Honor Thy Father

They seemed like the perfect team. Bill Butterfield was a former Texas high school football star, renowned for his speed and power. His son Lance, a gifted defensive back, was determined to follow in his footsteps. But in Lance’s senior year—his championship season—something went wrong. A story of youth and passion, obedience and trust, insanity and murder.

IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT, after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, he would pull out a small notebook that he kept hidden away in a table drawer. It was a journal he had started keeping, no more than fifteen pages, each page containing a sentence or two.

I was harassed because I wasn’t someone else,” he wrote on one page, and then he stopped. “I stayed civilized under primitive conditions,” he wrote on another page, then stopped again.

He sat for hours, the only sound in the house coming from the ticking of a clock. Outside, his dog pressed his nose against the patio door, hoping to be let in. Finally, he began to write on a third page, pressing down so hard that his pen almost ripped through the paper.

I have to be able to express my hurt—my pain—my animosity toward you or I will die …

THE FOOTBALL ARCHED THROUGH the air, traveling in a tight spiral, and the 2,500 fans of the Richland High School Rebels rose from their seats with a startled roar. It was 1995, an autumn evening in suburban Fort Worth, and the quarterback for the Haltom Buffalos, Richland’s longtime rivals, had flung a pass toward an open receiver halfway down the field. But Richland’s free safety, senior Lance Butterfield, was already racing for the ball, his head held straight up, moving so smoothly that his shoulder pads hardly rattled. At the last second, just when the football seemed beyond him, he leapt, stretching his body and pulling the ball away from the baffled Haltom wide receiver, who had no idea that Lance was even nearby.

Butter! Butter! Butter!” students and parents chanted from the stands. To them, Lance Butterfield was the kind of old-fashioned hero rarely seen anymore in high school sports. Lean and handsome, with an earnest face and a gentle smile—“A smile that could melt a room,” his English teacher used to say—he maintained a 4.0 grade point average and was a member of the National Honor Society and Young Life, a Christian student fellowship organization. He didn’t get in fights, he didn’t skip classes, he didn’t drink or smoke, and he was unfailingly polite, even taking the time in the locker room to talk to hapless third-stringers who rarely got a chance to play. “In so many ways, he glowed with promise,” says Richland’s head football coach, Bob Briscoe. “Lance was the all-American kid, and everyone perceived him that way.”

At every game, sitting on the top row of the bleachers, was Lance’s always-smiling mother, Kathy, who taped the games with a small video recorder, and Lance’s father, Bill, a former high school football hero himself who, almost thirty years after his own playing days, still carried himself like an athlete, his chest thrust forward and the muscles in his upper arms like knots. It was amazing, the fans used to say, the way Bill Butterfield’s blue eyes remained fixed on his son during the games. He studied Lance like a scientist, missing nothing. Many in the stands knew that during Bill’s own days as a running back at Amon Carter Riverside High School in Fort Worth, he was considered the ideal all-around athlete, the kind of player colleges craved. Not only was he strong—coaches fondly called him Butt because of the way he would lower his head and head-butt anyone who tried to tackle him—but his speed was astonishing, especially on the sweeps, when he would feint toward the line with a shake of his head and burst outside without breaking stride.

And now here he was passing on what he knew to his son. Butt and Butter, the fans said, were the perfect father-son team. Bill was so devoted to his son that he left work every afternoon just to watch Lance’s practices. He devised extra workouts for Lance at home, he gave him protein drinks twice a day, and he installed $10,000 worth of weight-lifting equipment in the garage. Under his father’s guidance, Lance was both the most superbly conditioned athlete on the field and the smartest player, someone who understood the game almost as well as the coaches.

Your boy was great tonight,” the other parents would tell the elder Butterfield. Bill would smile—a thin, wise smile—and he’d say, “Oh, he’ll be better next week. He’ll be better.” Then he would head home to watch the videotape of the game his wife had just filmed.

In the winter months following that championship season, when curious outsiders would ask what went wrong, the Richland fans would shake their heads. Nothing felt out of place, they insisted—it was a perfect time. The team was playing so well together and was on its way to a district title, the first in a decade. And, the fans said, it was such a delight to watch Lance, who at the end of every game stayed on the field as if he never wanted to leave. He seemed to be drinking in those nights, those glorious autumn nights when the Rebels were winning and everyone was cheering and all of a young man’s dreams seemed capable of coming true.

Sometimes the entries were only fragments of sentences. “I still me I haven’t changed,” he wrote on one page, then stopped. “Spent life-perfect you.”

He seemed to be searching for just the right words. “You don’t understand what I mean by spending life competing against the world with my actions,” he wrote. And then he stopped again.

EVERY DECEMBER IN VARIOUS NEIGHBORHOODS in North Richland Hills, one of the many bedroom communities near Fort Worth, the residents cover their hedges and porches with Christmas lights. They lug Santa sleighs and snowmen to their roofs, and they are considerate enough to park their cars in the garages at night so the hundreds of families from other suburbs who drive in to see the displays won’t have their views obstructed. In the mid-nineties many of those families drove past a particularly cheerful home with

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week