Sports, these days, are often under fire for one thing or another. Press reports of blood doping, sex scandals, or NCAA recruiting violations are but a few examples of bad behavior that tarnish those sports that we love. Even so, in their finest moments, sports teach us things about our sense of values and our common humanity. I was reminded of this once again when I learned of the heartwarming tradition associated with the Middlebury College Football team, “Picking up Butch.”
After a week of being caged in following Hurricane Sandy’s assault of the east coast, I found myself channel surfing in my home office. I believe that a little background noise diminishes the isolation I sometimes feel during the ceremony writing process. I have spent countless hours developing scripts for weddings and other celebrations with a PGA tournament or collegiate football or basketball game on in the background. So when I came upon an ESPN program focusing on heroic sports moments, I tuned right in.
The show featured one inspiring story after the next, but I was particularly taken with the tale of Butch Varno, a now 65 year-old man profoundly afflicted with cerebral palsy. Grainy footage took us back to Butch’s youth when his elderly grandmother was taking him to a football game of the local Middlebury College team. The elderly lady had difficulty hoisting the cumbersome wheel chair, to get Butch into the car. Seeing her distress, several of the college players rushed to her aid. And there was a moment of connection and decency that has led to a 50 year tradition, that brings great pride to the Middlebury community.
Generation after generation, college athletes at Middlebury eagerly participate in the weekly ritual of driving to Butch’s home and escorting him to football or basketball games. As you might imagine,the games are nothing less than the highlight of Butch’s week. In a ritual so simple, but touching, these kids of privilege and health scoop up a fragile, and now somewhat aged, man whose body has been ravaged by a cruel disease.
Butch’s family is now gone, and he is forced to live in a local nursing home, but thankfully this campus tradition continues on. In fact, the program made note of the many alumni who reconnect with Butch when they are able. This story has haunted me since seeing the program—as a warmly moving, but bittersweet, custom.
Having grown up with an incapacitated mother, due to Multiple Sclerosis, I’ve seen first hand the daily challenges facing the infirmed. To know that Butch has been so graciously adopted by a college community delights me, and I know the various young people who tend him week in and week out will leave that experience as more compassionate human beings. And, for that, my heart soars. Can you imagine—if each one of us (in college and beyond) found one “Butch” to pick up, what a profound transformation we’d behold?
Enjoy this local news piece about the glory of this tradition.