COLUMBIA, Mo. -- He penned his will on an autumn day, his 25-year-old life summed up by his three most coveted possessions. Jonathan Butler had a laptop, a stack of books and a backpack. He bequeathed each of the items to his friends.
Butler had spent more than a quarter of his life as a student at the University of Missouri, a Midwestern campus with a student population that is 77 percent white. And deep inside, he was reaching his breaking point. He'd been called the N-word, had his health benefits cut and witnessed overt acts of discrimination throughout the campus. Those acts seemed to escalate in the year since the Ferguson riots.
Every stand Butler tried to take yielded few, if any, results. On Oct. 10, Butler and his activist group Concerned Student 1950 staged a protest at the homecoming parade, blocking the convertible that carried Tim Wolfe, president of the Missouri university system. The driver revved his engine, and Wolfe eventually rode away without addressing the protesters' concerns. (Wolfe later met with the group, but didn't agree to any of their demands.)
Feeling frustrated, Butler, in an interview Tuesday with ESPN.com, said he started reading up on the hunger strikes staged by Cesar Chavez and Dick Gregory. He saw how they helped impact change and decided to embark on one himself. Butler, a graduate student, was convinced Missouri would do nothing and ultimately he would die.
He held off on telling his friends about the hunger strike because he knew they would worry. Butler is the type of guy who gets something in his head and doesn't back down. When he was in high school, he was an unimpressive offensive lineman who had one final year to make varsity. So what did he do? He trained all summer, transformed his 5-foot-8 body into a rock-solid 240-pound beast and helped lead his Omaha Central High School team to a Nebraska state championship.
The situation at Missouri also motivated and consumed Butler. "For me," he said, "it was like, 'What else do I have to do to prove to you that I'm a human? That as a constituent of this university that I deserve to be heard and deserve to be respected?'"
Butler composed a letter to the Missouri board of curators, the school's governing body, vowing that he would not consume food or nutritional sustenance until Wolfe was removed from office. It was Nov. 2, and a campus was about to be turned upside down.
Monday, Nov. 2
At 3 a.m., Butler knows he can't put off the news any longer. He tells the members of Concerned Student 1950, a name derived from the first year black students were admitted to Missouri, that his hunger strike will start in six hours, and that he will call for the president's ouster. But why Tim Wolfe? He had only been president since 2012 and wasn't exactly perceived as a villain around campus. One person who knows Butler later wonders whether he's taking a page from the book "Rules for Radicals," which implores the reader to go after people and not institutions. "People," the book notes, "hurt faster than institutions."
Butler will later say that he hasn't read the book. He doesn't know Wolfe, who is 57, a former IBM executive and white. He demands Wolfe's removal because Butler believes he was tone deaf in responding to the concerns of marginalized students. Butler compares Wolfe to an athletic director of a major football program. If the team struggles and keeps losing, the coach is at fault, and the athletic director is to blame, too.
Wolfe's inaction during the homecoming parade may have been a catalyst, but several incidents on campus led up to that moment. In September, student body president Payton Head was walking down the street when a truck full of young people yelled the N-word at him. A few weeks later, members of the Legion of Black Collegians (the official black student government at Missouri) had racial slurs hurled at them. Then late last month, a swastika drawn in feces was found in a residence hall on campus.
When Butler announces his strike, members of Concerned Student 1950 want to do something to draw more attention to his plight: The more supporters and the more media, they figure, the better the chance they have for the school administration to act.
His friends spend $75 on a tent to pitch in the grass at Carnahan Quadrangle, near the student recreation center. They fill the tent with water and granola bars and other supplies. Six students sleep in the tent the first night.
"We have a chance to be an inconvenience to the university," Marshall Allen would say later, explaining the group's strategy. "Because being out there on the quad, we're inconveniencing their public relations. To have people and visitors come through and see us camped out, you're going to have to engage us to figure out why we're camped out there."
Allen serves as security guard that first night. He snores and keeps everyone up. Butler does not stay at the camp. He wants to keep his strength up.
The group, which has 11 original members, is very protective of each other to the point of almost being combative. It creates an interesting tug-of-war between wanting their message to get out to the public and carrying an enormous distrust for the media. Signs are placed in the grass ordering reporters and outsiders to stay away.
A member of Concerned Student 1950 later says that one of the reasons they put up the signs is to keep people from taking pictures of them when they're crying.
