Like every kid growing up in Baltimore in the early 2000s, Hakeem Butler wore a Ray Lewis jersey constantly.
The former Iowa State receiver and 2019 NFL Draft prospect grew up in the Greenmount neighborhood of East Baltimore with his mom and siblings. It was a tough place to live, but he still made great memories there, most of which involved playing football. He faced Poly in a game at M&T Bank Stadium as a member of the freshman team at City.
"Baltimore was my home," Butler said on
Glenn Clark Radio
Feb. 19. "I thought the world of Baltimore, but I always wanted to get out and find a better place."
During Butler's early teenage years, his mother, Sheryl, was diagnosed with breast cancer. His mother lost her fight with cancer in 2012, and he moved to Texas to live with his mother's cousin, Aaron Harrison Sr., and his two sons, twins Aaron and Andrew, who would go on to play basketball at Kentucky.
Butler had the support of the Harrisons in achieving his dream of playing college football. The spotlight on the Harrison twins, both of whom were highly touted prospects coming out of high school, helped Butler prepare for life as a college player.
"I think just how resilient in things they were, how they handled themselves emotionally was a very good thing for me because the light was shined so bright on them that they had no chance for error," Butler said.
At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Butler was a human highlight reel at Iowa State, especially in his sophomore and junior seasons (2017 and 2018), during which totaled more than 2,000 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns.
"Iowa State, it's a big school and the fan base there treats you just how the fan base treats you at Kentucky," he said. "You learn how to handle yourself and just make smart decisions every day that's all you can do."
Butler said he knew he was different from other wide receivers on a play against Oklahoma during the 2018 season in which he caught a pass from quarterback Zeb Noland and broke three tackles
on his way to a 51-yard touchdown
"Growing up in Baltimore -- like everyone says, it's a tough place -- so you have to be mentally tough, and I would say that increased my physical toughness in a way," Butler said. "I just always felt like I was built different than a lot of people. On the field, I had that mentality like I'm trying to destroy the man across from me physically and mentally. That's the reason that I love football."
Now Butler is one of the top-ranked receivers in the 2019 NFL Draft in April. ESPN's Mel Kiper has him ranked ninth at his position. Wherever he goes, he will be more than happy, Butler said, but it has crossed his mind that he might get to once again don the purple and black in Baltimore.
The Ravens have eight picks in the draft, and wide receiver is a need.
"Just the thought of being able to play for a team I cheered for … I think that's incredible," he said. "It would be kind of crazy for everything to come full circle like that."
Despite leaving Baltimore at a relatively young age, Butler still has family in the area, giving him even more reason to return to his old home.
"Everywhere I go, if it is close to the water, I'm trying to get a crab cake," Butler said, "but there's no place like Baltimore."
Butler has been training in Florida with former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the offseason. He knows drafting tall receivers in the league currently is somewhat taboo, he said, but he's out to prove people who doubt him wrong.
"People say I don't have that big of a route tree, but I played inside. I played outside. It all comes natural to me," he said. "I feel like me being 6-[foot]-6 is a mismatch no matter who you put me on."
While his physical gifts are undeniable, Butler has been criticized for drops at times during his career, another perceived flaw he is eager to correct.
"It's solely a focus thing for me," he said. "You've just got to catch the balls with your eyes first and that's just what I tried to focus on in the past two to three months. … I know what everyone thinks and all the knocks on me. I just want to hush all that up."
To hear more from Butler, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Iowa State Athletics