LOS ANGELES — The first time Jake Butt tore his ACL, he had little trouble returning to the football field.
The second recovery process, which came after he injured his ACL in his final collegiate game, the 2016 Orange Bowl? That was fine, too.
After sitting out all of 2017, Butt found the field to start the 2018 season. In three games, he caught eight passes for 85 yards, and the fifth-round pick seemed like the missing piece in Denver’s offense.
But then he suffered a third tear — this time in a Broncos practice ahead of a Week 4 game in 2018 against the Chiefs — and Butt found out the road to recovery isn’t always so easy.
“This has been the toughest ACL recovery, for sure,” Butt said. “I was thinking the other day — I wasn’t really sold on ACL being a hard thing. I was like, ‘Eh, it’s not that big of a deal.’ You have a couple tough weeks, and then you’re over it. This one put reality into check.”
Butt practiced at the beginning of training camp as the Broncos started their 2019 season, but then he missed a slew of practices as he hit a series of potholes, as Head Coach Vic Fangio called them during training camp.
The third-year player didn’t participate in 11-on-11 drills until weeks into training camp, and he didn’t play in any of the team’s first three preseason games.
“Not being able to practice at the beginning of camp, going through some setbacks — it definitely tested me mentally,” Butt said. “I don’t mind the physical pain, but mentally, it’s been the hardest one. I think I’ve turned the corner and I’m feeling good and want to put together a good season — a good, healthy season — and put some good things on tape and continue to build on them.”
Butt may have turned that proverbial corner on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
In his first game action since Week 3 of the 2018 season, Butt caught two passes for 17 yards.
“I thought he did well — got a couple balls, was active in there,” Fangio said. “I saw him run some good routes where the ball didn’t even go to him. Based on what I saw, live action, which isn’t everything, I think he’ll probably be pleased with himself.”
Butt didn’t play in the second half, as the Broncos followed a predetermined plan for reps.
“Yeah, we weren’t going to play him [the whole game],” Fangio said. “I didn’t know exactly what his rep count ended up being, but we had a rep count that we wanted to get to.”
Butt said after his short stint on the field that he won’t allow himself to get “too excited” about work in a preseason game, but he acknowledged even being back on the field was a “step in the right direction.”
“I’ve got to look at the tape, but I feel pretty good about what I did out there,” Butt said. “[I] had a couple catches, I thought I blocked well and came out healthy. So it’s all good.”
Butt appeared to have a brief injury scare early in the game when he went to the sideline. He quickly returned to action, though, and he said afterward that he had “no idea” what happened. And even if something was wrong, it wasn’t going to stop him from getting his first taste of game time in nearly a year.
“I just felt like I needed to shake something out in my leg,” Butt said. “I really don’t know. I went back in. There was nothing that was going to stop me from going back in, honestly. I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ I went back in, put some good stuff on tape and came out healthy.”
His teammates have noticed that sense of determination and persistence, which has come to define Butt over his career in Denver.
“Perseverance,” Butt’s former roommate Elijah Wilkinson said. “That’s my word for him. That man has been through a lot, and he’s worked harder than anybody I’ve ever seen work. Kudos to him [for] getting back on the field.”
Reserve quarterback Kevin Hogan, who started Saturday’s game and completed two passes to Butt, felt similarly.
“It was awesome,” Hogan said. “He was so excited to be back out [there]. He’s worked so hard. And he made two huge plays on that one long drive we had. He’s good. He’s a heck of an athlete, and he’s going to do a lot of good things for us.”
After an arduous recovery process, he’s finally in position to do that. And with as much time as he’s spent on the sideline, that’s a welcome change.
“I’ve played so little in my time here,” Butt said. “It’s been a grind.”
As he showed Saturday night in Los Angeles, though, that grind just might have been worth it.