NFL players have more free time this offseason, the lockout opening opportunities for them to do things they otherwise wouldn't. For New England Patriots cornerback Darius Butler, that meant taking center stage as one of the featured speakers at University of Fort Lauderdale graduation ceremonies on Sunday.
He came prepared with notes, with plans to quote Vince Lombardi and Abraham Lincoln, only to scrap them at the last moment. Butler ultimately decided to speak from his heart.
"Once I got out there, it just started flowing," he recalled. "It was raw. I kept it honest."
Butler told the crowd of about 300 in attendance that football came easier to him than his studies, but he knows his education will benefit him most in the future. He also told the 30 or so graduates that they can expect challenges ahead, and he relayed one of his greatest struggles -- transitioning from his native Fort Lauderdale to the University of Connecticut.
"It got real tough for me at times; it was that big of a culture change coming from South Florida with the people and the area," he said. "There were changes I had to make."
Butler adjusted and was selected by the Patriots in the second round of the 2009 draft. If he could make his dreams come true, he told UFTL graduates -- some of whom are older than him and have already started families -- then they can, too.
The speech was a bit tougher than Butler anticipated. Always comfortable in front of television cameras, and known for being a stand-up guy even in the wake of his football struggles, Butler had a different feeling when it was his turn to address the crowd.
"I don't have a problem answering questions, like a Q&A, or speaking in front of a camera where 10 million people can watch, but this was a lot different," he said. "I'm not used to talking to people like that, but it was a real good experience."
The experience likely would not have been possible if NFL players weren't currently locked out. In a normal offseason, Butler probably would have been back in New England, taking part in the team's offseason program.
Instead, he's been mostly in Fort Lauderdale this offseason, where part of his daily regimen is working out with other NFL players in a structured environment.
"Every offseason I've been up [in Foxborough], so the main thing you're missing is the camaraderie with the guys -- rookies and veterans -- being around each other," said Butler, who has returned to New England a few times this offseason to catch up with teammates. "I'm sure most guys are staying accountable with their training and all that stuff, so they're ready when this stuff gets sorted out."
Butler has naturally kept abreast of the Patriots' changes at cornerback, specifically the team's drafting Virginia's Ras-I Dowling at the top of the second round. Dowling's presence on the roster could directly affect Butler.
"I don't know much about him, which is kind of different from when they took Devin [McCourty], who I played against year in and year out," he said. "He's obviously pretty good if he went that high. My thoughts are that you can never have enough corners and competition makes everyone better. There are a lot of capable guys back there that I'm sure will jump in there and compete. Then the best two will be on the field."
Butler was considered one of the best two at the start of the 2010 season, but lost the job in Week 3 to Kyle Arrington and never got it back. The competition in 2011 figures to be even greater.
Echoing his remarks to UFTL graduates, Butler plans to attack the challenge and see where it takes him. His message resonated with those at UFTL, which offers associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees in both ministry and business, and a doctorate in ministry.
"What really stood out to me was Darius' character," said Brian Hankerson, the chief financial officer at UFTL. "He's a guy in the limelight, making a lot of money, and he's still humble. He's the same Darius that we knew from Coral Springs Charter School -- down to earth, a nice guy. This was his first time giving a speech to this type of audience and you wouldn't have known it."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.