THE BEST collegetradition is not dotting the i at Ohio State. It's not stealing the goat fromNavy. Or waving the wheat at Kansas. It's Picking Up Butch at Middlebury (Vt.)College.
Freshman athleteshave been Picking Up Butch for football and basketball games for 42 years. It'sa sign-up sheet thing. Carry the ball bags. Gather all the towels. Pick UpButch.
Basketballplayers, men and women, do it during football season. Football players do itduring basketball season. Two hours before each home game, two freshmen grabwhatever car they can get and drive a mile off campus to the tiny house where56-year-old Butch Varno lives with his 72-year-old mother, Helen, who never gother driver's license. And they literally Pick Up Butch, 5' 3" and 170pounds, right off his bed.
They put him inhis wheelchair or a guy hauls him in a fireman's carry. They pile him into thecar, cram the wheelchair into the trunk, take him to the game and roll him tohis spot in the mezzanine for football games or at the end of the bench forbasketball.
Butch alwayssmiles and says the same thing: "CP just sucks." Cerebral palsy. Whilehis fondest dream has always been to play basketball, it'll never happen. Thereis little that he can physically do for himself.
"At first,you're a little nervous; you're like, I don't know," says freshman wideoutRyan Armstrong. "But the older guys say, 'We did it when we were freshmen.Now you go get him. It's tradition.' "
And the kids don'tjust Pick Up Butch. They also keep him company. Take him to the bathroom. Feedhim. "He likes a hot dog and a Coke," says 6' 8" Clark Read, apower forward. "It's kind of weird at first, sticking a hot dog in hismouth. The trick is to throw out the last bite so he doesn't get yourfingers."
Thanks to years offreshmen, Butch has hardly ever missed a Middlebury game. Not that he hasn'tbeen late.
"One day thisyear, the two guys were calling me on their cell," says Armstrong, "andthey're going, 'We can't find Butch!' And I'm like, 'You lost Butch? How canyou lose Butch?' Turns out they just couldn't find his house."
Nobody atMiddlebury remembers quite how Picking Up Butch got started, but Butch does. Itwas 1961. He was 13, and his grandmother, a housekeeper at the dorms, wheeledhim to a football game. It started snowing halfway through, and afterward shecouldn't push him all the way home. A student named Roger Ralph asked them ifthey needed a ride. Ever since then, Butch has been in the middle of Middleburysports.
Sometimes he givesthe basketball team a pregame speech, which is usually, "I love youguys." He holds the game ball during warmups and at halftime until the refsneed it. He is held upright for the national anthem. Once in a while, justbefore tip-off, they put him in the middle of the players' huddle, where theyall touch his head and holler, "One, two, three, together!" When theaction gets tense, the freshmen hold his hands to keep them from flailing.After the games some of the players come back to the court and help him shufflea few steps for exercise, until he collapses back in his chair, exhausted. Thenit's home again, Butch chirping all the way.
And it's not justthe athletes at Middlebury who attend to him. Students come by the house andhelp him nearly every day. Over the years they taught him to read, and thenlast year they helped him get his GED. Somebody got him a graduation cap andgown to wear at the party they threw in his honor. During his thank-you speech,Butch wept.
"These kidscare what happens to me," Butch says. "They don't have to, but they do.I don't know where I'd be without them. Probably in an institution."
But that's not thequestion. The question is, Where would they be without Butch?
"It makes youthink," says Armstrong. "We're all young athletes. Going to a game orplaying in a game, we take it for granted. But then you go Pick Up Butch, and Idon't know, it makes you feel blessed."
The months betweenthe end of the basketball season and the start of football are the worst."It stinks," Butch says. He sits at home lonely day after day, watchingBoston Red Sox games on TV, waiting for the calendar pages to turn to the dayswhen he can be one, two, three, together again with the students he loves.
On that day thedoor swings open, and standing there, young and strong, are two freshmen. And,really, his just seeing them is what Picking Up Butch is all about.
Rick Reilly is onvacation. This column first appeared in the March 10, 2003, issue. Last weekMiddlebury launched an initiative to raise money for Butch, now 60, and hismother, who were flooded out of their home in March. For more info, visitgomidd.com.
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
RIFFS OF REILLY
Watch exclusively on V CAST from Verizon Wireless and Sl.com.
"These kids care what happens to me," Butchsays. "They don't have to, but they do. I don't know where I'd be withoutthem. Probably in an institution."
PETER READ MILLER