in the seventh round, he got into 10 games as an NFL rookie in 2013, starting twice, and recorded nine receptions for 103 yards. He improved the next year and looked like he'd command a more important role in Oakland this past season before the trade.
After arriving in Dallas, he had to quickly learn the Cowboys' scheme, although he claims the transition wasn't too difficult.
"It's a pro-style offense. It's just different terminology," Butler said of the learning process. "Going back to USC and then to high school, I've had like maybe seven different offensive coordinators, and all of them have run the same stuff, but just had different names to it. So it hasn't been hard for me at all to pick it up."
Never was that more on display than in the Cowboys' game at Buffalo on Dec. 27. Back on Oct. 4 against New Orleans, Butler hauled in a 67-yard pass, the team's longest of the season, but also suffered a hamstring injury on the play. He then appeared in only one game over the next 10 weeks before finally being healthy enough to get back in the lineup on Dec. 19.[embeddedad0]
With Bryant sidelined again due to injury when the team faced the Bills, Butler stepped in and shined, catching four passes for a team-high 74 receiving yards in the game, both of which were career highs.
"He was big," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan told reporters following the game. "We told Brice that it was his time – with where we were with Dez not being out there and (Butler) finally being healthy – to be a guy we can look to. I thought he did some really good things."
"Today was a good day," said Butler afterward. "It's been a long season for me individually and for the team, and I've had some big ups and downs."
But now that he has shown a glimpse of what he can do for the Cowboys, and with one year remaining on his contract, the future appears bright for Butler.
"Brice is a player who can be as good as he wants to be," McDaniels said. "He's been blessed with size, he can catch the ball, he has speed. He just needs to put it all together, all the time. He can be a great player. I'd like to see him take the next step and be a consistent football player, to where he's out on the field all the time. Where he can prove what he can do."
As the Cowboys are in the midst of an offseason of change, the team certainly hopes that Butler is in the process of doing just that, taking that next step.
"I think I can only go up from here," Butler said. "I feel like I teased everybody earlier in the year by showing them a little something, and then I got hurt and I was out for a while. I believe if I hadn't, I would have been doing this all season."