It was Dec. 30, 2016 when Jake Butt walked off the turf at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, his head covered by a towel after a Florida State defender's helmet collided with his knee. It served as a bitter end to an illustrious career at the University of Michigan. The two-time first-team All-American and 2016 recipient of the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end, had torn his ACL.
It's an injury that caused Butt to slide all the way to the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft and then kept him sidelined for all of the ensuing NFL season. Though Butt did see some action this preseason, the Broncos' opener on Sunday will mark 618 days since he's played a game that counted for his team's record.
The Ohio native caught nearly 100 passes over his final two years as a Wolverine, and his abilities as both a pass catcher and a blocker caught the eye of NFL talent evaluators. Even though he now sports a knee brace and received limited preseason snaps, Butt feels like he can contribute in a major way in his regular-season debut.
"Yeah, I feel ready," Butt said. "Practice is no cakewalk either. We’ve got a lot of good guys on defense. We treat practice like it’s a game. I am ready. I’m ready to go play all four quarters."
Though Butt was certainly disappointed to miss last season, he believes being able to watch and study professional action up close for a year helped him be far ahead of where he would have been as a first-year rookie.
"Mentally I just feel more sharp," Butt said. "The game happens a lot faster, so you need to understand the offense and understand defenses a lot quicker. You need to play faster. You need to be bigger and stronger. So I think I've been doing a good job developing some of those things and trying to carry them into the games."
Butt saw action with the first- and second-teams throughout the preseason and is listed as the team's second-string tight end behind Jeff Heuerman. He pulled in a 5-yard pass from Case Keenum late in the first quarter of the third preseason game, against Washington, for his first in-game catch in nearly 20 months. He should see the field plenty on Sunday.
He's trying to stay in the moment, but he's also excited to make a return to the game he loves.
"Pretty grounded," said Butt regarding his emotions on Wednesday. "I’m not too high or too low. It definitely feels like a long time, but at the same time, you look back and the time has really flown by. Mainly, I’m just excited. I’m excited to play a full game. I’m excited to go make some plays and try to get a win for my teammates."
Butt's college career ended with him slowly walking off the field surrounded by medical staffers with his head down. If all goes to plan Sunday, he'll walk off surrounded by teammates with his head high and a win secured.
He's certainly waited for it long enough.