Butch Ross lives what anyone would call a beautiful life, with a wife and two children he adores and remarkable success in the business world as the owner of his own company.
“I get out of bed every day feeling like a blessed man and a very, very lucky guy ...” he said by telephone from his adopted hometown of Atlanta. “I live for today, you know what I mean? I want to live for today.”
Whether he thrives now because or in spite of what he ruefully calls “one second in one man’s life” is a matter of conjecture, even for him.
But this much is clear:
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Since the bizarre moment in the 1981 Shawnee Mission South-Shawnee Mission West high school football playoff game that made him an object of ridicule, since the rotten event that happened to him as much or more than it was committed by him, he’s been defined not by the preposterous mishap but by his response to it.
“I think it probably made a better man out of him … He was determined that he was going to overcome that night that wasn’t bright,” his father Joe said, noting that he had always played sports with a chip on his shoulder and adding, “I think that’s the way he’s played life.”
If life were more fair, though, maybe Ross maybe wouldn’t have been tortured for years by the feeling of abandonment and betrayal and abuse all around him in the aftermath.
If life were tidier, he wouldn’t have felt he had to move to what he calls “the island of Atlanta” 20 years ago to put it all in his rear-view mirror, or come to feel he could trust virtually no one outside his immediate family.
If life were a Christmas movie, it wouldn’t still seem so raw and he wouldn’t by his estimate have thought about the play “a couple hundred thousand times” and counting.
Even so, there’s a powerful Christmas message in his story: a reminder of the consequences of the decisions we all make every day about whether to be merciful or nasty, bullying or kind, a true friend or a fickle one.
“Sometimes, you don’t know how you affect other people,” said Stu Stram, whose friendship helped buoy Ross at his worst.
Meaning in either direction we all face choices about whether to try to make or break someone in their hour of need.
Some of those choices by others left Butch Ross shattered before he could make himself whole again.
“I. Made. A. Mistake,” he said. “I can say those words over and over … But it was a game. It’s a game.
“I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t do it in front of thousands of people so I could be embarrassed. I didn’t do it to take personal heat for the rest of my life.
“I was 18. I made a mistake.”
In a more just world, the infamous play fitting for a Friday the 13th (that it was) never would have happened … or would have been negated by the chaos around it.
It wouldn’t have been a topic in then-dominant mediums such as Monday Night Football and Sports Illustrated or, as Stram remembers it, even on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Instead, with South leading West 24-21 late in their 1981 playoff game, Ross’ would-be 34-yard touchdown run with just over a minute left was negated by a penalty he remembers being called because a Raiders teammate had had his mouth guard out.
“Nobody remembers that,” said Ross, who called it an “innocent mistake.”
That blunder paved the way to the fateful play.
With about 5 seconds left on the clock (news accounts and memories vary on the specific time), Ross and coach John Davis conferred on the sideline.
While the late Davis would say after the game that he told Ross to down the ball “and he didn’t do it,” Ross recalls being told to drop back a few yards and let the clock run out because Davis was concerned there might be time left if he just kneeled.
So back and back and back he ran.
South fans and his teammates streamed onto the field. A few West players tapped him and two told him “good game.”
By his recollection, officials blew whistles. And his dad remembers seeing video showing the gun fired to signify game’s end.
What Ross hadn’t explicitly done, though, was kneel to down the ball.
That’s when West’s John Reichart swooped in, seized the ball from Ross and ran it back for what stunningly was ruled a touchdown.
As he pondered the scene on a grainy, grinding VHS tape on Saturday, former West coach Harold Wambsgans marveled anew, saying, “There’s John, did you see?”
In a flicker, game broadcasters went from proclaiming “Final score is Shawnee Mission South 24, Shawnee Mission 21 as the South crowd runs onto the field” to … chaos.
“Hold everything! … The ballgame is not over … Shawnee Mission West has defeated Shawnee Mission South! We’ve just seen one of the strangest plays that you’re ever going to see in a ballgame.”
Attempts to reach Reichart for this column were unsuccessful, but days later he told The Star that he had heard no whistle even as he didn’t dispute that Ross could’ve.
“He could have heard one of the fans on the field whistle; sometimes when you whistle through your teeth it sounds the same.”
In one sense, the life lesson here was it’s never over ’til it’s over.
“The game’s not over until the whistle blows — that kind of was our rallying call for lots of games after that,” Wambsgans said.
In another sense, there was something ridiculous in the play being allowed to stand.
With all those people on the field, albeit removed from the center of the play, shouldn’t there at minimum have been a penalty to do the play over?
Is a game really still live after handshakes are being made?
Or as Star sports editor Joe McGuff wrote days later: “Even if (officials) technically were correct, did common sense dictate that the game was over?”
But beyond the ruling on the field, the Kansas State High School Activities Association backed the call.
In the same column with the headline “‘The Play’ not the end of the world,” McGuff also wrote:
“The sad aspect of the disputed play is the effect it had on Ross and some of his teammates, but time will ease the pain, and perhaps the incident will help them put football and life in their proper perspectives.”
