WHEN YOU stop and think about it, a football game really is a series of brief, one-act plays, little dramas being staged all over the field.
For Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler, the curtain is raised every time he goes out on a pass route. He makes his cut, and the defensive back either bites or he doesn't. The quarterback either delivers the ball or he doesn't. And, of course, Butler either makes the reception or he doesn't.
And then it's back to the huddle and maybe another opportunity for Butler, a 5-10, 168-pound senior-in-eligibility from Woodbridge, Va., to figure out a way to work himself into the clear and add to his imposing career statistics. With Saturday's nationally televised (noon, ESPN) Big Ten Conference game at Purdue (2-2, 0-0 Big Ten) coming up, Butler has 148 career catches for 2,233 yards, both second on the career list of Penn State (5-0, 1-0, ranked sixth in the nation). Butler's 17 touchdown receptions rank third.
Not bad for someone who arrived in Happy Valley in 2004 as a walk-on defensive back.
Maybe because of his own circuitous path to stardom, Butler realizes that not every puzzle is solved in the few seconds it takes to run a curl pattern. Butler, who in May received his degree in crime, law and justice, spent 3 weeks this summer as an intern with the Philadelphia Police Department's Crime Scene Unit. He was an observer at the scene of several homicides, gaining valuable field experience to augment what he had learned during classes taught by his forensic-science professor at Penn State, Dr. Robert Shaler.
"Deon took my crime scene investigation class here and did very well," Shaler said. "He showed a great deal of interest, a great deal of aptitude.
"We had two murders [in State College] last year. There are a number of sexual assaults, a lot of burglaries. But for a lot of these kids, there really isn't a lot of exposure to violent felonies. They may read about it or hear about it, but they don't really get to experience it.
"That's the purpose of the internships in a big-city environment. Our students need to see, up close and personal, what they would be getting into as they enter their chosen profession. Some of them take to it and some of them don't. Deon took to it. Then again, he'd probably take to anything he set out to do, academically. He's a very smart young man."
For Butler, no stranger to pressurized situations, forensic science is a fascinating mental exercise in which cases have been made on slivers of hair or blood evidence untrained eyes otherwise would miss.
"When these trained professionals do their job the way it's supposed to be done, when everything starts to come together, you can see the excitement and sense of satisfaction on the team members' faces," Butler said. "Closing a case and getting a conviction is a little like football, when you make a play to win the game. The difference is that this is no game. It's real life. You have a chance to make a difference, to put the bad guys away and bring closure to grieving families. I can't imagine many things that could be more important than that."
Lt. Marvin Burton is the commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Department's CSU. He says Butler is one of the most eager college students he has had the good fortune to train.
"Deon worked the evening shifts, when most of our calls come in," Burton said. "We showed him how we do our reports. He got to see first-hand what we do every day.
"The guys really took a liking to him. He was very curious. I'm a little biased toward Penn State because that's where I went to school, but Deon showed a genuine interest. He never hesitated to ask questions. At every crime scene, no matter what it was, he wanted to be as involved as he could be."
Butler, of course, hopes he can delay putting his new degree to use for a while as he explores whatever opportunities might come in the NFL. His size works against him, but he is aware that similarly small receivers - the Eagles' DeSean Jackson comes to mind - have earned spots on pro rosters.
But if he never gets a chance to play on Sundays, at least Butler has the education and now the practical experience to make it in a field that is burgeoning in popularity because of television.
When he wasn't watching televised football games as a teenager, Butler paid rapt attention to a glut of TV shows that dealt with the intricacies of forensic science.
"It definitely led me into my major course of study," Butler said. "And I'm not the only one. A lot of colleges around the country and around the world are starting up forensic science departments because of all these TV shows and the interest they have generated."
You don't have to sell Burton on the power of television. More and more students, "maybe 60" last summer, have arrived from colleges around the country to further their education as interns with the Philadelphia Police Department's CSU.
"I call it the 'CSI effect,' " Burton said. "It has a bearing on court cases all over the country. Juries expect the same sort of quick resolutions that some of the interns do, but it doesn't really work that way.
"Reality is difficult for some people to handle. Because of the nature of what we do, it can be a little jarring to some of these kids. It's one thing to see a dead body on TV, quite another to see an actual murder victim. But Deon handled it fine. He understands there is a job to be done, and somebody needs to do it."
It's not that Butler isn't compassionate. He is. It's just that he knows he can't allow personal feelings to enter into the equation, just as he doesn't take it personally when, say, Joe Paterno yells at him.
"You have to separate yourself from your emotions to a certain extent if you want to do your job effectively," Butler said. "If you get caught up in every case, it'd tear your guts apart."
At his news conference yesterday,
said his injured leg won't prevent him from being on the sideline vs. Purdue . . . Paterno said the strained hamstring of senior wide receiver