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Mario Butler's first start comes with greater perspective


Those words kept ringing in Bills cornerback Mario Butler's head during Buffalo's win over Dallas last Sunday. Not because he was making his first career start after better than four years of trying to make it in the NFL, but because of the news he received via text that morning.

Butler's closest childhood friend Joshua Lee was dying.

Diagnosed with colon cancer in July at age 28, Lee was rapidly approaching the end of his fight with the disease last Sunday morning.

"It caught me off guard," said Butler, who had been maintaining weekly contact with his Lee and his sister. "I got a text from his sister at 6 am Sunday to let me know he was basically taking his last breaths. He was trying to hang on for a couple of more hours.

The next text Butler received around 9 am was that his friend since sixth grade had passed.

"It was tough. It was heavy to go out there and play with that Sunday," Butler said. "The only thing I could really try and do is go out there and play for him because he was on me this year about this being my year and keep the same positive attitude that I always have. Just that things are going to open up for me and he kind of spoke it into existence. I just tried to stay as positive as I could."

Butler first learned of his friend's colon cancer diagnosis a week before training camp this past summer. Lee was already in the hospital at that time with the cancer unfortunately in an advanced stage. The prognosis wasn't good, but it didn't alter Lee's disposition.

"I remember the day before training camp I was sitting there with him in the hospital," said Butler. "He was asking me what I was doing there and that I should be with my wife and my kids. But I wanted to make sure that I at least saw him before training camp. But what struck me was how positive he was about his situation."

That late July visit would be the last time Butler saw his friend.

Despite the demands of the game, Butler would maintain frequent contact with Lee, often by text to see how his friend's cancer battle was going.  

"He was so positive so he would never tell me how bad he was really doing," said Butler. "I'd have to find out from his sister, so I had to do a cross reference. He'd tell me on text that he was doing great. Then I'd call his sister and she'd tell me he wasn't doing well.

"He never would tell me how bad it really was. He was just so much of a fighter. I often thought about that and if I was to get tired on the field, I would think about Josh and tell myself there's no way I can be tired. Josh is going through chemo and throwing up, so I had no excuse."

Upon making the Bills 53-man roster, Butler shared his good news with Lee, who was his biggest supporter. The response from Lee was typical.

'Congrats bro, I'm so proud of you. Keep grinding. I'm so happy. Go celebrate for me.'

Lee's encouragement and friendship was genuine, something that's often hard to find for NFL players, who often acquire friends that have self-serving motives.

"He's always been a great friend to me and put things into perspective for me," Butler said. "I always tried to be as positive as he was. No matter how bad my situation was I would call him sometimes thinking things weren't going my way, especially early in my career and he would tell me, 'Stay patient, your time will come.' I was like, how patient do I need to be?

"He was always so positive and supportive and so proud of me. He was like another family member."

From the time that Butler made Buffalo's roster, Lee had intentions to make it to one of his games this season to see him play in person. But by midseason Lee's cancer already had the upper hand on him.

Early on Butler wouldn't get a text back from his friend for a day or two at most. Now responses weren't coming for a week sometimes two. Come early November his friend's situation appeared irreversible.

"Really our last conversation that we could have on the phone was in November and he said he was doing well, but that's when he really started to slide and it got bad after that."

Butler kept in touch with Lee's sister for updates on his friend's condition. Knowing Lee was suffering became a burden for the Bills cornerback.

"That's why it hurt that I wasn't able to be there," said Butler. "Everyone tried to tell me that there was a reason I wasn't able to see him in that state. For your friends you always want to be there for them. I wanted to pay him back for being there for me all those times, but the only way to pay him back was to go out there and play for him."

So Butler did just that. After writing 'J. Lee' on the inside of his gloves and on the toes of his shoes, he added a brief message on his belt towel. 'R.I.P. JLee #cancersucks'

Butler didn't have much of an appetite Sunday morning after getting the news, but true to the way his friend lived his life, he didn't allow himself to be down for long.

"I had to snap out of it because I know he wouldn't want me to be like that," said Butler. "He was such a happy go lucky guy who brought energy to the room. Anytime you were down he was there to pick you up."

Part of a defensive effort that did not allow a touchdown in a 16-6 victory over Dallas, Butler felt he played well and saw it as a sign that he made his first NFL start on the same day his friend who told him this would be his year passed.

"He wanted to make it to a game and it's crazy because he wanted to make it to the Dallas game, because that's my former team and they gave me my start," said Butler. "I thought, 'Man he's got the best seat in the house.' I know how he wanted everything to play out for me. It's always better when you know there are people around you that want you to succeed as much as you do.

"Just the correlation between his diagnosis, my season and how it kind of intersected. You try to put it in perspective. I think I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. With him planting that seed for me to achieve and succeed I just tried to go through training camp like every play was my last play because football is big, but life is bigger.

"So when I was able to just go out there and play Sunday, it might have been the most fun I've had playing football. At the end of the game I looked down at my towel and my gloves and all I could think about was him saying, 'This is your year. This is your year.'"

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