United in one: In Treyjohn Butler, a fighter for justice emerges from the gridiron

EMPATHY DOES NOT come without a cost, which is how Treyjohn Butler found himself driving down a road last summer with no destination.

Windows rolled tight as he sped across the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, he reached deep within himself and unleashed a scream borne of overwhelming responsibilities, frustration and exhaustion.

Turbulent times can bring out the worst or the best. For Butler, a fifth-year cornerback, times like these allowed him to emerge as an advocate.

The pandemic left the college football season splintered among those rushing to get back and those taking a measured approach. In communication with fellow athletes, first through College Athlete Unity, a national group chat on players’ rights in all sports, and to a cohort of Pac-12 Conference football players under the banner of We Are United, Butler saw inconsistencies and shortcuts.

A September season opener was expected when Pac-12 teams began training camp, but was that too soon? Precautions and care differed wildly from program to program.

We Are United needed leaders, and Butler stepped forward - "an uncomfortable place to be," he said. But he felt it would be "a slap in the face," if Stanford, as a producer of leaders and difference-makers, did not stand in full support of players from other schools. The group met with U.S. senator Cory Booker, a Stanford football alum, and pushed hard to present talking points to the conference.

On Aug. 11, the Pac-12 CEO Group, in cooperation with athletics directors and its COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee, halted training camps and the season was postponed before eventually opening last weekend. The goal all along was not to prevent a season, but to play one, albeit safely. To some, We Are United’s role came off as defiant. Judgment was harsh, but it was worth it to Butler and helped further the idea of representation for student-athletes.

"No matter the school or the conference, we are our brothers’ keepers," Butler said. "We must stand together."

We Are United was right to have Butler in its corner. Backed into it enough times on his own, he has learned to punch his way out, becoming a grittier and better man with each blow. He understands who needs help. His soul demands it.

MATTIE HENDERSON OFTEN is asked how she raised such a son - Treyjohn graduated in June with a degree in political science and is working toward a master’s in communication, with law school possibly on the horizon.

"I’m not quite sure why some people are chosen and some are not," Henderson said. "He may be that person."

Primarily raised alone by a single mother who for a long while was unable to work because of a back injury, Treyjohn gathered strength from her example. She was selfless, strong, spiritual and unshakable. There always was a sense of calm about her, even when times were hardest.

"My strength came from being able to lean on her," Butler said. "She was always there."

Often, Treyjohn returned from school to their Rancho Cucamonga, California, apartment and simply rested his head on her lap. Problems seemed to dissolve.

Treyjohn doesn’t recall meeting his father, Walt Butler, until age 7. They actually met when Treyjohn was 4, at Walt Butler Sports Shoes in Pasadena. An argument ensued when Clinte, an older brother by 17 years, stood up to their father on behalf of his little brother. Treyjohn remembers playing with the doors of his toy yellow Lamborghini while sitting on a bench in the store, but remembers nothing else.

Walt Butler was "king," in Pasadena, a great athlete who gave back to the community, said Treyjohn. Walt remains the world-record holder in the 100-meter hurdles for the 50-54 age group (13.57) and is enshrined in the U.S. Track and Field Masters Hall of Fame. All the kids in town got their sports gear at his store on Washington and Lake. Extra shoes might also find their way to the homeless in a nearby alley.

Treyjohn felt a void without a father and asked to live with him. The arrangement lasted short of two years before the relationship crumbled and Treyjohn returned permanently to his mother. However, Treyjohn’s world opened up through life in Pasadena. He discovered and grew close to members of his father’s side of the family and joined Coach Victor McClinton’s Brotherhood Crusade, a year-round youth sports organization that aimed to get kids off the streets.

"Pasadena is where I learned everything about life," Treyjohn said. "Street smarts, sports. The City of Roses gave me my last name. My family would not be family without that city. The moments of being the descendent of my father and traveling through a community he helped change, I will always remember."

Whether it was flag football, basketball, soccer, or track and field, Treyjohn wore the green and black uniform alongside Myles Bryant, now a cornerback for the New England Patriots, and friends named Avery and Isaiah. They were inseparable. During their time together, that was the foursome on the 4x100 relay team, and the players on the court in basketball, though they had to split up in football or else they would dominate.

"We always had a great time," Butler said. "We were kids. We were always busy with practice and games, as long as you did your homework. Some kids on the team had a lot harder situations than I had, but we were always there together. It was like the Dream Team, really, and Coach Victor was a mentor, a father, and a leader who kept us in check. If guys were slipping in school, you could count on him to be there to make sure stuff was going accordingly."

On Christmas night, 2012, a news report flashed on Treyjohn’s TV. Coach Victor was dead, killed on Christmas morning as a bystander in a car-to-car shooting between two gangs involved in a chase down a Pasadena street. A friend had dropped off a Christmas present and McClinton was walking him to his car when he was shot in the head in front of his own house. The community mourned.

