Butch Pau’u has the perfect name for his game, the perfect game for his name. You couldn’t imagine a better label for the way he does the whole football thing. Ladies and gentlemen … BYU linebacker Buuttttcchhh Pooowwwww. If only the late great John Facenda could have said it, the way he said Dick Butkus’s name back in those old NFL films. The only better moniker for a hammer of a defender might have been Butch Boo’oom.
Yeah, the man hits hard, plays hard, works hard. Mostly, he hits hard.
“He’s a vicious lion on the field,” says BYU linebackers coach Steve Kaufusi. “He’s a hard-nosed warrior who loves to stop the run, who likes big hits and making big plays.”
Pau’u, indeed, plays with an unusual intensity, vigor and presence, like he’s got something to prove, which, of course, he does. Because while his name is perfect, his game is big, his heavily muscled frame is not. There, he comes up a bit … short.
Ask him how tall he is and without hesitation, as though he’s rehearsed it a thousand times, he fervently, uh, embellishes. He offers up numbers that are a stretch of the imagination. In a hopeful manner, he exaggerates, as though if he says it often enough, it will be true. BYU’s media guide stretches the truth even more, listing him at 6-foot.
If Pau’u is 6-foot, I’m Rudy Gobert.
This interaction actually took place on Monday, after practice:
“How tall are you, Butch?”
“Is that legit?”
It’s just that nobody else is or was.
Either way, Pau’u plays the way he does to make a point, that he can be a monster of a middle linebacker without being the size of a monster, that physicality has more to do with heart than height.
He’s underscored the distinction again and again, since his high school days in Anaheim, Calif., where big-time programs came to recruit him on account of his abilities and some of them walked away, dissuaded by his size. Of the programs that stayed on him — Washington, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa State and BYU — the Cougars were the only one whose coaches could abide his desire to interrupt his football to go on an LDS Church mission.
After redshirting as a freshman, watching and learning from one of BYU’s best-ever defenses, and then excusing himself for religious service for two years in Honduras — where much of the population is poor, where he grew to love the people without once padding up and colliding with anyone, where he had his credit and debit cards and cash and camera and clothes stolen, having what he called a “beautiful” experience — he returned in 2015 to get down to his football business.
His first year back, he played special teams and, for a short span, lined up as a fullback, where he blocked a lot and carried the ball not at all. Thereafter, he returned to his preferred linebacker spot last season and flourished.
In BYU’s initial three games, Pau’u distinguished himself as a defensive anchor. There were times when he got outside his prescribed assignments, but coaches couldn’t complain much because whenever he freelanced, he made huge plays.
“He physically set a tone for the other guys,” Kaufusi says. “They saw the way he played and thought, ‘Man, I gotta do my part.’”
On the first play of the second half against West Virginia, Pau’u tore the MCL in his left knee, and that injury altered his season in a negative way.
“That was my first major injury,” he says. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening to me.’ When you’re playing, you feel invincible, and then …”
Then, you’re a normal, vulnerable human.
“I tried to tape it up and play on it, but it hurt just to run.”
Running had always been a significant part of Pau’u’s game, especially his quick first step toward the ball. He played tennis in high school, in part, because of the footwork and foot speed it required. After the injury, he was compromised — physically and mentally.
“Not being able to play, I didn’t feel like part of the team,” he says. “It took a toll. I had been a leader, and then, I was away from everyone, spending two to three hours in the trainer’s room. I missed a couple of games. Got back for Mississippi State, but it was hard. I needed to heal up.”
Fortunately for him, no surgery was necessary. But, as is the case with many athletes coming off an injury, Pau’u spent as much time worrying about the knee as he did playing freely. “I was scared it would happen again,” he says. Visits with a sports psychologist helped re-orient his focus. While he returned to the field against Utah State and Wyoming, it wasn’t until the offseason that his torn ligament fully healed.
It is all good now, and Pau’u is back to being himself, again, one-third of a starting linebacker corps that is the best position group the Cougars have, with Fred Warner and Francis Bernard surrounding Pau’u on the outside.
It’s physical and fast, all around.
Other uncommon characteristics possessed by Pau’u include his overall demeanor off the field — “He’s such a nice guy,” Kaufusi says — and his smile on it. It’s rather unusual to see a player grin the way Pau’u does after plays. It’s almost disconcerting, as though the linebacker is showing guys up with his happy expression after punishing them. In reality, he says, he’s just “having fun, playing the game I love.”
His other love is playing the piano. His favorite all-time song to play is Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Entertainer,” because, as Pau’u says it, “it’s happy and upbeat.” Another surprise: When he’s done rattling people’s teeth on the field, he wants to fix them in a full-time role as a dentist.
With two more seasons to play at BYU, that remains a ways off.
In the meantime, Butch Pau will go on living up to his potential in the game he says he was born to play, the game he was named to play.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.