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Extra Credit/Picking Up Butch

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    Extra Credit/Picking Up Butch

    Extra Credit

    Posted: Wednesday March 05, 2003 9:45 AM

    The best college tradition is not dotting the i at Ohio State. It's not stealing the goat from Navy. Or waving the wheat at Kansas.

    It's Picking Up Butch at Middlebury (Vt.) College.

    For 42 years Middlebury freshman athletes have been Picking Up Butch for football and basketball games. It's a sign-up sheet thing. Carry the ball bags. Gather all the towels. Pick Up Butch.

    Basketball players, men and women, do it during football season. Football players do it during basketball season. Two hours before each home game, two freshmen grab whatever car they can get and drive a mile off campus to the tiny house where 54-year-old Butch Varno lives with his 73-year-old mother, Helen, who never got her driver's license. And they literally Pick Up Butch, 5'3" and 170 pounds, right off his bed.

    They put him in his wheelchair and push him out of the house, or one guy hauls him in a fireman's carry. They pile him into the car, cram the wheelchair into the trunk, take him to the game and roll him to his spot in the mezzanine for football games or at the end of the bench for basketball.

    Butch always smiles and says the same thing from the bottom of his heart: "CP just sucks." Cerebral palsy. While his fondest dream has always been to play basketball, it'll never happen. There is little that he can physically do for himself.

    "At first, you're a little nervous; you're like, I don't know," says freshman wide receiver Ryan Armstrong. "But the older guys say, 'We did it when we were freshmen. Now you go get him. It's tradition.' So me and my buddy got him the first week. He's pretty heavy. We bumped his head a couple of times getting him into the car. He's like, 'Hey! Be careful!' But he loves getting out so much that afterward you feel good. It's fun to put a smile like that on somebody's face."

    And the kids don't just Pick Up Butch. They also Keep Butch Company. Take Butch to the Bathroom. Feed Butch. "He always likes a hot dog and a Coke," says 6'8" Clark Read, 19, a power forward. "It's kind of weird at first, sticking a hot dog in his mouth. The trick is to throw out the last bite so he doesn't get your fingers."

    Thanks to 42 years of freshmen, Butch hardly ever misses a Middlebury game. Not that he hasn't been late.

    "One day this year, the two guys were calling me on their cell," says Armstrong, "and they're going, 'We can't find Butch!' And I'm like, 'You lost Butch? How can you lose Butch?' Turns out they just couldn't find his house."

    Nobody at Middlebury remembers quite how Picking Up Butch got started, but Butch does. It was 1961. He was 13, and his grandmother, a housekeeper at the dorms, wheeled him to a football game. It started snowing halfway through, and afterward she couldn't push him all the way back home. A student named Roger Ralph asked them if they needed a ride. Ever since then, Butch has been buried in the middle of Middlebury sports.

    Sometimes he gives the basketball team a pregame speech, which is usually, "I love you guys." He holds the game ball during warmups and at halftime until the refs need it. He is held upright for the national anthem. Once in a while, just before tip-off, they put him in the middle of the players' huddle, where they all touch his head and holler, "One, two, three, together!" When the action gets tense, the freshmen hold his hands to keep them from flailing. After the games some of the players come back to the court and help him shuffle a few steps for exercise, until he collapses back in his chair, exhausted. Then it's home again, Butch chirping all the way.

    And it's not just the athletes at Middlebury who attend to him. Butch is a campus project. Students come by the house and help him nearly every day. Over the years they taught him to read, and then last year they helped him get his GED. Somebody got him a graduation cap and gown to wear at the party they threw in his honor. During his thank-you speech, Butch wept.

    "These kids care what happens to me," Butch says. "They don't have to, but they do. I don't know where I'd be without them. Probably in an institution."

    But that's not the question. The question is, Where would they be without Butch?

    "It makes you think," says Armstrong. "We're all young athletes. Going to a game or playing in a game, we take it for granted. But then you go Pick Up Butch, and I don't know, it makes you feel blessed."

    Now comes the worst time of the year -- the months between the end of the basketball season, last week, and the start of football in August. "It stinks," Butch says. He sits at home lonely day after day, watching nothing but Boston Red Sox games on TV, waiting for the calendar pages to turn to the days when he can be one, two, three, together again with the students he loves.

    On that day the door will swing open, and standing there, young and strong, will be two freshmen. And, really, just seeing them is what Picking Up Butch is all about.

    Issue date: March 10, 2003

    Don't miss The Life of Reilly (Total/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, $22.95) -- a best-of compilation of Rick Reilly's columns and features, with a foreword written by Charles Barkley, available online and at bookstores everywhere.

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