When Nathan Butler was in preschool, he was routinely bullied by his classmates. To the best of his father's recollection, Nathan was one of the biggest kids in his class, perhaps even the heaviest. But when others poked fun at his unique qualities, he refused to fight back.
By SAM MCDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
That didn't sit well with Jeff Butler, a military man who soon forced his son into taking taekwondo classes to learn how to defend himself. Nathan was 5 years old.
He was twice the size of all the other kids, but it was kind of ironic the way he let everyone bully him around, Jeff says. He just didn't have a mean bone in his body.
Nathan didn't fit the stereotypes. He never has.
He graduated from Leavenworth High School last month as the No. 2 student academically in a class of 344. With a wrestling career that includes three state championships, he also leaves behind a reputation as one of the top athletes to ever walk through the school's hallways. It's a unique blend and the very reason Nathan stands alone as The Kansas City Star's 2013 Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
I have never been one to follow a stereotype, says Nathan, who is headed to Stanford on a wrestling scholarship in the fall. I try to set my own.
Nathan is a band geek, a book nerd and an academic perfectionist who spends time with the chess club. Two people claim to have dubbed him Dudley Do-Right, and they each provide explanations of why the nickname so perfectly fits.
In the fall, Nathan played in his final high school football game, then removed his shoulder pads and played trombone in the school band.
Odd? Not if you know him. He couples his time on the wrestling mats and football fields with extracurricular activities often found at the butt of jokes.
But given his 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame, he's not a dude you would want to mess with.
Except, of course, you may get lucky. There's still a pretty good chance he would refuse to fight back.
Nathan started wrestling when he was five years old, though Kelly Butler insisted her son was too young for such a physically grueling sport.
Nathan's first match didn't do much to persuade his mother otherwise. He was pinned less than 30 seconds into it.
No one wants to see your child get beat like that, said Jeff, who wrestled in college and served as Nathan's coach. He was OK, yeah, but he wasn't great.
To the surprise of many, sports have never come easy to Nathan. When he was in the sixth grade, he once lost eight wrestling matches ... in one day.
Sure, he's always had the size to wrestle or play on the offensive line of the football team, but he's not exactly naturally gifted. He's not fast. He's not especially athletic. And he doesn't jump any higher than the rest of us do.
I really struggled (with sports) because my technique and strength weren't there, Nathan said. I had to put in a lot of work in middle school to put me over the top.
And then some. Nathan was good enough to crack Leavenworth's starting lineup at 189 pounds as a freshman. That doesn't happen often in the higher weight classes. But some of the finer points of wrestling, such as learning how to defend himself yes, that again needed tuning. And he was told as much.
Nathan takes everything you say to heart, and he works and works and works at it, Leavenworth wrestling coach Jay Johnston said. If you tell him something, he'll evaluate it and figure out a way to do it. He obsesses about it until he figures it out.
Later in his freshman season, Butler placed fifth at the Kansas 6A wrestling state tournament. Along the way, he eliminated three senior wrestlers pinning two who had defeated him earlier in the season.
Thus began the best wrestling career in Leavenworth High School history.
A year later, Johnston selected Butler as the sole captain of the wrestling team. As you might guess, it's the only time Johnston has had a sophomore captain.
He was an obvious choice, Johnston said. He worked harder than anybody and he was liked by everybody. He genuinely cared about his teammates.
Butler opted to lead by example. He started a run of three consecutive seasons with a Kansas state championship the first two in Class 6A, the final one as a heavyweight in 5A.
He finished his senior season 44-0 with 38 pins. He allowed only two takedowns all season and was The Star's All-Metro wrestler of the year.
And he accomplished all of it with an unusual lack of emotion and aggression leading some to comment that he is simply too nice for violent sports.
You don't need to be mean to be competitive, Nathan responds. It's better to be smart.
Teachers at Leavenworth High School say Nathan is a stickler for academic perfection, a description often used but rarely true to this degree.
As a junior, Nathan took Advanced Placement U.S. history, a class taught by Johnston, and missed only one question on a quiz. He re-read his textbook, researched the answer and spent most of the second semester debating that his answer should have been counted as correct.
It's not as if he needed the point his grade in the glass was approaching 100 percent.
If you knew Nathan, Johnston said, none of this would surprise you. He wants to be perfect.
He's not perfect, of course, but he's often close when it comes to academics.
Nathan scored a 35 on the ACT, easily surpassing the requirements for Stanford, a school he has longed dreamed of attending. Once there, he plans to major in aeronautical engineering which deals with the technology of airplanes and spacecraft but he isn't firm in that decision.
As a high school student, his workload prepared him for the next step. Nathan took eight AP classes in four years and nearly aced his calculus assessment, not missing a single point in the yearlong class until February.
He is the student whose test I grade first, said Ginger Riddle, Nathan's AP calculus teacher. To ensure that my answer key has no errors.
A closet mirror in Nathan's bedroom has become the top motivating factor in his life.
The mirror-turned-dry-erase board serves as a spot to list future goals. He targets objectives in all facets of his life academics, athletics, clubs, you name it.
After he reaches one, he erases it and adds another. It's an never-ending process and one he takes very seriously.
When Nathan wakes up each morning, he looks at himself in the mirror. The words cover his face.
I see it metaphorically, he says. Those goals are literally between me and who I want to be.
To reach Sam McDowell, call 816-234-4869 or send email to email@example.com.