Pinning his toughest foe
By Brian Sumers
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Donte Butler will never forget the feel of the knife piercing his left hand.
No matter how far wrestling takes him " maybe to college next fall on a scholarship, or some day to the Summer Olympics " two winding scars always remind Butler of the winter night two years ago when it all was nearly taken away.
Butler wanted to end a relationship with his girlfriend. They fought. She picked up a knife, he says, and swung it. In a matter of minutes, blood was everywhere.
The next day, Butler arrived at Sumner High with his wrist wrapped in white gauze. His tendons were severed, his nerves gone. He couldn't feel anything. Even so, he insisted he could wrestle.
Once doctors assured Butler he could not further damage his hand, he taped it into a fist and pinned it against his chest. Wrestling in the district, sectional and state meets with one good arm, Butler finished third at 112 pounds in Class 3 at the Missouri state tournament. He was a sophomore.
Nothing about the incident surprised the coach who helped bring him into the sport as an 8-year-old.
"That kid, "said Phil Hotop, a social worker and wrestling coach, "would go through hell in a gasoline-coated jacket."
After 36 stitches and one major operation, Butler is back at full strength.
And though he has faced so many hurdles " a single mother, a rough neighborhood, a serious injury and a part-time coach " Butler is a star wrestler.
He usually wrestles in the empty Sumner gymnasium, where garbage is strewn about the bleachers. His high school is not known for producing elite wrestlers, and his coaches admit they no longer have much to teach him.
Still, Butler finished second in both Freestyle and Greco-Roman at last summer's USA Junior Nationals, an event that gathers hundreds of the country's more talented wrestlers in Fargo, N.D.
This season the 5-foot-5 senior is a favorite to win the Missouri Class 3 championship at 119 pounds. He is 31-0.
USA Wrestling knows him. So do the coaches at most major wrestling schools, and he could earn a scholarship to one this spring. An industry magazine ranks him No. 8 among the nation's 119-pound wrestlers.
Butler is a natural in a sport in which an undersized athlete can compete through grit, determination, agility and speed. But near his North St. Louis home, where football and basketball rule, he mostly toils anonymously.
He does not care. He understands wrestling gives him a chance to succeed in life.
"It lets me take out my anger on different things, "Butler said. "I know (without wrestling) I would probably be out there fighting everybody and selling drugs or something."
Butler has never won a Missouri championship. His best finish was second in the state last season. It's his potential that coaches love.
Ike Anderson, USA Wrestling's Greco-Roman developmental coach, thinks Butler only needs a little more seasoning. He said Butler lost at the junior nationals in part because his two finals opponents had trained several times at the Olympic Development Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Butler will get his chance. Because he finished in the top six, he soon will receive an invitation to Colorado Springs for one week in the spring and one week in the summer, Anderson said.
"I know that kid knows how to fight, "Anderson said. "You get kids that get everything handed to them, and when it gets tough, they fold."
Hotop, the wrestling coach at the Wohl Community Center, has seen kids like Butler come and go.
But earlier this season, as Hotop darted around the mat rooting for his young prodigy during a meet at Hazelwood Central, he showed a special affinity for Butler.
Hotop is a social worker, and no one pays him to work with young wrestlers. His pants sag, he wears wool knitted caps, and he curses liberally.
He is the perfect foil for Butler, a lean, soft-spoken teenager with closely cropped hair.
The two met 10 years ago, when Butler, weighing just 60 pounds, accompanied his uncle Jermaine, a top wrestler at Beaumont High, to practice. Butler loved the sport immediately, and he and Hotop have been tied together since.
For the past decade, Hotop has paid for Butler's wrestling camp tuitions and tournament entry fees. Money comes from his own pocket and from donations to the center.
Hotop taught Butler to love wrestling, especially the routine. In middle school, Butler would run around the house in trash bags, coats and wool caps, so he could sweat and keep his weight down.
Butler steps from his house one evening and cocks his ear.
"Did you hear that? "he asks a visitor. "Those were gunshots."
This is Walnut Park, an enclave of North St. Louis near Interstate 70, where Butler's family has lived for a little more than a year. It is also a place, he said, where there is a turf war between two gangs.
The day they moved in, someone was killed around the corner. Half a block away, a tree is wrapped with teddy bears as a memorial for a murdered neighbor.
Butler knows about 20 people who have been shot, and he and a cousin begin reeling off names. He believes it's safer to stay indoors playing video games, and that's what he usually does after practice.
"This is how I'm living, "he said. "I can't stop the violence, but I wish I could."
His mother, Shannon Smith, is a stocky woman, a former track athlete at Cleveland High. She sports a tongue ring and a tattoo on the right side of her neck.
Now 37, she met Donte's father in high school, where he ran track and played football. Butler was 3 when his father died. The family does not talk about him often.
Along with his mom, Butler lives with his 8-year-old sister and 15-year-old brother. For Christmas, each received a little bit of money Smith saved from her job as manager for a restaurant in Union Station.
Butler takes his mother to work every weekday morning at 5. While she drives, he tries to sleep in the back seat of the silver Chevrolet Cavalier. Then he drives home.
Some mornings he sneaks in another hour of sleep before dropping his sister at the bus stop on his way to school. He doesn't always make his first class.
At the end of the school day, before practice begins, he picks up his mother from work.
"He never complains, "Smith said. "It's something we have to do."
Butler is a good kid, not perfect. At 15, he was arrested for riding in a stolen car, according to his mother. The charges were dropped.
"I worry all the time, "his mother said.
In September, he spotted his mother's ex-boyfriend at a gas station and accused him of stealing the family's Play Station 2. There was a confrontation. Butler landed a punch and broke a bone in his right hand.
"I punched him wrong, "he said.
Afterward, she pleaded with her son: "No more, please, "she recalled telling him.
"He's got to get out and do something, "she said.
Butler is trying.
Beginning in April, he can sign with a college, and in the fall he could become the first member of his family to attend a four-year college. He has scored 19 on the ACT " high enough to qualify academically.
His high school coach, Anthony Mitchell, said Oklahoma State, Missouri and Iowa State, all top wrestling schools, have called about him. None offered a scholarship in the fall, Mitchell said.
Though wrestlers can commit to schools for a one-week period in November, some programs wait until after high school state championships to offer scholarships, according to USA Wrestling's Anderson.
Men's wrestling programs fund just 9.9 scholarships for as many as 30 athletes, so Butler may attend a lower-tier school to receive more money.
That leaves Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, coached by former Olympic alternate Kris Whalen. Butler has attended wrestling camps there.
Another option is Northern Michigan University, where Butler could enroll in an elite Olympic development program. He would not wrestle in NCAA events, but a scholarship provided by USA Wrestling would pay for his education as he trained for international competition.
Butler does not know much about college. Few of his friends have left St. Louis for school, and he has not considered what he might study or what he could do for a living.
He waits for college recruiters to call, rather than sending video tapes of his matches. But he knows he should take advantage of his gift.
"I want it so bad, "he said. "I want to get out."
He is not sure what awaits him when he graduates. His high school coach even wonders if Butler understands his talent.
"I don't know, "Mitchell said, shaking his head. "That's a good question."
Perhaps next year, away from Walnut Park, he'll find out.