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Column: I won’t let scoliosis or obstacles steal my dream of playing football for the Ole Miss Rebels

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Justin Butts
Oxford Stories
jbutts@go.olemiss.edu

Growing up has always been a challenge for me – from not fitting into high school, to not getting many chances in football. Playing football has probably been one of my biggest challenges. I was smaller than the other guys, I didn’t have any experience, and I got bullied.

I was introduced to football by my dad my ninth-grade year at Southwest high school in Macon, Georgia. At first, I did not want to play football at all. I thought it was a dumb game, and I felt that it would not make me happy.

My first day walking into the locker was different. All of the guys looked at me like I was lost, as if I was not meant to be there. Not knowing what position I would be good at playing, I still wanted to give it a shot. Surprisingly, all of the guys welcomed me with open arms, and did not judge me too harshly.

My teammates pushed me hard every day to be better. Playing running back was a hard job, and of course, every now and then, I would make a mistake and beat myself up over it, but one thing that I learn about football is that we are a family. My teammates would never laugh at me when I made a mistake. They just told me what I did wrong and how I could fix it.

After the first four games of being with the team, I came to love the sport and wanted to take it seriously. Every day, I tried to be one of the first guys out there practicing, looking over the playbook, and taking every opportunity given.

Things for me started to change when I learned I had scoliosis and needed surgery that year. That was one of the hardest things to take in for me, knowing that I had worked so hard trying to play the sport and that my career might end when I hadn’t had the chance to start good after my scoliosis surgery and numerous checkups.

My surgeon said it was possible to continue playing football, but only if I did the right things in therapy and stayed consistent. That motivated me to work as hard as I could to get healthy and finish where I started.

My high school experience was a little different than other students. I went to five different high schools with my dad. My sophomore year, I was at a new high school, Twiggs County High School in Jeffersonville, Georgia. My experience was not the same as at my old high school. The school was smaller, the students were aggressive, and the environment just was not meant for me.

The coach at my new school was different. He did not care much about his players, nor did he care about the health of his players, which made things a little harder for me. I felt that I did not fit in at Twiggs County, and I did not belong there. My teammates down-talked me. I was used in practice as a hitting dummy, and I was harassed after every practice by my teammates.

Every night, I went home sore, beat up, and not myself. I felt miserable going to school there, and miserable playing football. There were many times when I just wanted to quit and leave the school, but I kept trying to get better and come to school with a positive mindset.

After six weeks of not seeing any playing time, I decided to quit the football team. That decision was one of my hardest because I had worked so hard to get back into playing football. I decided to keep training, get better at my position, and stay healthy until it was time to play again.

After my sophomore year and entering my junior year, I decided to give football another chance at Twiggs County with a new coach. I thought it would be a different experience, and the football players would be different. It turned out to be even worse than my sophomore year. I felt like another body for the starters to get hit around during practice and wasn’t taken seriously. I felt like I deserved a chance to get more reps with the starters and get playing time. I felt at times that I could do the same thing the starters could, but nothing worked in my favor.

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During my junior year, I stuck with the team for the rest of the season. I knew deep down that Twiggs County High School was not the school for me, and I wanted new scenery. After my junior year was over, I enrolled at my local high school, Baldwin County High School, to try out for their football team my senior year. Things seemed to be going right for me there. I was with guys I grew up with and was comfortable around. I finally had a chance to get more playing time at Baldwin.

I had a chance to be the wing back for Baldwin and have a serious role. I felt like I had a lot to prove and a lot on my shoulders because I’d never had a serious role before. My new coach was a character. He had the same mindset as my second coach. He did not care too much about how you felt, your health, or anything. He just wanted you to play, and if you could not, then you could “kick rocks.”

At the time, I didn’t care very much because I just wanted to play and do what I needed to do to keep my job. During the summer, I was used more as a receiving running back, not what I was used to doing. This made things a little hard for me considering I’m only used to running and not catching. I made numerous mistakes because I just wanted to go full speed with everything. I would drop passes, make the wrong blocks, and get confused with the wrong plays.

At the time, Baldwin was in a system in which the team needed to win to make the playoffs. This made things even harder for me considering I only played football for such a short period. I would stay after practice every day to learn the plays with my coaches, and get extra work in so I could show them I’m worth taking a shot on.

My coaches’ attitudes really made that hard for me because they were so harsh, and judged so hard. I did not give up because I wanted to make it happen. Finally, our spring game was around the corner, and it was time for me to shine and do what I needed to do to win my spot. With all the excitement, it felt like a rookie all over again, and I made regretful mistakes that ruined my chances of getting playing time.

I did not stress very much because I felt like it was more time for me to improve and get better after the spring game. While still attending Baldwin, I wanted to get more exposure for myself and went to as many football camps as I could to see if this is something I could do. Little did I know that attending one football camp would change my life in a big way.

I was invited to attend Presbyterian College, a division school, to get more exposure and learn what it takes to play on the collegiate level. After a successful camp, I gained confidence more than ever, but little did I know, my confidence would be shot down low once again by my coach at Baldwin. I was told that my playing would be deducted, and I didn’t have what it takes to be a starter.

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Being told that made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to play any more, until my dad said a new school he was working at needed football players in different positions. I thought this was a sign from God to keep going and not give up just yet. So, I took on another challenge and ran with it.

Me leaving Baldwin County was one of the best things I could have done for myself academically and athletically. I transferred to Dooly County High School in Vienna, Georgia, a school where athletes get exposure. Even the bench players got exposure. This school was a hot spot for recruits.

New coach Jimmy Hughes was the best coach you could ask for. For him to take a chance on me and build me back up was a game changer. I decided to change my position to corner to make my time in football last longer, and that decision was the best decision I could have ever made. I felt different as a player, and had more confidence than ever.

After a decent season with Dooly County, I had tons of schools, but unfortunately no offers. Two colleges decided to offer me to walk on their team and be an instant starter. Sadly, that road was not the road God wanted me to take. I went to a community college to focus on my academics, get bigger, faster, and stronger to transfer.

With my mindset and where I was in life, I felt I wanted to compete at a high level in college. You only live once, and I want to do something that people said I couldn’t. I got accepted to three SEC schools all in three days – Auburn University, Ole Miss and the University of Tennessee.

I chose Ole Miss out of the three because it felt like home, and I felt like I might have a chance to pursue something that most people would say is insane for a small town kid like me to do – play with the big boys without much experience. I feel like I have what it takes just like any other athlete, and I will take on the biggest challenge of my life during the spring.

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