February 5, 2024
Deon Butler is a motivational speaker and former NFL tight end whose journey led him to a diagnosis of dyslexia and a mission to educate and encourage those affected by dyslexia.
FOCUS: What were some of your proudest moments in football? Has anyone ever suggested that dyslexia may have contributed to your success in football?
Deon Butler: I’ll give you two of my proudest moments. The first one is making it to the Bahamas Bowl as a senior at Central Michigan. We were playing against Western Kentucky and getting our butts whooped 42-14 at halftime. When we went into the locker room, I felt the energy from my teammates. It felt like the game was already over because of the score. Because I have so much experience being in a place where you need to persevere, I never looked at it as if the game was over. I started talking to my team, hyping them up, making them believers in possibility and themselves. I gave one of the best speeches ever, but that wasn’t enough. To give a speech is a great thing but not everything.
I made a play. It was 3rd and 15. Cooper Rush, who is now a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, threw me the ball. I caught it at 5 yards and then dove10 yards to get the first down. That showed my team that I meant what I said before. It switched the momentum, and it showed my team that we still had a chance. No matter what the score is, the game is never over. We started fighting back. We made one of the biggest comebacks in college football history. That’s how I was invited to go to the ESPYs. With one play left on the clock, Rush threw a Hail Mary. From there, one of my teammates Jesse Kroll caught the ball. He pitched it back to me. I ran so hard and pitched it to Courtney Williams. Courtney Williams pitched it to Titus Davis, and Titus Davis dove into the end zone which caused us to be down by one point. It is still the number one college football play in history.
My second proudest moment is signing a contract with the Detroit Lions. I come from a place where not many people go to college or want to go to college. So many people would tell me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed. But to make it through college and to make it to the NFL was a game changer for me and my family.
To answer your other question, I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I left football so no one made any connections to dyslexia and football. Now that I look back on it and I know what it is—absolutely, absolutely, it made a difference.
FOCUS: Looking back, what were pivotal moments when dyslexia caused such a roadblock that it affected your ability to be successful?
Deon Butler: In college, not being able to read the play book affected my ability and my confidence. It took until my junior year in college to actually say something to the coach because I kept making mistakes at practice. Other players were frustrated and coaches were frustrated. I dealt with a lot of problems because I didn’t speak up enough. I didn’t ask questions. My tight end coach at Central Michigan finally asked me one-on-one why are you not studying the play book? I was having trouble telling my right from my left. I finally put my pride away and I told him. I was so embarrassed to tell him why, but I did. I cried as I was telling him. Instead of him laughing at me or embarrassing me, he gave me examples. This took my game to a greater level.
FOCUS: People who face obstacles, especially at a young age, can internalize failure and stop trying. Other people find the strength to persevere. What caused you to continue to persevere? Was it your family, your personal beliefs or philosophy, or something around you that motivated you?
Deon Butler: It started with my grandmother motivating me to go to school. When you can’t read or spell and you’re from where I come from, you want to pick the streets and avoid education. She pushed me. Then, sports took that next step. That’s what started to get me to go to school because I could have fun with it. Then, later a professor in college told me I wouldn’t make it, and that motivated me again to decide I would graduate from college to prove to this teacher and the people back home that I could do it. Instead of me getting angry, I decided to prove them wrong. I would prove that I’m not a statistic and I would not go to prison. It was perseverance, and it was god giving me opportunities and opening doors to be at the right place and the right time.
FOCUS: When were you diagnosed and what caused you to seek testing?
Deon Butler: I was diagnosed in 2020. Before I was diagnosed, my wife told me she was pregnant. Right then and there, I started confessing to god. I started running on the trails near my house and confessing that I wanted to learn how to read. I wanted to be that father who could read to my daughter. I wasn’t read to as a kid, but I wanted to be able to do that for my child. I felt strongly then that I should tell my story too. That’s when I met my tutor Susan Schmidt. She is an Orton-Gillingham specialist.
FOCUS: After learning about your dyslexia, how did you feel? What were your next steps after diagnosis?
Deon Butler: The label dyslexia is everything because you have a sense of direction. The term gave me a release. I felt ashamed that I didn’t know how to read. Now I found out that I could learn to read.
My next steps were to meet with my tutor every day. If you have ever seen the movie Rocky, I felt like that, like it was me against the world. For two years straight, I would get up at 3 a.m. and study Orton-Gillingham for two hours. Then, I would meet with my tutor daily. It was like that Rocky moment when he started training and putting himself in that mindset that no one could beat him. I started to feel like that every day. I started getting my confidence back. I started overcoming and seeing improvement in my reading. It was getting up every day even when I didn’t want to, and then, I began to read.
When I learned how to read, it was better than going to the ESPYs. It was better than going to the NFL. It was better than any award I have ever received. Learning how to read is one of my best accomplishments. I felt complete like I could finally breathe.
FOCUS: As a motivational speaker, who is your target audience: adults, teens, younger children, those with dyslexia, those who are not dyslexic? What concern for your audience drives you the most?
Deon Butler: My target audience is broad. Most people who are dyslexic don’t know it. In order to help, I need to talk to a wide audience. That audience includes middle school students, high school students, adults, athletes, people with mental illness, any person who cares about the well-being of other people. I hope to empower people with all kinds of disabilities and struggles, while also bringing hope to those who are dyslexic. I am passionate about the areas of middle and high school because I want them to get to their goal and succeed at their goal. I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I want them to be brave and feel that they can speak out.
Dyslexia is a super power. It is a gift and a blessing. Once those with dyslexia get further in life, they can embrace it more. I would like to build a better future for them by empowering them. I have spoken at schools, to athletes, to professors. It’s about informing people and building awareness to help communities and people be successful.
The Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is pleased to present a forum for information to benefit its constituents. It is IDA’s policy to not recommend or endorse any specific program, product, institution, company, or instructional material, noting that there are a number of such that present the critical components of instruction as defined by IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Any program, product, institution, company, or instructional material carrying the IDA Accredited seal meets the IDA Standards.