By Chris McCarthy/Editor
John Butts is a man of his word.
The former Etowah High and current Albertville varsity girls basketball coach returned to Wyman Townsel Gym on Nov. 13 for the first time as an opposing coach since leaving the Lady Blue Devils five years ago.
It was not your ordinary Attalla homecoming, however. Butts was paralyzed from the neck down in an accident in July, putting his teaching and coaching career on hold. Butts did not suffer head trauma or brain damage but his spinal cord was pinched and compressed.
While being transported by helicopter to UAB, however, Butts had trouble breathing and experienced a dangerous drop in blood pressure. Including his stay in ICU and his rehab therapy at UAB, Butts was in the hospital for over two months.
When Butts was in the ICU unit, however, he made a promise to his Albertville players and their parents that he would coach this season.
“I think that them seeing me work hard to get back was a great learning tool for them,” he said. “Just being around the kids made me want to get better. It’s emotional tonight, but it’s not about me and Etowah; it’s about my players, and I couldn’t ask to be at a better place with what happened to me. I cried about five times before nine in the morning because of all the Albertville people texting me and wishing me the best.”
Due in large part to an intense rehabilitation process, Butts can use his arms and is able to stand on his own. He assumed his duties at AHS three weeks ago and is ready both physically and mentally to direct the Lady Aggies. He plans on beginning his teaching duties in January.
Butts shared that while he was still in ICU, God told him that he would walk again. After several minutes of prayer, Butts’ wife Staci agreed.
“I never looked back after that,” he said. “From that point on, it was all about therapy and looking ahead. There were times when I felt that I couldn’t make it through the second of my two-a-day sessions, but somehow I did.”
Butts, who was named AHS girls coach in May, added that he’s had great support from the Albertville community, noting that he received numerous texts and phone calls throughout the day on Nov. 13 wishing him good luck against his old school.
Adding to the emotion was the fact that it was the first game in several years that Butts didn’t have his son T.J. by his side as an assistant coach. A 2007 Etowah High graduate, the younger Butts passed away in April at the age of 26.
A 1986 graduate of West End High School, Butts coached the Etowah High varsity girls for 10 years before moving to Gadsden State in 2011. Butts’ four-year run with the Lady Cardinals included an overall record of 78-31, a state runner-up finish in the 2013-14 Alabama Community College Conference Tournament and a berth in the ACCC Tournament semifinals in 20014-15 and 2012-13.
Several of Butts’ GSCC players signed with four-year schools, including current Jacksonville State junior guard Lacey Buchanon, who was named Alabama Community College Conference Player of the Year for the 2013-14 season.
“One of the first people who visited me in the hospital was Lacey,” said Butts. “I’m very blessed that I’ve stayed in touch with most of my former players. I can’t tell you how many text messages I received today (Nov. 13).
Butts also coached girls at Westbrook Christian and Ashville and spent four seasons as Etowah junior varsity boys coach.
“I missed it,” Butts said of returning to the high school ranks. “I missed the relationship part. At a two-year school, you get them for two years and they’re gone. At Etowah, being there for so long, I enjoyed knowing who my point guard was from third grade up, and I enjoyed knowing their parents from third grade up. I’ve had good kids wherever I’ve been.”
Butts said that one of his longtime coaching mantras helped get him through the aftermath of his accident and rehabilitation.
“I’ve always believed in people, process and product, and the people are the most important thing, because if the people don’t matter, neither will the last two things. If you approach your team as a family, you create a lot of lasting relationships, and that was one of things that brought me back to high school basketball.
Although he must use a walker for motion, Butts can stand without assistance, something that he’s done from time to time to motivate his AHS players.
“I wanted the girls to see that I’m working for them, and it seems like they really responded to it,” he said.
Butts coached the Lady Aggies during the summer and actually ran five miles and played a pick-up basketball game the day before he was injured. Less than a week later, his players saw their coach paralyzed from the neck down. But Butts recently received the best possible news when his doctors informed him that when the swelling goes down, he should regain the use of all his limbs in approximately 12 to 24 months.
In other words, a full recovery is expected.
“I may not be back running half marathons, but I’ll be back walking,” Butts said prior to the Etowah/Albertville game. “I have faith in God’s grace and I have faith that I’m going to walk again. People have asked me if I went through a stage of depression, but what would that say about my faith if I walked around depressed? If you believe in God’s plan, you’ve got a foundation.”
Shannon J. Allen contributed to this story