50 in 50: LeRoy Butler landed in the crowd for a celebration that became iconic
With the sports world on hold, we present a countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. This is No. 43.
Already, we have an exception to the rules of our 50 greatest Wisconsin sports moments list in the past 50 years. The majority of these entries are obvious in-the-moment events that seared into our brains the instant they transpired. But in this case, you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of this exact development anywhere in the Packers game recaps following a Dec. 26, 1993, win over the Los Angeles Raiders.
The Lambeau Leap had been born. We just didn't quite know it yet.
Sure, there was plenty to discuss from that freezing game at Lambeau Field, a 28-0 win that was remarkable for other reasons, as well. Played in wind chills that dipped to 22 degrees below zero, the Packers shut down the Raiders and clinched a playoff spot, marking the franchise's first playoff trip in 10 years.
Reggie White proved to be the dominant force Green Bay hoped it was getting when it signed him before the 1993 season, accounting for 2½ sacks out of the season-high eight amassed by the Packers pass rush. The Packers headed into a final-week clash with Detroit on the cusp of a division title, and the franchise had turned the corner heading into a legendary run of success.
At the time, it marked the second-coldest game in stadium history, a prototypical Lambeau Field moment, and it came attached with what became the prototypical Lambeau grace note. White was a big part of that moment, as well, but he wasn't the star.
A Hall of Fame connection like no other
Early in the fourth quarter with the Packers ahead, 14-0, Raiders backup quarterback Vince Evans found fullback Randy Jordan on a short pass, but Butler was there quickly for the punishing tackle and jarred the ball loose, right into White's arms. The Minister of Defense made a move upfield, and as he was getting twisted out of bounds, lateraled to Butler, who carried it the final 25 yards for his first touchdown.
As he celebrated the dagger score, Butler pumped his arms toward the stands and jumped into the crowd to celebrate with the first row.
Butler wasn't asked about his leap into the crowd. Even radio broadcasters Jim Irwin and Max McGee, in the confusion of the play, didn't know it was a touchdown until Butler had descended.
The postgame emphasis, understandably, was on Green Bay's return to the postseason, the lights-out play of White and the defensive line and the test ahead in Detroit.
"This will be one of the biggest games of our careers," said Butler afterward, referring to Detroit. "Not only would we win a playoff spot, but we'd have the division, too. That's the only way to get respect."
But don't worry, Butler would have plenty to say about the leap itself in the years to follow.
Butler and the leap become inextricable
It's been part of Butler's identity ever since, and an integral part of the Packers experience.
Robert Brooks, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson are among the players who delivered the most Lambeau Leaps, turning the home-turf wrinkle into one of the most celebrated celebrations in sports. Opposing players have tried it in jest, and some players have tried ... and failed. Brett Favre famously only took the leap once.
Leaping into the stands has been outlawed in other NFL venues but tproved so charming and specific to Green Bay that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave Lambeau Field an exemption.
"I was excited because I'm going to score my first touchdown," Butler told ESPN in 2015. "All this stuff is going through my head. And as I'm about to score, you see me point right there to this guy. And I jump. And this guy just kind of grabs me.
"I know a lot of people say, 'Well, act like you've been there before,'" Butler added. "I'm a defensive guy. I may not ever get back there again. So I was going to make the most of it."
It never would have happened today
There are the caveats of circumstance. It's pretty clear White stepped out of bounds with his right foot before he was able to lateral the ball. Had the instant-replay system been in place in 1993, it seems likely the play would have been negated. Instant replay was discontinued in the NFL in 1991 after its introduction for six years, and it didn't return until the late 90s. Jerry Rice fumbled, by the way.
McGee noted on the live radio broadcast that it appeared White stepped out of bounds.
Not only that, but Raiders coach Art Shell and Jordan himself contended after the game that he never had control of the ball before Butler's hit, and the pass should have been ruled incomplete. Watching it in real time, it looks plausible that Jordan caught the ball and was down before the ball sprung loose.
Detroit wins one battle, but not the bigger one
The epilogue is perhaps just as noteworthy as the Lambeau Leap game. The Packers were unsuccessful in winning the division — that particular triumph would have to wait until Yancey Thigpen dropped a pass in the end zone on Christmas Eve two years later to gift the Packers a division title.
The 30-20 loss to Detroit meant the Packers would have to open the playoffs on the road ... back in Detroit for the wild card round of the playoffs.
That game lives in Packers lore, as well. Brett Favre found Sterling Sharpe with 55 seconds left for a 40-yard touchdown that granted the Packers a 28-24 victory. Green Bay lost the following week against the Cowboys, but again, the table had been set for a rising NFL superpower.
How the moment lives on
Butler remains one of the most popular Packers, and the Lambeau Leap has been a part of his legacy. He was named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time for its class of 2020 and will be a strong candidate for induction in the coming years.
A statue at Lambeau Field commemorates the moment. Butler's Twitter handle is "@leap36," a nod to the feat and his jersey number, and references to the leap are found within any number of ventures involving Butler.
Meanwhile, fans can take pictures of their own "Lambeau Leap" either at the field itself or as part of an exhibit at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis annually. It's simply part of the Green Bay experience.
We didn't know it then, but...
It's not the only time in the past 50 years a Wisconsin sports maneuver was made with limited fanfare, only to launch into something far greater.
- July 20, 1976: Hank Aaron hits his 755th career home run at County Stadium, playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in the last of his 23 remarkable seasons. The number would become locked in as the career home-run record, even after Barry Bonds bypassed the mark in 2007.
- Feb. 11, 1992: Packers general manager Ron Wolf trades a first-round pick (19th, eventually running back Tony Smith) to the Atlanta Falcons for backup quarterback Brett Favre, who goes on to become one of the greatest icons in NFL and Wisconsin sports history.
- Oct. 10, 1998: In a night game at Camp Randall Stadium against Purdue, the Wisconsin Badgers sound staff plays House of Pain's "Jump Around" before the start of the fourth quarter, giving birth to one of college football's greatest in-game traditions.
- June 27, 2011: Russell Wilson announces he would be joining Wisconsin, picking the Badgers over Auburn after transferring from NC State, where Mike Glennon appeared ready to take over as quarterback. Wilson, a graduate transfer, had immediate eligibility and not only won the quarterback spot but led the Badgers to one of their most memorable seasons. He's an NFL star for the Seattle Seahawks.
- July 30, 2013: The rebuilding Milwaukee Bucks draft teenager Giannis Antetokounmpo out of Greece with the 15th pick in the NBA Draft. He went on to become the league MVP and a player who has made Milwaukee a title contender.
Rules of the 50 in 50 series
- Moments are recorded over the 50-year window from 1970 to 2019 (sorry 2020, but you're disqualified)
- These are moments and not achievements, although that largely goes hand-in-hand.
- These are "greatest" 50 moments, so you won't see moments that are pivotal but ultimately heartbreaking (like the NFC Championship loss to Seattle, Kareem getting traded, etc.)
- You also won't see (many) moments that came to be recognized for their greatness later, such as the day the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo or the day the Packers traded for Brett Favre.
- Moments considered include teams based in Wisconsin and Wisconsin athletes competing in individual sports or as part of national teams (such as the Olympics), or moments on Wisconsin soil.
- These are singular moments. You're supposed to remember where you were when they happened.
JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.