A year after shooting, Devon Butler returns

It was a hope and wish game.

Devon Butler lay bleeding in the hallway of his friend's apartment, an innocent bystander and hero all in one.

Minutes earlier, his friend called him into the bedroom to look out the window at a black truck circling outside. Butler stopped playing his video game to try and help.

The same truck had stopped his friend earlier in the day, the men inside asking about a drug transaction. His friend said they had the wrong guy.

Now the black truck was back.

They did not know what was happening, but they knew they should leave the bedroom. As they walked toward the door, they heard gunshots. His friend froze. Butler, acting quickly, threw him down the hallway.

One bullet pierced the window and hit Butler in the back, knocking him into the next room. Blood pooled around him. He shouted, "Call 911! Call 911!" and tried desperately to stay awake.

"I thought if I closed my eyes and laid back, it wouldn't end up well," Butler said in a recent phone interview. "As long as I'm awake for a lot of it, I felt I would be fine. So I tried not to close my eyes, and tried to keep fighting as long as I could."

He thought of his mother. His family. Of his Northern Illinois teammates. He thought, "There is no way it is my time to go."

It was April 5, 2011.

It was a hope and wish game.

By the time Butler arrived at the hospital, he was in critical condition. New Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, on the job a handful of months, made his way to see Butler. So did position coach Tom Matukewicz.

Doctors met with the two coaches and told them they needed to operate on Butler as soon as he stabilized. Of major concern was a collapsed lung.

"They told us to say our goodbyes," Doeren recalled in a phone interview. "So the three of us held hands and prayed."

Butler remained in critical condition for several days before finally improving. Two Northern Illinois students were arrested in connection with the shooting, in what has been described as a drug deal gone bad. Football, however, is all Butler thought about in those first few days. When his teammates came to visit, he immediately asked, "How was practice?"

Doeren would drop off tapes for Butler to watch. Butler, impatient to the end, could not get out of his hospital bed without help. But he knew for certain he would get back onto that football field.

"Nobody ever knew if I was going to be able to come back or if things would work out," Butler said.

"It was like a hope and wish game."

With family in New Jersey and Florida, Butler needed somebody in town to help care for him as he recovered. Matukewicz stepped in. Northern Illinois was granted a special waiver from the NCAA to allow Butler to live with his coach until he could be on his own.

Butler had developed a close relationship with Matuekwicz during the recruiting process. While many schools backed off Butler because of academic concerns, Matukewicz appeared at the high school guidance counselor's office one day with a list of classes Butler would have to pass to attend Northern Illinois.

He passed those classes and then Matukewicz helped him flourish on the field when he arrived on campus. During his sophomore season in 2010 he started 13 games in the middle while earning All-MAC honors. Before he got shot, Butler had his best practice of the spring. After the shooting, nobody knew for sure if he would play again.

"It's like cold water in the face," said Matukewicz, now defensive coordinator at Toledo. "The reality is you really don’t know what tomorrow holds. But I do remember after that practice, the linebackers were together. Each kid talks a little bit, and he said, 'I took this off film. It was one of the better practices I had.' And a day, later he’s laying in the hospital."

Matukewicz and his wife cared for Butler as if he was their son. His wife changed his bandages for the first week he was at their home. Once Butler started feeling better, "It was like living with a teenager," Matukewicz said. "I would come home, and he would have my recliner 6 inches away from a 50-inch flat screen playing Madden."

Butler stayed with them for several months before going home to his family. When he returned to Northern Illinois, Butler had no doubt he would play football again, even though he had to redshirt the 2011 season. Sitting out allowed him to focus on his grades, and become a student of the game. He did much more film study, while also working his way back into shape.

He was finally allowed to join his teammates on the football field for bowl practices, without contact. That first day back during a seven-on-seven drill, Butler got an interception. "That was the highlight of the whole week," Butler said.

Butler, of course, needed more. He continued to work, his impatience driving him, until he got clearance to resume full-contact practice this spring.

Amazingly -- a year to the day since he got shot -- Butler has reclaimed his starting middle linebacker job. Doeren says Butler is better today than he was a year ago.

"When you love the game as much as he loves it, and it is taken away from you, then your perspective changes," Doeren said. "The way he has approached things, he knows how precious things are now. There is a greater sense of urgency."

Doeren uses the word miracle. Butler uses the phrase "story of my life."

"I have been through a lot of adversity," Butler said. "I don't do well when things are just given to me and things are easy. I feel I do a lot better under pressure. It makes me have no choice but to do well, to prove everybody wrong, to get things going the way they need to be. I realized that at a young age. Once I knew that I was going to be OK, I knew I didn't have anywhere to go but up. I knew I would still be able to play football, and I didn't let anything else stop me."

It was a hope and wish game.

Hope fulfilled. Wish granted.