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Lance Butler
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Gabi Offline
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By ROBBIE ANDREU
Sun sports writer

The anniversary came and went quietly this time, going all but unnoticed in the media and by the fans. The date - July 25, 2001 - has already lost meaning and significance to many. But that's OK. That's just the way it is. As time pushes the event deeper into the past, deeper into the recesses of the mind, the memory of it will fade even further.

But Lance Butler hasn't forgotten. He'll never forget July 25, 2001. That's the day his football teammate and new best friend died from complications of a heat stroke less than a week after collapsing on the sidewalk just outside Florida Field following a conditioning workout.

"I really miss him," Butler said. "I still play for him and remember him every day."

For Butler, the memories of Eraste Autin, his freshman brother and roommate, really come flooding back this time of year. Not just because of the anniversary of his death, but because it's football season again and Butler is back on the practice field where Autin pushed himself to the brink that fateful July afternoon two years ago.

Every time Butler enters or leaves the practice field now, he touches the marble memorial honoring Autin that rests just inside the front gate. "I touch it and remember him," he said.

But where he really remembers Autin the most is on the practice field. That's where Autin, a fullback from Lafayette, La., earned the respect and admiration of his new teammates with his relentless drive and never-give-up attitude during those stifling summer workouts in 2001.

"Sometimes you think maybe everyone takes what we're doing out here for granted, that it's just a game" Butler said. "We're out here every day in the summer, working out hard in the heat. People do lose their lives. It was tragic what happened. He's a friend of all of ours and a hard worker. I really miss him."

Butler was just a kid fresh out of high school when Autin died. Now, he's a redshirt freshman offensive tackle, a mountain of a young man at 6-foot-7, 305 pounds, and working with the first-team offense. In the two years that have passed, Butler has learned a great deal about life and football.

It's been a tough go at times, coping with the death of a close friend, while struggling to find himself on the football field, where his early struggles left him at the bottom of the depth chart last season.

But he has persevered, hung in there and fought, displayed that never-give-up approach that so defined his friend Eraste Autin.

Now, Butler, the most improved offensive player in the spring, is ready to start playing some football for the Gators.

"Anytime you see a teammate achieve some type of success you feel great about it," teammate Todd McCullough said. "I always knew Lance could play. Sometimes people peak earlier than others. Lance kept plugging at it and plugging at it and had a lot of determination and a strong will."

Butler and McCullough are close friends and have been roommates since Autin died. Immediately after the tragedy, McCullough and quarterback Ingle Martin didn't want Butler to be alone in his grief, so they invited him to move in with them. Butler, McCullough, Martin and Autin were part of the same freshman class and the four had developed a strong early bond. McCullough, Butler and Martin remain best of friends.

"(Autin's death) was as hard on Lance as any of us," McCullough said. "Those two slept in the same room every night.

"I think Lance, Ingle and I turned our faith to God. God is always there for us. We all lean on each other as well. Lance is there for me when I'm having a rough time and I'm there for him. We all kind of leaned on our spiritual faith and our friendship."

Butler found himself leaning hard on his buddies last season. After redshirting in 2001, Butler was hoping to see playing time on the Florida offensive line. But he struggled early and all but disappeared, seeing only limited playing time in three games.

He spent much of the 2002 season on the scout team, prompting rumors after the season that he was looking to transfer, maybe to a school closer to his hometown of Lexington, N.C.

Butler acknowledges times were tough, but said he never thought about fleeing. That wouldn't be his style - or Autin's.

"This is where I want to be. This is where I want to play," Butler said. "I love being here. I was unhappy I wasn't playing, but I focused all that on the weight room, conditioning and spring ball. I focused on working hard and earning a chance to play."

Butler got himself in shape last winter, then got his first break in the spring when incumbent starting right tackle Randy Hand injured his wrist and saw his effectiveness fall off playing with only one hand.

While Hand faded, Butler came on strong to claim the starting role at right tackle. That's where he's remained through the first week of preseason practice.

"Randy is going to be a good football player," offensive line coach Joe Wickline said. "He showed that in the bowl game as a true freshman. But when he hurt his hand and hit a lull, that's the point Lance chose to make his step. He got better and he's continued to get better. He's a great kid and we're all really happy he's done the job he's done."

During the summer, Butler's work ethic grew even stronger. He gained strength and quickness, while losing almost 15 pounds.

McCullough said Butler is easily UF's fastest offensive lineman.

"Lance is almost a freak of nature," McCullough said. "I don't know of any 300-pounder who can run the way he runs. It's scary to think in a mile race he could give me a run for it. You don't see too many 300-pounders who can run a mile like that.

"Anytime you see 200 or 100-yard sprints (during conditioning), Lance is always winning by a good bit. It's scary to see a big man move like that with that kind of endurance. You'd watch film of the spring and you'd always see Lance 40 or 50 yards downfield. He plays hard."

And he remembers. The memories of his good friend Eraste do not grow fuzzy or fade over time.

Butler, McCullough and Martin stay in touch with Autin's family. Last winter, the three traveled to Louisiana to pay a visit.

On July 26, the day after the two-year anniversary of Autin's death, Butler called Autin's sister.

"I just wanted to let her know I was thinking about Eraste," he said. "I think about him every day."


<a href='http://www.gatorsports.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030809/GATORS01/208090340' target='_blank'>http://www.gatorsports.com/apps/pbcs.dll/a...ORS01/208090340</a>
08-09-2003 12:53 PM
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GatorMan32 Offline
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Very good story, Gabi. Thank you for sharing.
08-10-2003 10:11 AM
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