Defeat is repugnant to Spencer Butterfield. Before getting to Utah State, he had never lost back-to-back basketball games in high school or college. The hatred of losing consumes him.
"It's the worst thing in the world to me," he said. "After the BYU game, I couldn't get any sleep. After the Denver game, I couldn't get any sleep. When I'm in the moment, all I can think about is I don't want to feel that again. I pour everything out."
At Del Oro High in Loomis, Calif., that drive fueled him to touchdowns at the end of tackle-breaking runs. At Yuba College in nearby Yuba City, Calif., it motivated him to prove he could be a Division I basketball player when folks said the 6-foot-3 white kid should've stuck with football.
At Utah State, teammates' injuries earned Butterfield a starting role, but since shouldering that responsibility, he's become one of the team's most important leaders. He's averaging 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as a starter, and was the WAC player of the week after a scoring outburst at San Jose State.
"He is playing really hard, which he always does," coach Stew Morrill said. "He has taken on a little more of the scoring load and obviously is a really good rebounder. He is a positive guy with his teammates so he is providing leadership."
Butterfield always thought he could be a Division I starter if given the chance. Winning games despite missing three former starters, the Aggies look wise for having given him that opportunity.
"I didn't want to come somewhere where I wasn't making an impact on the team," he said. "I wasn't asking for a starting role, just the chance to battle for the position."
As a former coach puts it, Butterfield doesn't pass the eye test. Alternating between the 2 and 3 spots, he's never been the biggest, strongest or fastest player on the court. In high school, he was overlooked because he wasn't as athletic as other Division I prospects.
But watching him grab rebounds against players with 8 or 9 inches on him or beat opponents in transition defies physical explanation. And his former coaches say that's what always made Butterfield special: He wanted to win more than anyone else.
"He's the ultimate competitor," Del Oro High basketball coach Geoff Broyles said.
"He was a once-in-a-decade talent," said Del Oro assistant football coach Jeff Dietrich.
"He's the toughest kid I've coached in 20 years," Yuba College coach Doug Cornelius said.
Those perceptions have their roots in Butterfield's childhood in Loomis, Calif., a rural suburb of Sacramento with fewer than 7,000 people. He grew up the oldest of five siblings.
The family lived with his grandparents in what started as a small house, but they built five additions to it on their three-acre patch of land. Butterfield remembers constantly being at work as a child.
"Saturdays were basically work days," he said. "We had to do a couple hours of chores before we could play. We were always mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, digging holes, building stuff. You had to do that before you could do your sport or whatever you wanted to do."
Eventually, the worlds of work and play overlapped for Butterfield, as he strove for athletic excellence. He was a star football and basketball player at Del Oro, and many fans thought he might go to college on the gridiron. He racked up 96 catches for 1,616 yards during his career still program records. When he didn't have the ball, he was a fearsome run blocker, Dietrich said, and the team ran behind him all the time.
One of his standout games was in his senior year against No. 1-seeded St. Mary's. Butterfield had an ankle injury, and was noticeably limping through his routes. He led the Golden Eagles to victory with a career-high 141 yards on nine catches and a pair of touchdowns.
"It was just this Willis Reed-type moment where he just kind of willed us to win," Dietrich said. "He was literally on one leg the whole time, but he just played through it."
Those who knew him closely, however, knew Butterfield had true love only for basketball. He had played the game since he was 2 years old. Although friends and football coaches tried to talk him into switching his main game, he wouldn't budge.
His toughness showed on court, too. During an AAU game, Butterfield was knocked unconscious by an opposing player, sustaining a concussion among other injuries that sent him to the hospital. He was back in school not long after, and completed a senior project to rebuild the school's trophy cases during his recovery.
Some of his teammates called him "Gladiator."
"He wants to win at everything," Broyles said. "We knew he was going to be a phenomenal player because he's such a great competitor. I absolutely thought he was a Division I player."
Many D-1 basketball programs didn't agree, so Butterfield went 45 minutes north to Yuba College, where he quickly gained respect among more athletic players as being the best grinder on the team.
He started a near-legendary physical regimen in the preseason: He would work on his jumping for an hour before practice, then practice with the team for two hours, then lift weights, then run, then shoot with the team. He virtually lived at the gym.
Cornelius learned the quickest way to humble himself was to insist that Butterfield couldn't do something he wanted to do. He used to tease Butterfield for working on passing with his left hand, his weaker hand, in practice. Cornelius watched him play BYU this week, and counted five left-handed passes.
"You've got to understand: There are other kids with more talent, but in work ethic, no one else is in the same hemisphere," Cornelius said. "You have to respect him, because he'll outwork you. And then other guys think they should be working as hard as this guy. It's kind of infectious."
At Yuba, Butterfield was the California junior college co-player of the year. As Cornelius likes to point out to his team this year, he did it without dunking once.
Utah State beat out Virginia for Butterfield in the end, bringing the guard's Division I dreams to fruition. Some of his friends and family were able to make the trek from Loomis to San Jose State to watch him play this month. They're excited to see one of their own succeed.
Butterfield's already got the next game on his mind. And even when he's confronted by defeat and forced to deal with it, he keeps looking ahead.
"Play as hard as you can that's just kind of my answer for everything," he said. "If you're not playing great at the time or hitting shots, as long as you're playing hard, people respect that."
Illinois State at Utah State
O At Dee Glen Smith Spectrum (Logan)
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
Radio • 960 AM, 1060 AM
Records • Illinois State 16-12, 7-9; Utah State 18-7, 9-5
Series history • Illinois State leads, 3-2
Last meeting • March 19, 2008 at ISU (NIT); ISU 61, USU 57
About the Aggies • USU is playing its second nonconference game of the week after losing to BYU 70-68 on Tuesday night. … Spencer Butterfield is averaging 13.8 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game in his 19 contests as a starter. … Jarred Shaw ranks in the top 10 in the WAC in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocks.
About the Redbirds • Illinois State is coming off back-to-back losses after winning seven of the previous eight games. … Against Evansville, Jackie Carmichael became only the seventh player in MVC history to record 1,500 points and 900 rebounds. … The Redbirds entered the week ranked in the NCAA top 50 in scoring offense, field-goal percentage and assists per game.
A closer look
Spencer Butterfield in 2012-13:
Min FG% FT% A Pts
28.5 .485 .833 2.5 12.0
Note • He's averaged 17.4 points in his past nine games, including a season-high 23 against Texas-Arlington on Jan. 24.