"One person, one family, one athlete at a time. He changed Pasadena," police chief Phillip Sanchez said at the time.

Treyjohn’s mother had ties to Pasadena too, working behind the scenes in the fire department there before a back injury forced her to retire. Treyjohn returned to a three-bedroom home that at times included multiple extended family members.

"I sheltered him," Mattie said. "I didn’t want him exposed to anything. He got exposed to more in Pasadena than I would have ever wanted. There were things he told me about as he got older that I couldn’t believe."

His grandmother, Ella Gholston, especially encouraged Treyjohn to follow his dreams. Nothing to her was too outrageous. When Treyjohn vowed in sixth grade to attend Stanford, Gholston believed in him.

No matter the school or the conference, we are our brothers’ keepers... We must stand together.
Treyjohn Butler

TREYJOHN WAS LIKE any other kid in middle school. He had the latest sneakers, the cool backpack, and played video games. Life was good. "Chilling," as Treyjohn described it. Within seconds, all that changed.

Driving north up Interstate 15 on the way to take football photos, a dog appeared in front of them. Mattie swerved. Their Nissan Versa spun across the lanes, bent around a pole and bounced off, tumbling down an embankment and narrowly missing a tree before settling on its shredded tires.

"I opened my eyes to my mom, holding her arm across my chest, trying to protect me," Treyjohn said.

A groggy Mattie and Treyjohn emerged from the vehicle with cuts and bruises. Treyjohn had fractured ribs, but otherwise was unscathed. It was a narrow escape. If the car hit the pole an inch or two from the frame, the result may have turned tragic.

"It was probably the defining moment of my life," Butler said, "and in my relationship with God."

Days later, as Mattie and Treyjohn returned to the vehicle at a junkyard to retrieve some belongings, a worker surveyed the damage. He couldn’t believe they survived.

The car rested between two others similarly wrecked. "A family of five," the worker said, shaking his head. "And a family of four."

The crash had an immediate effect on Treyjohn’s outlook.

"Objects became replaceable," he said. "Money wasn’t as important. I didn’t care about having all these shoes. That stuff didn’t matter anymore. Love and the ones you care about... anything else is a waste of time."

That message continued to be hammered home. A close friend from Etiwanda High School, Marissa, took her own life. There was the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, a Baseline League rival while at Upland High. Former Stanford teammate Zach Hoffpauir died by an accidental drug overdose. Treyjohn nearly lost his grandmother when she took the wrong medication, though Mattie was there to save her.

"You don’t know who’s going through stuff," Butler said. "The time we have with people is uncontrollable. You don’t know how much time you’re going to have with them."

WITH HIS SISTER off to college, brother relocated to Ohio, and grandmother at a senior living facility, the family was down to two - Mattie and Treyjohn. There were stretches when Mattie looked after her mother and Treyjohn was alone, managing on his own. Self-motivation never was an issue. In fact, Mattie never had to convince Treyjohn to apply himself in school. She never needed to.

"I never wanted to add anything to my mom’s plate," he said. "I’m going to smile, have the best grade in the class, and you’re not going to know."

One day in 2015, Butler took a call in his room. It was David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.

"I know you’ve got a big decision ahead of you," Shaw said. "But I wanted to let you know, you’ve been admitted to Stanford University."

"Who was that?" Mattie asked.

"It was Coach," he said.

"What happened?"

"I got in!"

This is what drew Butler’s attention: Stanford players making a difference. Doug Baldwin, Andrew Luck, Richard Sherman, and Michael Thomas were shining lights in their communities. People looked to them to bring change.

That was what Butler wanted, too. He always was willing to help those in the community, not just in an organized sense, but if there were those he knew with disabilities or elderly, Butler wanted to lend a hand. He learned this from his mother.

"He saw my strength," she said. "By the grace of God, I am a strong person and I have a strong foundation. My heart is pretty big, but his heart is bigger than mine."

Once at Stanford, Butler envisioned stepping on campus, taking a deep breath, looking left and right, admiring the sun on Hoover Tower, and soaking in the fact that it was real. He was a Stanford student. But that feeling never came. Instead, he didn’t feel much of anything. The smile that characterized him for so long was absent, done in by family crises, injuries, and classes he was not passionate about.

"My heart was becoming cold, I didn’t like talking to people," Butler said. "I also misunderstood the lessons my grandma and mom had taught me in regard to being tough and dealing with adversity. I thought she dealt with adversity by holding it in, not letting anybody see you down. Fake it ’til you make it, and you’ll be all right." He was wrong.

Coaches noticed and made well-being his No. 1 off-season priority during one evaluation. Allow people inside. It’s OK to ask for help.