"One of the biggest things I learned this week is to have faith," she says. "Just to have faith and believe that whatever you believe in will come to fruition. We kept working, but we had those moments where we were like, 'You know what? Let me go cry, and then I'm going to go back and start working again.' I prayed more this week than I probably prayed this entire semester."
Wednesday, Nov. 4
The number of tents has grown. Concerned Student 1950 has been holding nightly prayer vigils, and more students are joining in. Butler spends part of the day at the camp. He is greeted by former Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam, who made news last year when he publicly came out as being gay.
Sam brings Butler some water. Though he says he never experienced racism in his time as a player at Mizzou, Sam feels compelled to stop by and lend his support for Butler.
J'Mon Moore, a sophomore wide receiver for the Tigers, also visits Butler. Moore later tells reporters that he was driving by the quad, spotted the tents and wanted to learn more. He meets Butler, goes home and talks to his roommate, safety Anthony Sherrils, and then they consult with senior captain Ian Simon and defensive end Charles Harris.
Word starts to spread throughout the team, and it surprises Butler. He didn't know any of the football players before last week, aside from watching them on TV.
By Wednesday, the effects of the hunger strike are starting to take their toll on Butler's body. He will eventually become weak, lethargic and short of breath.
Back in Omaha, Butler's old coach at Central reads on the Internet that a Jonathan Butler is staging a hunger strike. Jay Ball turns to his assistant coaches and asks, "Is that our Jonathan Butler?" They find a photo of the man in Missouri and learn that, yes, it is their J.B.
Ball isn't surprised that Butler has staged the hunger strike. "This guy has some serious mental toughness," Ball said. "I saw it when he was 17 years old."
Friday, Nov. 6
There are now roughly 20 tents in the quad, and hundreds of people are stopping by to lend their support. Syed Ejaz, who is running for Missouri Student Association president, decides to camp out for a night. He is accompanied by members of his campaign staff. It is three days from the start of the election.
The ground is wet from Thursday night's downpour, and the temperature drops to 38 degrees. Wind whips through the campsite. To pass the time, the group plays a game called Two Truths and a Lie. The students sit in a circle, introduce themselves and say three things about themselves. The others figure out which one is a lie. They wrap themselves in blankets and huddle close together, black and white.
Ejaz is uncomfortable in the cold, but he calls the night inspiring. He feels as if he is part of something bigger.
"This has been bubbling for a long time," Ejaz later says. "I think what Jonathan is doing is heroic, it's brave, it's inspiring. It's very courageous. And the fact that he's effectively putting his life on the line for this ... it's very powerful."
Saturday, Nov. 7
A group of black football players meets Butler at a location on campus that he declines to disclose. He can't remember everything that happened that day. He says he was in an exhaustive state. He can't recall his emotions or reactions to things.
He thinks there were about 30 football players at the meeting. They had heard about the hunger strike and want to know why he is doing it. He gives them his story. He tells them he has encountered racism since arriving on campus in 2008. He talks about his acquaintance Sasha Menu Courey, a biracial former Mizzou swimmer who, according to a 2014 ESPN investigation, was allegedly sexually assaulted by one or more Missouri football players in 2010 and took her own life a year later.
Butler talks about mental-health and academic services and his wish that everyone were treated equally and received the same care. By the end of the conversation, the players are so moved they tell Butler they are going to stage a walkout.
Butler shakes their hands. Some of them pray together. He has no idea what kind of an impact the meeting will have.
One of the players calls Tigers coach Gary Pinkel to inform him of their plan.
That night, Sherrils tweets a statement that is also sent out by the Legion of Black Collegians that says athletes of color on the team "will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences."
Sunday, Nov. 8
By midnight, Missouri's 4-5 football team is the biggest story in the country. News outlets swoop into Columbia, and Butler's phone is ringing nonstop.
On Sunday morning, Pinkel sends out a tweet. "The Mizzou Family stands as one," it states. "We are united. We are behind our players."
The school releases a statement that the team won't practice until Butler ends his hunger strike. As reporters arrive on campus Sunday night, members of Concerned Student 1950 get nervous. They tell them to keep their distance. At 10 p.m., at least 100 students gather in a circle for prayer. A man in the center shouts, "Do not talk to the media!"
Monday, Nov. 9
Eric Wichmann, a senior studying information technology, is up until 1:30 in the morning studying for class. But by 9 a.m., he discovers that his classes probably won't be held. Students and faculty are staging a walkout, and the gathering in the quad mushrooms into a mass of humanity.