Surely, it ultimately helped Ross with that.
As for many others?
Well, that’s part of “the rest of the story” — well beyond what Paul Harvey had to say about the play on his nationally syndicated radio show.
What happened next was traumatizing, really, for a boy who already was shattered and numb when he came home that night still in his blood-stained uniform with tears smeared on his face.
In a locker room that seemed more like a funeral parlor, he said in 1981 that he wanted to apologize … but was too choked up to get words out.
It had become tradition for seniors to come to the Ross house after games. That night, maybe one teammate showed up — as did Stu Stram, who had become friends with Ross through the relationship between Joe Ross and Stu’s dad, Hank Stram, the former Chiefs coach.
Though Joe Ross thinks the meager turnout was more about not wanting to “rub any vinegar” in the wound, Butch took it differently.
People he thought were his friends were gone, he said, and they never came back.
He remembers feeling that night that his life had probably changed forever.
As it happened, two friends were over the next day and made a joke that Ross retold days later after watching one of the space shuttle flights.
“One of (them) said he wondered if the astronaut was going to pull a Butch Ross and forget to pull the landing gear,” Ross told The Star in 1981.
Maybe that was the last time he laughed about it. Because what was to come affirmed his fears even as he took refuge in family, especially brother Joe, with whom he feels joined at the hip.
There were death threats, Stram recalled, and the house was egged.
With TV stations posted up on the next school day, officials suggested Ross stay home for a few days.
When he returned, he was not only shunned but taunted — part of months of sleeping just hours a night.
In his home economics class, he opened a file of his recipe cards and absorbed some version of contempt from all 75 of them: “loser” … “you lost the game” … “thanks, (jerk).”
In a movie theater a few weeks later, they yelled “down the ball” at him.
When he tried to slip incognito into a road basketball game at halftime, someone recognized him in the opposing stands and started chants of “Give the ball to Butch.”
It was one thing for kids from another school to do it.
It was another that they were joined by his own cackling schoolmates.
“‘Don’t you people have a heart?’ ” he remembers thinking and adding, “That still puts chills in my spine.”
Sometimes, he bore up better than others, like the time his father remembered an opposing baseball coach taunting him:
Butch hit a three-run homer to win the game and simply tipped his hat to the coach as he rounded third.
But The Play always hovered nearby.
That’s why he set out for Nevada-Las Vegas, playing baseball, as far away from Kansas as he could get before transferring to Wichita State and ending up at George Washington.
And the first thing he’ll tell you about his getaway is that the UNLV radio guy felt the need to tell the story for his first at-bat.
He came back to the KC region afterward, joining his father and brother in multiple businesses but never getting away from the ghosts or what might be considered a form of PTSD.
A banker in a business meeting might bring it up, not likely realizing the delicate matter he was messing with. Or he’d hear a snicker in a Starbucks or a chuckle on a golf course and assume it was about that one second in one man’s life.
Even though he knew it wasn’t coming from everyone, he also came to know the echoes would never end for him here.
So he considers “how about never?” a good time for him to live in Kansas City again. He and wife Dana and children Holden and Allie are content in Georgia.
“I don’t know if there was a defining point, a date or an event that I woke up one day and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to bury it, I’m going to put it behind me,’” he said. “But when I moved to Atlanta, it was just ‘Butch Ross.’
“It wasn’t ‘Butch Ross, the guy who lost the game.’”
If Ross could change anything or purge that memory, he would.
But he also knows this: “God works in strange ways,” he said.
So while he doesn’t really like to talk about this much, sometimes he finds it therapeutic.
And in the evolution of a 75-minute phone conversation earlier this week, he thought about a few things that came out of that evening.
After saying “not one” person outside his family tried to help him that school year, he found himself later listing a number who did:
From Stram, who later was in his wedding, to Stram’s father, who pointed the blame at officials during Monday Night Football and saw to it that Ross was invited to be Lamar Hunt’s guest at a Chiefs game.
In fact, Joe Ross recalled, the late owner of the Chiefs had taken the time to watch video of the game and told Ross it should have been a dead ball. He told him to keep his head up and introduced him to another encouraging guest in his suite, golfer Tom Watson.
He thought about how SMS baseball coach Bill McDonald always had his back and how then-assistant football coach Ken Johns was such a “pillar of strength,” and how at times the combined forces of all the people looking out for him had made him feel like saying, “Guys, I’m really OK.”
He thought about how much he learned from all this: how not to treat people, how those who mocked him never really were his friends, anyway, and how having lost his mother and a sister renders this not even a blip on the Richter scale of life.
And he considered that you can find your way back from devastation and meet a wonderful woman and have two terrific kids and the life you always wanted … even if it seemed to change forever because of a couple seconds 36 years ago.
No matter how others might remember you or define you, he knows, “You can choose what you want to do.”
Not to mention how you treat people.