When epilepsy took the basketball away from Jerricah Butler in high school, doctors told her she could no longer play the sport she loved. Five years later, Butler is playing out her last season of basketball for the Lindenwood Lions.
After transferring to Lindenwood, doctors told her she was cleared to play and she has flourished on the court. Though now, the calendar is telling her it’s over.
Through the course of her career at Lindenwood, basketball has left a mark on Butler beyond her wildest belief in the best of times and the worst.
“Even a bunch of the bad things like getting up at 4 a.m. to do breakfast clubs and dreadful conditioning,” Butler said. “Even though they sucked, I’m going to look back at memories I wish I could relive.”
Butler’s 2017-2018 senior season has embodied every bit of the ups and downs that comes with both her career and a lifelong devotion to the game she loves.
Coming into the season the Lions looked to threaten the conference with the 1, 2 punch of sophomore forwards Gabby Walker and Kallie Bildner. The pair complimented by point guard Lindsay Medlen and a group of role players, who would make potential weapons on most MIAA teams.
Butler’s role was a simple one, be the role player the team needed her to be on a game by game basis. A role that’s difficult for some to accept, but it was this very principle that head coach Tony Francis will never forget.
“Jerricah will be remembered for her work-ethic and her ability to put others ahead of herself,” Francis said. “Because she worked hard her first years, she was rewarded with a scholarship in this, her final season of eligibility.”
Teammate Gabby Walker explains that Butler’s selflessness on the court goes beyond keeping quiet and staying out of people’s way.
“She was like a big sister to all of us,” Walker said. “Jer is always asking how you are. She always brings so much energy to the team that it’s hard not to want to join her and add to it.”
As the season fired up, barring injury, Butler was guaranteed at least 28 more games. It was a surprise to nobody that she would pick up exactly where she left with her reputation from the team.
The Lions hot start was all but expected, going into conference play boasting a 7-0 record. In addition, the team registered a school record 113-30 victory at home over Central Christian College of the Bible.
“It was like an idea of what the season could be like,” Butler said. “We still were able to go out and score 113 points and keep them to 30. I thought, ‘Wow we could be really good this season if we play together and leave it all out on the line.’”
While five players notched double digits, Butler left the game with seven points, three rebounds and exactly what the team needed of her in 18 minutes on the court.
The Lions were introduced to conference play with a wakeup call, losing their next three games.
During the three game skid, Butler was able to make history of her own. On December 16, she nearly recorded a double-double with a career high 16 point and eight rebound performance in 33 minutes including a monster third quarter that helped pull the Lions back into the game.
It wasn’t the big third quarter that Butler left the game thinking about. It was the score after the fourth.
“I know I hit a few big shots and helped my teams get some big stops, but in the end, I can’t be satisfied,” Butler said. “No matter how well I did or how many points I scored, it was a team loss. I’m proud of the effort that I gave because I felt like I laid it all on the line, but there’s always more that I can do to contribute to the team!
The victory over Emporia State not only took the Lions out of their slump, but it was the second record Lindenwood broke. The fastest Lindenwood team to reach eight wins and another double digit performance by Butler.
“I thought I was the lock down defender that my coach wants me to be,” Butler said. “I guarded the point guard for most of the game and slowed her down which slowed their offense down.”
The Lions closed out the fall semester with a 112-32 victory over Robert Morris Springfield. With a 9-3 record going into the team’s Christmas break, reality was setting in for Butler. Only 16 more guaranteed games left.
“Sadly, it does feel like my collegiate career is coming to an end,” Butler said. “The scary thing is the first three and a half months have gone by in the blink of an eye. It feels like just yesterday we were having our first preseason workouts. I’m hoping that the remainder of this season doesn’t go by as fast the first half did.”
The Lions took back to the court on December 31 against UMSL and while Butler was hoping the rest of the season wouldn’t go by as quickly as the first, it’s hard to believe anybody on the team, seniors or not, were savoring the 1-8 stretch the Lions were about to enter.
Mid-way through January brought Butler a midseason injury that sidelined her for the next five games bringing her countdown to just five games left.
In Butler’s first game back on February 10, she was right back in the groove with seven points and four rebounds. The Lions were back in their groove too.
On February 13 the team had chalked up a four game win streak and while things were going well, Butler was, herself, beginning to count down the days.
“I’m trying so hard not to let my feelings consume me right now,” Butler said. “I’m beginning to notice myself daydreaming and thinking about how this journey is slowly, but quickly coming to an end. I find myself thinking, ‘this is the last time I’ll ever play in Lincoln’s gym,’ or, ‘I’ve only got three- possibly four more games to play on Lindenwood’s court.’”
The next game the surging Lions ran as hard as they could into the 21-2 wall that is University of Central Missouri, losing 73-60.
However, with only two more home games, Lindenwood was poised to salvage the season.
In the Lions second to last game, Butler now found herself submerged in emotion that was only escapable a few nights a week.
“Now that we’re approaching the final few days of regular season play, I have been getting slightly distracted by the inevitable end,” Butler said. “I feel like it’s taking a hidden toll on me. It’s a fight to mask those feelings and turn them from negative to positive energy, but time is quickly escaping me. But when I’m out on the court, it’s as if nothing else matters. My mind completely shifts focus.”
With one game left in the season, Butler was about to get the recognition she had never had before. Senior night.
In high school, when seizures had yanked the rug out from under her career, there was no send off. It was just over. This time around, things were different.
“This night means more to me than your typical senior athlete,” Butler said. “It’s a final curtain call of the 17 years that I’ve spent playing competitive basketball. It’s a closing to a large chapter of my life.”
With one game left, Coach Francis, Walker and the rest the Lions made sure it was the senior night she hoped it would be.
“We decorated the locker room got her a bracelet with her favorite bible verse on it and a bag of goodies including a notebook with personal messages from each teammate in it,” Walker said.
Though calm on the outside, Butler was completely captivated by the night and in the same blink of the eye that erased most of the first part of the season, Butler blinked and this game too had come to an end.
“All the acknowledgement before the game were surreal,” Butler said. “It was unbelievable how quickly it went by though. I’d waited several weeks for that moment and it went by in the blink of an eye.”
With Lindenwood’s 61-50 win there was no game winning shot, no key moments. Butler finished with a modest three points in 17 minutes, letting her brain and presence of mind replace the urge to score.
“As much as I wanted to let it fly or get to the basket every time I caught the ball, I knew I had to play smart and stay within myself,” Butler said. “The outcome of this game influenced post-season standings.”
The Lions finished the regular season with a 16-12 record and a first round trip to take on Missouri Southern State. Although the game is still the same as it ever was for Butler, there are no more guaranteed games.
Unless Lindenwood advances to the championship on March 4, Butler will never know which game will be her last.
She has filled her career with just about everything including a game winning shot against a nationally ranked UCM team in the 2016-2017 season and beating a disease that briefly took her career away.
The only thing left? A National Championship.
Article by: Walker Van Wey – Lindenwood University and you can find him on Twitter @Walker_VanWey