A native of Chicago, Butler spent four years in the Marines and saw active duty in Vietnam. After his discharge, he enrolled at San Bernardino Junior College, then went to the University of Illinois, where he played one season on the offensive line before a knee injury cut short his playing career.
Butler's first NFL job was as a scout for the Chargers in 1985. He joined the Bills in 1987 as the personnel director, then became the team's general manager in 1993. He was in Buffalo's front office for all of its record four straight trips to the NFL championship game from 1991 to 1994. The Bills lost all of those Super Bowls. During his tenure there, the Bills went to the playoffs 10 times and had a record of 140–83.
As Buffalo's personnel director, he was known for finding big talent at small colleges, such as wide receiver Don Beebe of Chadron State and defensive end Phil Hansen of North Dakota. He drafted Marcellus Wiley out of Columbia, then signed him as a free agent after he'd taken over the Chargers in January 2001.
Butler built the foundation for San Diego's offense by drafting running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees. San Diego went 5–11 and 8–8 in Butler's two seasons, improving from 1–15 the year before Butler's arrival.
Butler died of lymphoma onApril 11, 2003. He was 56.