Mallory Scanlan, a business management major, is standing by Wichmann and taking in the swarm of people. Scanlan agrees with Butler that changes need to happen at Missouri. Last week, she was in the student center eating lunch when a group of black students stormed in carrying bullhorns. They blocked the exits, she says, and demanded that the students listen to them.
She said one man approached her, looked at her Macbook and her clothing and barked, "White privilege," to her. Scanlon teared up. She is at Mizzou on a biracial scholarship.
"It's sad to say that it gets this big because the football team did it," she says. "But because they did it, our school came together, and that's the only good thing that's come out of this so far. Our school has come together as one."
Wichmann tells Scanlan that he's all for people expressing their opinion, but he doesn't understand what good getting rid of the president will do. Will the person they hire next do any better? Can Wolfe be held responsible for the actions and opinions of 35,000 students?
Within the hour, Wichmann's concerns don't matter. At around 10 a.m., Wolfe announces his resignation at a meeting of the school's governing board in a cramped conference room inside the Old Alumni Center, not far from the football complex. Wolfe makes his announcement right after the meeting is called to order and before the board members go into closed session.
Toward the end of his announcement, Wolfe mentions his daughter, and his voice starts to break. He says she pointed out a biblical passage to him the night before, Psalm 46:1. He reads that passage and punctuates his remarks with this: "Please use my resignation to heal, not to hate."
With Wolfe still in attendance, the board members go into closed session for more than six hours. By the end of the day, chancellor R. Bowen Loftin is out, too. "I sincerely wish it was different, but events are such that the best course of action for the university at this time is for me to resign," Loftin says in a release from the UM system. He is reassigned to a new role overseeing renovation of the school's research facilities.
Back at the quad, the students fill the grass and chant and sing. Members of Concerned Student 1950 grab bullhorns. Hundreds of students form a massive circle to keep the media away.
Butler emerges for a few minutes to join in the celebration. Then he goes to the hospital to get checked. His hunger strike is over after a week. His first meal, he later says, is an IV.
A news conference for the football team scheduled for 3:30 p.m. starts 15 minutes late. When Pinkel finally emerges, he says his motivations were simple. He wanted a young man to eat and to live.
"I knew from the jump that Coach Pinkel was going to support us," wide receiver Moore tells reporters afterward. "Coach Pinkel supports his players. We're all his sons. I didn't have a doubt in my mind that he was going to stand against us. There's no way he would have done that."
The protesters leave their tents up in the quad. They plan to stay there for another night. They want to celebrate.
Tuesday, Nov. 10
The football team does not want to talk about its boycott anymore. The players slip back into their fall routine and get ready for a Saturday game against BYU.
One of the team's leaders declines to talk via text. He says the players decided as a team not to do interviews. He says they want to give the protesters the biggest platform so their voices can be heard.
For once in his life, everyone wants to hear what Butler has to say. It's an unusual position for a man who was known as quiet and humble during his high school days. Butler grew up not wanting for anything. His father is an executive at Union Pacific; his mother helped found Joy of Life Ministries in Omaha. They were in Columbia on Monday to take care of their son, and whisked him away from the crowds in a white Mercedes.
"The football team stepping in. ... If that wouldn't have happened, the school truly wouldn't have responded until after I passed." Missouri hunger striker Jonathan Butler
But by Tuesday morning, his parents are gone, and Butler is flanked by members of his group. He emerges from a car around 5 a.m. The hospital bracelet he was wearing the day before is no longer visible, and he's bundled in a coat. He is hesitant to do interviews, but he knows he needs to get his message out.
When this whole thing started, Butler never imagined that one 25-year-old grad student could stop an entire college football team, albeit for a couple of days, or put fear in the minds of college administrators.
Butler said he was prepared to die. Whether a college football team saved him may never be known.
"I know how corrupt the system is, and I know how much they don't value black lives," he says.
"The football team stepping in. ... If that wouldn't have happened, the school truly wouldn't have responded until after I passed."
Butler walks to his car as the sun rises. By the end of the day, the university will announce the appointment of an interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity. Chuck Henson will begin work immediately, the university says. But by nighttime, there are threats of violence toward black students on social media and more tension. Butler has no plans of backing down.
"We need to look at what's next," he says. "It's more than Tim Wolfe.
"So much has to happen on campus."
ESPN's Nicole Noren and John Barr contributed to this report.