Rodney Butler calls it “The Howl.”
It’s a celebration the Palm Springs High School senior outside linebacker unleashed only after his biggest plays this season.
His body flexed and pulsing with energy, Butler would get up after making a consequential tackle, tilt his head back to the sky and scream.
It wasn’t an ostentatious display from a self-proclaimed star, but a spontaneous one from an unpretentious player finally believing in himself, flashing the talent that college recruiters kept telling him he possessed.
For his standout play and humble approach, Butler has been selected as The Desert Sun Defensive Player of the Year.
New Mexico State noticed Butler’s impressive performance this season and offered the linebacker a scholarship Nov. 8. He verbally committed five days later to the school, which will compete as an independent next season because the WAC has dropped football.
“If you had asked me my freshman year would I ever think about going D-1,” he said, “I’d be like, ‘I’d love to, but I would never have the chance.’ “
It wasn’t until this spring that Butler realized he had a chance. One day, he got out of his metals class to meet with a Boise State recruiter. After they talked, the recruiter gave the linebacker his number so his father, Rodney, could call him later that evening.
That phone conversation lasted one hour. Immediately after the elder Butler hung up the phone, he told his son the Broncos were interested in him. The linebacker paused to let the news sink in.
“It just hit me there like I could really do this,” Butler said.
More colleges reached out to Butler with a similar message — with his 3.5 grade-point average, long arms and 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame that could support an additional 15 to 20 pounds, he was a Division I prospect.
“The more I got told that, the more I believed it,” he said.
Self-assured and determined, Butler immediately excelled this fall in his second year starting at outside linebacker for the Indians.
“He just got a lot more confident in his ability and his knowledge of what we were trying to do defensively,” Indians defensive coordinator Tyrus Brown said, “and I think that led to him playing a little more comfortable. He definitely took a huge step from last year.”
Butler led Palm Springs this season with 118 tackles, including five sacks. He also had three passes defensed, one fumble recovery and three forced fumbles.
One play stood out from the rest and marked his emergence as a star. It occurred in the biggest game of the season against La Quinta, and Butler punctuated it with “The Howl.”
“That’s a play I’ll remember throughout my whole coaching career as one of the greatest efforts of a player in a crucial situation,” Indians coach Dan Murphy said.
The game was scoreless with more than 7 minutes remaining in the second quarter, but La Quinta was threatening. Facing third-and-9 at the Indians’ 20-yard line, the Blackhawks had driven 62 yards in 12 plays and already had converted three third downs.
“We had to get them off the field,” Butler said.
His target was La Quinta quarterback Alex Beyma. Blitzing off the right edge, Butler tried to elude running back Isaiah Verazas by feinting to the outside and then cutting inside. Although he shed the running back’s block, Verazas got enough of Butler to knock him off balance. As he fell to the ground, he lunged at Beyma.
He missed. Beyma had stepped back to avoid the linebacker.
“Most players would have been content laying on the ground saying I tried,” Murphy said, “but that wasn’t good enough for him.”
Butler sprang up, chased down Beyma and tossed him to the ground for a 13-yard loss that knocked La Quinta out of field goal range. He shouted as he stood up. After taking a quick breath, he howled even louder and smacked his chest twice with both hands.
He wasn’t preening for the crowd or taunting La Quinta. He was just lost in a special moment, reveling in the player he had become.