FOLLOWING A 31-28 loss to USC in the 2017 Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, Butler returned to campus. He revved up his Dodge Ram 1500. With an L.E.D. light bar and mud terrain tires on ballistic wheels, the truck reflected Butler’s interest in cars.

The engine was loud anyway and after sitting for a couple of days, the truck took time to warm up. As Butler drove off, a resident responded to the noise by calling the Stanford sheriff’s department, reporting falsely that a car had been doing doughnuts in the parking lot. Soon, Butler was pulled over.

"Whose truck is this?" the officer asked.

Soon, multiple law enforcement vehicles arrived. As he spoke to the officer through the driver’s side window, Butler noticed in the side mirror that an officer on the right had his gun unclipped. Butler grew irritated. Why was he viewed as a threat? Meanwhile, teammates heading home happened upon the scene, causing further embarrassment for the then-19 year-old.

"Calm down, calm down," his mother reassured him over the phone.

Eventually, Butler was handed a ticket for failure to merge into a bicycle lane before making a right turn, a low-level violation that belied the tension of the scene.

It was not the first time Butler felt racially profiled. It happened more than once back home, and more rudely. All in all, he was thankful the stop didn’t get out of hand. Today, he says he has a good relationship with campus sheriff deputies and has proposed a meet and greet between Stanford players and campus officers to bridge any differences.

But for this to happen at Stanford? To a student who publicly represents the university? Coinciding with a legal situation in which his brother was misidentified, it was too much.

Butler tried to fight it in county court, but wasn’t given a chance to speak while the judge was disrespectful, Butler felt, in language and tone. Butler, who was working for a valet company on weekends and sending money to his mother, had to pay a steep fine.

"I walked out of court thinking, something doesn’t feel right," Butler said. "I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to be part of what’s needed to change this."

Butler had considered switching his major from product design, and now was sure of it. He walked into academic advisor Melissa Stringer’s office, told her what happened and what he wanted to do. She gave him a hug and asked, "What are the first classes you want to take?"

"Justice, citizenship, and democracy," he replied, and enrolled in those immediately. Now, Butler looks toward a future as a politician or district attorney, seeking to stand up for those underrepresented, overlooked, or cast aside.

"You can’t change anything if you don’t educate yourself," Butler said. "If we can give a fighting chance for everybody in the judicial system, then we have a chance to have some serious impact."

"I walked out of court thinking, something doesn’t feel right... I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to be part of what’s needed to change this.
Treyjohn Butler

IN THE WAKE of the killing of George Floyd, Butler joined protests in Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino, one of the most impoverished cities in the country with nearly 35 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

As buildings burned, helicopters hovered and traffic stalled, Butler was moved in particular by signs held by a grandmother, a woman in a car with tears streaming down her face, and by a little girl thrusting her fist in the air while sitting on her father’s shoulders. Drained and embittered after days of protests, an emotional Butler called Shaw late at night and found a sympathetic ear.

Shaw witnessed the maturity as Butler grew from a freshman who kept to himself to a leader who has found his voice.

"Stanford’s a big place with a lot of really smart talented people," Shaw said. "Treyjohn didn’t struggle necessarily, but it took him a while to find his place. To compare Treyjohn Butler now as a senior to Treyjohn Butler as a freshman, the growth has been exponential. He’s confident. He’s talkative. He’s learned.

"You talk to him and he wants to hear what you have to say. If you believe something different, great. Let’s talk this through. Treyjohn will try to find commonality. Either I’ll change my mind or you’ll change yours. Or, neither of us will change, but we’ll be able to shake hands and walk away."

With more of a purpose, the darkness surrounding Butler’s mood lifted. He smiles again, but Treyjohn also knows that mental health never can be taken for granted. It takes work, whether with regular meetings with a therapist or, in his case, with Stanford’s assistant director of sports psychology Julie Sutcliffe.

Butler never was clinically diagnosed with depression, but the mental and emotional fatigue of injuries, particularly a third surgery on his knee in the fall of 2019, weighed him down. It wasn’t until he asked for help that he truly began to overcome it, though it is a constant fight.

He approaches depression and anxiety as spiritual warfare, and a tattoo of a shield outlining the phrase, "Keep fighting your demons," is inked onto his stomach. It’s an ode to a biblical passage in the book of Ephesians, about the "armor of God" and the "shield of faith."

During one low point, Butler found himself watching a sermon online. He found the pastor authentic and transparent. Butler listened harder. As the pastor shared his own mental health struggles, Butler felt like the message was just for him. It was about finding your fight, and discovering inner reasons to fight that fight.

Butler considered his own ’why,’ and his thoughts kept going back to his mom, the person he’s tried to emulate his whole life.

"She gives me so much strength, so much power," he said. "I will be the man my mom wants me to be. I will be the man for my household.

"I know who I am."

A fighter, for those who need one.

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