The late Erk Russell would have loved Michael Butler.
Butler is similar to so many of the players Russell had in the early going as he built Georgia Southern into a national power — he’s an undersized overachiever, and a walk-on.
Regardless of who wins the first-round Football Championship Subdivision playoff game Saturday at 2 p.m. at Paulson Stadium between Georgia Southern and South Carolina State, the Eagles' starting safety will be a winner before and after the game.
Butler’s is a story of perseverance, believing in oneself and faith. A threshold for pain helped, too.
When he graduated from Stone Mountain’s Shiloh High School, where he played for Georgia Southern graduates Nick Davis and Don Hudson, there were no recruiters beating down the door.
Butler wound going to North Greenville University in Greenville, S.C. He played one season.
“I had to leave,” Butler said. “My father didn’t have the money to send me back to school.”
The 5-foot-7, 177 pound junior returned home and found a job in a tire shop. It was hard work, not much fun, and something Butler knew he didn’t want to do the rest of his life.
“I was running the streets,” Butler said. “I was working out at a local gym and doing pushups at night.”
A high school teammate, Christian Jordan, had also gone to North Greenville, but he transferred to Georgia Southern and walked on as a linebacker.
“Christian kept telling me I should come here,” Butler said. “He told me I would really like it.”
Finally Butler relented and applied for admission. He waited and waited, and finally learned the day classes began for the second semester last January he had been accepted.
“I kept saying my prayers,” Butler recalled. “Finally one day I called, and they told me I had been admitted. Classes had started that day.
“I showed up in Statesboro with $50, a pair of cleats and everything I owned in a brown paper sack,” Butler said. “I slept on a couch for three weeks.”
Butler walked on and spent all of last fall on the scout team in what was former Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher’s last season.
“The coaches didn’t know me when I got here,” Butler said. “I had to start from the very bottom, and that meant the scout team. I didn’t even get to dress out for a game.”
In the final week of the season Butler broke his leg, and that set him back even further.
“That was pretty devastating,” Butler said. “Then Coach Hatcher got fired and we got new coaches, and they didn’t know me.”
They also didn’t know about the broken leg because Butler didn’t tell them.
“I figured if they knew about that I wouldn’t get a chance,” Butler said. “It was really painful, but I got through it.”
After being tried at cornerback, and then linebacker by defensive coordinator Brent Pry he was finally moved to safety. He broke into the starting lineup at The Citadel, and has remained there.
“He’s a Grade-A kid,” Pry said. “He understands where he came from, and he’s very appreciative of everything.
“After The Citadel game he gave me a hug and thanked me for giving him a chance. That really meant something to me.
“He’s playing very good football for us, and we’re 4-1 with him in the starting lineup. He has a lot of composure and shows leadership potential. He works hard at studying and learning the opposition.”
Hopefully Butler got a lot of study time in the week because SCSU quarterback Malcolm Long figures to test the Eagle secondary.
Long threw for 1,714 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 58 percent of his passes. The Bulldogs averaged 31.8 points per game, second best in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference.