At lunchtime last Thursday, Hakeem Butler piled a mountain of food on his plate and sat down in the Cardinals’ cafeteria.
Even though this was the first day of his NFL career – a whirlwind afternoon that included equipment fitting, a physical, media duties and meetings – the fourth-round pick looked at ease, splitting his gaze between a cell phone on the table and a mounted television on the wall.
There was good reason for the lack of nerves. The new environment, the new people, the new expectations – these were nothing new to the rookie receiver.
“I’ve been through so much,” Butler said. “I’ve encountered so many different people in my journey across the country and gotten so many different perspectives that a lot of other people don’t get. And with those perspectives, I’ve seen people I want to be, and I’ve seen people I don’t want to be. So I know what I’m fighting for and towards.”
Butler was not destined to become an NFL player, but after a voyage that took him through multiple cities and various states of mind, he is here, hoping to become a key cog in the rebirth of the Cardinals offense.
Stop No. 1: Baltimore, Maryland
Sherryl Ford was a single mother to three children in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Amber was the oldest, Hakeem the middle child and Khalil the youngest.
Hakeem remembers living in a one-bedroom house growing up, occupying the top level of a bunk bed while Sherryl and Khalil shared the bottom and Amber slept in the living room.
Sherryl worked hard to keep Hakeem on the right path, a task easier said than done because of the omnipresent trappings of the city.
“If you grow up in Baltimore – and me and him, we both did – it’s a fact that you must grow up fast,” said Butler’s uncle, Aaron Harrison, Sr., who later moved to the Houston suburbs. “You must understand some things. It’s nothing like Phoenix, I can tell you that. It’s nothing like Richmond, Texas, either. You must develop some instincts of survival.”
The living arrangements improved when Sherryl found a job with the U.S. Postal Service, but the good vibes came to a screeching halt in 2010, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease inflicted a physical toll on Sherryl and a mental one on 14-year-old Hakeem.
“What he had to live with every day was tough,” Harrison, Sr. said. “His oldest sister was already an adult who had moved out. She was 18 or 19, and so, he was pretty much manning the fort. His mother was withering away, is the best words I can use. He was having to take her up and down the steps, take her to doctor visits at that age.”
A naturally inquisitive student, Butler’s grades took a nosedive, as school suddenly felt insignificant.
“I stopped caring for it, for the most part,” Butler said. “You’ve got so many other things going on.”
Stop No. 2: Macon, Georgia
As Ford’s condition worsened and Butler’s truancy increased, Hakeem’s extended family sent him to Macon, Georgia, to live with relatives. As the emotional burden diminished, 16-year-old Butler’s grades improved.
“Straight A’s,” he said.
Butler called the Georgia sabbatical an “incredible experience” because he gained a perspective that differed from his hardscrabble roots. But in the midst of his stay, Sherryl passed away, and Butler was jolted back into a sad reality.
“Initially, you have that why-me mentality,” Butler said. “It’s tough as a kid. With the life I had and everything I was going through in Baltimore, for her to just leave, it’s like, I don’t have a mom anymore. But I realized over time she’s always with me.”
Harrison, Sr. grew up with Ford in Baltimore and remembers her vibrancy and kindness. As she grew weaker, the pair had a conversation about the future of her sons.
“She said, ‘Take care of (them),’ and there wasn’t a second thought,” Harrison, Sr. said.
Immediately after Sherryl’s funeral, Khalil moved with him to Texas. Hakeem finished the semester in Georgia and then joined them.
Stop No. 3: Richmond, Texas
Butler loved to vacation in Richmond when he was a boy, naturally gravitating to his older cousins, Andrew and Aaron, Jr. While he was grateful to land in a stable environment following Sherryl’s death, the beginning was still fraught with emotion.
“You’re grieving and you’re trying to get over a devastating loss, and you’ve still got to continue on with your life,” Butler said. “For me, that’s the reason I had to grow up and become the man that I am today. As a child, I had to accept it and come to terms with it, and then try to live a happy life that a child should live.”
To this day, the pain is evident when Butler talks about losing his mother, but with the help of a strong support system in Texas, the crippling grief abated. He was glad to be with Khalil again, and the friendship with Aaron and Andrew blossomed.
“They don’t operate like cousins,” Harrison, Sr. said. “They operate more like brothers do.”
The Harrison twins were high-profile basketball recruits when Butler moved in. They went on to play two years at the University of Kentucky and both made it to the NBA, which made for an interesting dynamic in high school.
“People treated them a lot differently than I treated them,” Butler said with a laugh. “I still don’t understand. They’re just regular people to me. We fight every day and we do everything like brothers do.”
The equality transferred to the home.
“The truth is, Khalil was the one who probably got the most favorable treatment,” Harrison, Sr. said amusedly. “He was the youngest. He was the best kid. He got in no trouble. He got the best grades.”
Even though his cousins were basketball stars, Butler was always drawn to football. He played it in the streets of Baltimore as a kid but rarely in an organized setting. In Richmond, he joined the Travis High School team, although the state’s governing body believed he moved to Texas for athletic reasons, which shortened his junior and senior seasons.
The reason for the move was “clearly not sports,” Harrison, Sr. said. “Eventually we got that straight. … He wasn’t a big football star. He just wanted to play. He loved football.”
Butler was unpolished in high school, and after all the moving around, his ability to qualify academically for college was in doubt. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury was at Texas Tech at the time but didn’t offer a scholarship, and neither did the vast majority of power-conference schools.
But Iowa State liked the raw talent Butler possessed, and he worked hard enough to make it to campus after securing an offer.
Stop No. 4: Ames, Iowa
It was a gradual build for Butler with the Cyclones. He arrived at his current 6-foot-6 height but weighed only 174 pounds, according to Harrison, Sr. Butler redshirted his first year and then had nine catches in 2016.
Slowly and surely, it all began to click. Butler had 41 catches for 697 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. He was dominant this past season as a junior, finishing with 60 receptions for a school-record 1,318 yards and nine scores.
Iowa State faced off against Kingsbury’s Texas Tech team in October and Butler finished with four catches for 148 yards and a touchdown.
“You’re a beast,” Kingsbury told him after the game.
While his football career was taking off, the life lessons Butler learned from Baltimore to Macon to Richmond also stuck. Instead of taking an easy class-load to stay eligible, Butler graduated in three-and-a-half years with a liberal arts degree.
He’s already talking about going back to get his Master’s.
“My greatest accomplishment to this day has been graduating college,” Butler said. “That will stick by me forever.”
Stop No. 5: Tempe, Arizona
Butler was projected to go on the second day of the draft but slipped to the fourth round. As the Cardinals dialed him up in their War Room, Kingsbury was eager to voice his mea culpa after passing on Butler in college.
“I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, big dog,” Kingsbury told him.
The Cardinals have a pair of entrenched receivers in Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, but the depth chart behind them is wide open. Butler, who turned 23 on Thursday, has intriguing physical skills, as he pairs elite size with impressive speed. Butler ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the combine and said he has faster times on record.
“One team clocked me at a 4.35,” Butler said. “Make sure we get that out there.”
As much as it still hurts him, Butler believes his mother’s death steered him down this promising path. Sherryl insisted her sons grow up in a stable home after she died, which led to the setup with the Harrisons.
“I lost her so she could give me a new life,” Butler said, “and I carry that with me every day.”
There were multiple times Butler could have been derailed on his journey: by the streets of Baltimore, by grades or the high school governing body in Texas or by the slow start at Iowa State. He always persevered.
“He’s been through too much in life,” Harrison, Sr. said, “been through too much to settle.”
Even here in the NFL, questions about his route running and drops persist. Butler smiles cunningly when considering the new wave of doubt.
“Everything to this moment, I feel like people have tried to make an excuse for why not me,” Butler said. “I’ve always just shut people up like, ‘Yeah, it’s me, and it’s supposed to be me.’ That’s how my life has gone, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Images of the team's 11 draft picks inking their four-year rookie deals