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UW tackles leader Foster learns from ex-Husky Butler

Donald Butler, right, helped Washington beat Dwight Tardy and Washington State during the 2009 Apple Cup.  (Associated Press)
Donald Butler, right, helped Washington beat Dwight Tardy and Washington State during the 2009 Apple Cup. (Associated Press)

One of the first phone calls University of Washington linebacker Mason Foster made in the hours that followed the Huskies’ dramatic Apple Cup victory on Dec. 4 was to one of his best friends down south.

“We’re coming down,” he told former teammate Donald Butler, who is sitting out the 2010 NFL season while on the San Diego Chargers’ injured reserve list.

Even before Foster and the Huskies received their official invitation to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Foster was looking forward to being reunited with his friend and mentor. They’ve spent many a Saturday night talking on the telephone about UW football and what it takes to make it to the NFL, and come next week Foster and Butler will finally get to meet again face to face.

“He’s definitely looked out for me since I was a freshman,” Foster said. “It’ll be great to get down there and see him.”

For Foster, it’s another chance to pick his mentor’s brain – something he did via telephone or text after almost every UW game this season.

For Butler, it’s a chance to finally enjoy the bowl experience that eluded him when he played for the Huskies.

“Coach Sark (Steve Sarkisian), all the assistant coaches and my former teammates – the list goes on and on in terms of the impact they had on my life,” said Butler, who is in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., for the holidays but will be back in San Diego early next week. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Butler plans to be on the sideline when the Huskies face Nebraska at Qualcomm Stadium Thursday night. It will be a familiar spot for the NFL rookie, who tore his Achilles tendon at training camp and was placed on season-ending injured reserve in August.

“It’s similar to a redshirt year,” he said via telephone earlier this week. “I’d like to be out there helping my team, and they’ve needed my help on special teams; I felt I could have made a major impact. But it’s a learning year.

“Everything happens for a reason. I know I’ll be better for it in the long run.”

One thing Butler has learned, just being around the NFL, is how difficult the league can be. But he knows one thing: Foster has what it takes to make it at the next level.

“They went to a bowl game, and I think Mason might be (picked in the) first round,” he said. “I’d have him right now at the top, maybe the top three or four linebackers. It really depends on what teams want. So it depends. But I think the caliber of player Mason is, he’ll go pretty high.”

Scouts put Foster in the third-round range, projecting him to go about where Butler was selected by the Chargers at No. 79 overall. CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang said that Foster has been more productive than Butler at the college level, but that he’s not viewed as a very physical player. Rang also said that Butler was a part of one of the deeper classes of linebackers, while the position is pretty thin this time around.

Foster, who led the Pac-10 with 151 tackles during the regular season, doesn’t care where he goes, as long as he gets to play in the NFL.

“It would be great,” he said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to get my name called sometime. Hopefully, it does get called. I’m just going to enjoy the moment and take it as it comes.”

Foster had a vested interest in last April’s draft, watching nervously as his friend waited to get picked. Foster and his roommates sat through 78 picks before Butler’s name was called.

A few minutes later, Foster’s cell phone rang.

“He called me as soon as he got the chance to,” Foster said. “He was real excited. It was a great moment for him and for this program.”

The phone calls continued throughout Foster’s senior year.

“Since he went (into the NFL),” Foster said, “he’s been telling me about the whole process, telling me how it went and what to look for so I won’t be surprised. He told me about the Senior Bowl, the combine stuff.

“He was always there for me if I needed help. He was always giving me calls after the game. Yeah, he’s always been there for me.”

In many ways, Butler has been like an older brother to Foster. Many of his postgame Saturday night phone calls have included sibling-like tough love.

“One of the things that made me and Mason as close as we are is that we were always out there competing, competing against each other and holding each other to a higher standard,” Butler said. “Even now, I’m the guy who says: ‘What were you doing on this play? Why didn’t you react quicker to this?’ ”

When it comes to which team Butler hopes to draft his friend in April, the Chargers rookie has one at the top of his wish list.

“I’d love to see Mason come down here,” he said from San Diego earlier this week. “We’ll see. I know Mason wants to stay on the West Coast. I’ll watch (the draft) like I would with a little brother.”

Before any of that, Butler will get one last chance to be on the UW sideline with Foster next week.

Foster wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He’s one of those guys that got this program headed in the right direction last year,” the senior captain said of Butler. “He showed a lot of the young players that are playing now the right way to do things. He’s definitely with us.”