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DeKALB – Jordan Delegal sat next to teammate Devon Butler in a linebackers meeting Friday before Northern Illinois football practice, and thought nothing of it.
Delegal had been sitting next to his injured teammate in position meetings for months. Even after Butler was the victim of an off-campus shooting April 5, he never left the program. But when linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz announced Butler would be wearing pads at practice, Delegal got one of the best surprises of the season.
“I was like, ‘What?’ ” Delegal said, jaw dropping as he smiled.
“But he couldn’t have any contact, so coach Tuke called him soft. He was like, ‘C’mon, coach.’ It was pretty funny. But as soon as he got there, I looked at him and we had a couple moments. It was like, ‘Bro, I haven’t seen you in pads in I don’t know how long.’ ”
Butler hadn’t been in pads since April 5, when NIU was in the middle of its spring season. That night, the junior was the unintended victim of an off-campus shooting, shot in the upper-right back after a friend had been involved in a botched drug deal.
NIU coach Dave Doeren said Butler can participate in non-contact drills, but won’t be cleared for contact until April – one year after Butler had potentially life-saving surgery at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center. Butler, who used his medical redshirt this season, was unavailable for comment Friday because he will not play in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 8.
Doeren met with Butler on Thursday, just to emphasize the importance of not pushing his body too much. Even then, Doeren could sense his players’ excitement.
“I said, ‘How you feeling? And he said, ‘I feel like I’m in first grade,’ ” Doeren said. “I just wanted to see where his head was, and he was excited. I just told him to be smart about it. He said he felt like a million bucks, and I’m just happy for him.”
Doeren said Butler has been working out with strength and conditioning coach Brad Ohrt “for months,” so Friday wasn’t his first physical activity since the injury.
“Going into my last football game, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Delegal said of having his teammate on the field in pads. “I mean, he got taken away from us early, but he’s always been in the linebacker room. And he brings his character in the room, and it stays with us all the time. So I believe that him being around is definitely a big impact, not only for the linebackers but for this team and the coaching staff and the entire program.”